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Dallas-area congressional primary angling a potential upset

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, and Jane Hope Hamilton are in a runoff in the 30th Congressional District, long held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.
Jasmine Crockett
The Texas Tribune
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, and Jane Hope Hamilton are in a runoff in the 30th Congressional District, long held by outgoing U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

Crockett is running on her experience as a legislator, a civil rights attorney and as the incumbent’s hand-picked successor. Hamilton is running on her more than 20 years as a behind-the-scenes congressional staffer and campaign adviser.

DALLAS — Jane Hope Hamilton first started thinking about running for Congress in 2015. She’d been in North Texas Democratic political circles for more than a decade by that time — working as a congressional staffer for U.S. Reps. Martin Frost and Marc Veasey.

In her now 20-year political career, she’s lent a heavy hand to major campaigns around the region — including those of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Craig Watkins, the first Black district attorney elected in the state. She also helped manage President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign efforts in Texas.

Hamilton has steadily built her credentials and coalition of supporters for the right moment, but she was not so naive as to try to challenge U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson — a deeply respected 30-year incumbent and the only person to ever represent Congressional District 30.

So Hamilton waited for her turn.

On Nov. 20, Johnson, 86, said she would retire at the end of her term. The next day, Hamilton officially announced her candidacy for CD-30, backed by DFW political heavyweights like former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Veasey.

In Dallas political circles, Hamilton was viewed as the early frontrunner for Johnson’s seat. She has decades of behind-the-scenes political experience. She was raising steady money. She has the backing of many powerful Democrats in the Dallas political establishment — with one notable exception.

What few saw coming was that Johnson would throw her support behind state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a freshman state legislator and progressive Democrat who is now the frontrunner heading into next week’s primary runoff. In fact, Johnson sought out Crockett, saying that she was not pleased with the field of candidates who had expressed early interest.

“Everyone was shocked, and we were also shocked to hear that [Johnson] didn’t know her very well,” Hamilton said about Johnson’s endorsement of Crockett, adding that she had good relationships with her endorsers.

With Johnson’s full-throated endorsement, Crockett was the highest vote-getter in a nine-way Democratic primary for the seat on March 1. She barely missed the majority threshold needed to avoid a runoff with 48.5% of the vote. Hamilton finished second, more than 30 points down with 17.1% of the vote.

The two are now battling it out in what is the last competitive part of this election, as the district makeup essentially guarantees the winner of the May 24 Democratic primary is the next representative. Crockett is running on her experience as a legislator, a civil rights attorney and as Johnson’s hand-picked successor. Hamilton on the other hand, has gone negative in a campaign ad — attacking Crockett for benefiting from a super PAC and misrepresenting herself as an attorney for Botham Jean’s family.

Crockett is unfazed by the criticism as the race heads into its final stages.

“She’s gotta say something, so she’s saying something. Her record is working for politicians,” Crockett said. “I think the people are clear on who has done something.”

Hamilton is hoping voters will value her years of service in the community.

“Now that we’re down to two, [voters] are able to sit back and really have an opportunity to compare my results — my deliverables for our North Texas community and our state — to my opponent’s rhetoric,” Hamilton told The Texas Tribune. “That is what this is coming down to. We have momentum on our side here on the ground.”

Jasmine Crockett’s rise

Compared to Hamilton’s slow and steady career in politics, Crockett’s ascent has been quick and dramatic.

An attorney, Crockett was first elected to office after she narrowly beat out the previous incumbent officeholder for House District 100 — which overlaps with CD-30 — in a primary runoff in 2020.

She entered the state House in 2021 — a bruising year for Texas Democrats who were powerless to stop an avalanche of conservative legislation including a six-week abortion ban, permitless carry and legislation restricting how school teachers can talk about race in the classroom.

Among the most contested of those bills was the GOP-backed voting bill, which Democrats described as a litany of voter suppression measures that led them to flee Austin to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to block the legislation and rally for national voting rights protections. Eventually, Republicans were successful in passing the bill into law. But Crockett in the meantime gained national exposure with several television spots on MSNBC speaking out against the Republican-led Legislature while emerging as one of the movement’s leaders.

During the regular session, she made waves around the Capitol with her floor speeches debating Republicans and ambitious legislative proposals tackling criminal justice and policing. But none of the bills she was the main author on were signed into law.

Members of the Legislature have split their endorsements between Crockett and Hamilton. Crockett has the support of many of the party’s most progressive members who praise her performance as a first-time representative. Three organizations, including the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, named her “freshman of the year.”

“As soon as Jasmine started in the Texas House, she hit the ground running. She’s very ambitious,” said state Rep. Jessica González, the only state House member who currently represents part of CD-30 that endorsed Crockett. “Her personality and her being vocal about things that she was passionate about, unapologetic. That’s why her constituents elected her in the first place. … I think that she’ll be able to do the same for her district in Congress.”

In particular, Crockett’s work in the Legislature when it redrew the state’s political maps is when Johnson began to notice the state lawmaker.

The two had many lengthy calls in which Johnson would share her experiences with Crockett — conversations that culminated in Johnson recruiting her to run for Congress and then her endorsement. The sitting congresswoman helmed the subcommittee in charge of drawing congressional districts — including the one that she would eventually win election for — when she was a state senator in 1991.

Johnson has remained a vocal and unapologetic advocate for Crockett throughout the election.

“I did not endorse her because I've known her a long time. I didn’t endorse because I believed in everything she did. I did not endorse because I was a buddy to her,” Johnson said. “I picked her because I thought she was smart enough to analyze the issues and take a stand.”

In addition to Kirk and Price, Hamilton also has the support of senior members of the Legislature’s Democratic delegation such as state Sen. Royce West, who has represented Dallas for almost 30 years in the seat that Johnson formerly held, and state Reps. Chris Turner and Rafael Anchía, the chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Both have DFW-based constituencies overlapping with CD-30.

“Having worked with both and having known both, there is no doubt in my mind that Jane is the superior candidate in the race,” said Turner, the Texas House Democratic Caucus chair. “There's simply no comparison. It's one thing to file bills, or talk about filing bills, but it's another thing to actually get things done.”

A district looks to its future

Both Hamilton and Crockett are Black women running to win in a district that is predominantly African American. They both promise action on voting rights protections and driving jobs to a district that has significant low-income areas facing the effects of steadily creeping gentrification.

“We are struggling in Congressional District 30,” Hamilton told the Tribune. “There are 1 in 3 children in Dallas who live in poverty. This city is listed as one of the worst for economic mobility.”

The two candidates and voters are aligned in the fact that CD-30 needs help — jobs, better health care, infrastructure and social safety net protections like child care and paid sick leave.

“This is where our poverty is highest,” Crockett told the Tribune about the location of her campaign headquarters in South Dallas. “This is where all of those things that you talk about, this is where it is. The crazy high addiction rate and drugs and all that stuff, the crime, it's here.”

Despite Crockett’s lead into the runoff, Hamilton has raised more money this election cycle with $643,000 and had $113,000 cash on hand on May 4. Crockett collected $567,000 and had $108,000 cash on hand in the same period. But she has $2 million backing her from cryptocurrency super PACs that cannot coordinate directly with her campaign.

While they may have similar policy goals, they differ in approach and personality. Hamilton has taken behind-the-scenes roles in her career, while a significant amount of Crockett’s political prominence comes from her vocal rebukes against the Legislative session that passed scores of conservative bills last year.

As the race has heated up, Hamilton has been taking bigger swings at Crockett’s record.

“She's definitely not ready,” Hamilton said. “The things that she talks about on her campaign, I think they demonstrate that she has a lack of understanding of what's important. She uses the word fight a lot, right? But she can't point to what she’s actually delivered.”

Hamilton points out that Crockett did not pass any bills during her term as a state representative. But Crockett said her record speaks for itself.

“I have an actual record, meaning: Tell your folk they can go on Google, they can go and see what bills Jasmine's name is on,” Crockett said.

Hamilton touts among her accomplishments helping to save thousands of jobs at American Airlines during its merger with U.S. Airways in 2013, when she was working with Veasey.

But that didn’t impress Johnson, who said she questioned Hamilton’s record and said she had otherwise been unfamiliar with her service.

“I don't even know anything about her record. When she told me about it, I was shocked to hear that she was even involved in some of the things he said she was involved with,” Johnson said.

Former staffers working their way to Congress is not an uncommon storyline. For example, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, worked for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as his chief of staff before his election to Congress.

Both in media interviews and conversations with voters, Hamilton has criticized Crockett for having the support of two cryptocurrency-funded super PACs that have contributed $2 million to the state representative’s run for Congress.

“Crockett labels herself as a progressive. She’s the Our Revolution candidate supported by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Yet, in this race, she’s the one that has the super PAC behind her,” Hamilton said, noting that progressives have been vocal in their condemnation of Super PAC influences in elections.

Crockett holds endorsements from several state and national left-leaning politicians and organizations. She pledges to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a large group of Democrats that advocates for bold policies such as a single-payer "Medicare for All" health care system. Johnson is a member of the caucus.

The cryptocurrency industry is currently facing the prospect of national regulations in Congress, and super PACs aligned with the industry have poured money into campaigns across the nation. Super PACs cannot coordinate with candidates but can raise an unlimited amount of funds to support candidates of their choosing.

Crockett has brushed off the attacks. She previously said she welcomed the support of the two groups as a sign of her campaign’s momentum.

“Crypto tears, baby, crypto tears,” Crockett told the Tribune, pointing to a campaign pamphlet. “The mailers are beautiful though, I’m just saying.”