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GOP Ponders Who Could Beat Dallas D.A. Watkins

Shelley Kofler
Former Judge Susan Hawk and ex-prosecutor Tom Nowak at Garland tea party debate.

Who could beat Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins in the fall?  That issue is at the heart of the race between two former prosecutors who want the GOP nomination. 

Republicans trying to break the control Democrats hold in Dallas County have set their sights on Watkins.

Four years ago, while other Democrats were easily winning all of the county elections in Dallas, the sitting district attorney Craig Watkins was sweating bullets.  When the ballots were counted Watkins defeated Republican challenger Danny Clancy by less than two percentage points.

This year former Dallas County Republican Chair Jonathan Neerman believes Watkins is even more vulnerable.

“I don’t think there’s any question the D.A.’s race is still the number one target for Republicans, much like it was in 2010.

Watkins’ controversies have provided valuable fodder for the two Republicans vying to challenge him in the general election.

This week, former state district judgeSusan Hawk, 43, told Garland tea party voters Watkins has politicized the office. She mentioned news reports that say Watkins is being investigated by the FBI.

“To have a district attorney where he’s only in the headlines for any kind of FBI investigation or some other scandal instead of not being in the headlines for putting the bad guys in prison for a very long time, we’ve got a problem,” she said.

Hawk’s primary opponent, attorney Tom Nowak, 34, referenced accusations that Watkins pursued charges against millionaire Al Hill III to help a political contributor.

“Craig Watkins is obviously prosecuting individuals to help campaign donors.  We all heard that case this past year,” Nowak said.

Both Hawk and Nowak claim to have the experience and reputation needed to unseat Watkins.

Hawk cites her 17 years as a judge and assistant DA who was named prosecutor of the year by the Dallas Crime Commission.

“I’ve handled thousands and thousands of felony cases ranging from your misdemeanor case all the way up to capital murder,” said Hawk.  “That experience as a prosecutor, that experience on the bench shows that I am the most qualified candidate.”

She claims Nowak isn’t tested in trying murder cases that may include the death penalty.  Nowak counters his experience as a defense attorney as well as a prosecutor gives him the best perspective.

“I’ve seen what it takes on both sides and know the ins and outs from both perspectives.  I have over 100 jury trials of varying degrees: misdemeanors, felonies, all the way to first degree felonies.  Child abuse cases, super aggravated assaults, I’ve tried them,” said Nowak. 

Nowak questions Hawk’s party credentials noting that she was elected to her judicial seat as a Democrat in 2010 then switched parties to run for district attorney. Hawk says she ran as a Democrat four years ago because she thought a conservative should be on the bench and Republicans weren’t winning in Dallas County.

Neerman says a lot will be riding on the Republican candidate who wins the primary and faces off against Watkins.

“If that is the race where Republicans could peel off enough votes to win then that gives every other Republican who’s running on a county-wide ballot an opportunity to win

Watkins is unopposed in the March 4 primary and remains popular with many Democrats.  His record for overturning wrongful convictions has kept him on the national stage. 

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.