Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Notes From The Campaign

by Lawrence J. Praeger

The elections are over and we have our new elected officials and judges. The Dallas Morning News while critiquing our Commissions, County Judge and other officials opine that partisanship is out of control.

As a citizen of Dallas for the last 25 years I have witnessed a lot of changes, read a lot of editorials, and follow the Dallas Morning News. I am past 50, a lawyer, former prosecutor and run my own law practice. I have a wife and two sons 12 and 15.

I was also a candidate for the 5th District Court of Appeals Place 12 in 2010. I had never before sought elective office. I decided to do this for many reasons. One of which was to show my boys that ours is a government of its citizens. That is the beauty of our republic. Another reason was that – without any false modesty – I thought I was more qualified than my opponent. He had recently been appointed to the office by Governor Perry. I had little money for a multi-county campaign but assumed that people and the media would support a judge based on experience, credentials and independence, not political party or ideology. With apologies to Lemony Snicket, thus began my series of unfortunate assumptions.

Most people don’t know what the Court of Appeals does or who is on it. The appeals court covers six counties and it does one thing: It determines if civil or criminal trials were conducted fairly.

I have been trying civil and criminal cases for almost 30 years. I understood the mechanics of trials, and the impact of bad rulings on individuals or businesses. It should help I was a former prosecutor, and served five years on the Grievance Committee. My Republican opponent, while a fine fellow, has spent his career as a lawyer-lobbyist for the utility industry, never representing individuals, and had no criminal background at all.

I am a lifelong Democrat. I grew up in South Carolina with modest means; the son of a legal secretary and a textile factory manager. I worked through college and law school helped by student loans - all timely paid back in full; I am a product of the “great society” programs of the 60s which helped the working and middle class. Texas values hard work, conservatism and individual responsibility. The last president to balance the budget was a Democrat. As a small business owner, I balance a budget and meet a payroll.

My campaign and message would be short and simple. The court of appeals is about trials. If you haven’t got experience with trials in which a person’s freedom, money or children are at stake, how would you know a good one from a bad one? And in this election there were two very different resumes. I visited Chambers of Commerce, church groups making this argument, appealing to people’s logic and was well received until I was asked the inevitable question; are you a Republican, or a Democrat: As soon as I said “Democrat,” if someone did not just turn and walk away, the next question was frequently “do you think Obama is a citizen?” This happened probably 15 to 20 times. It got to the point at which I would say “Hell, if he isn’t I suspect we would know by now, don’t you?”

I assumed for judicial races people would be non-partisan and open minded. I emailed Republican clubs requesting an opportunity to come and speak, explain what the court does in the spirit of bipartisanship. I never got a response.

One of my more memorable moments was appearing before the Kaufman County Tea Party. All the Republic Party Officials were there. I was given an opportunity to make a two minute presentation and as I was leaving the podium, I bumped into a Kaufman Republican Bigwig. I asked him, “If your party claims to be the party of Joe the Plumber, who do you think understands his issues; me, who has represented Joe the Plumber for years on DWIs, divorces, lease disputes, or your lobbyist for the utility company who has never represented an individual or handled a criminal case?” His response is one I’ll never forget: “Well, you don’t need trial experience to be on the appeals court. It’s just a bunch of paperwork.” That’s when I had the epiphany I was in trouble.

Another special memory of my campaign was riding on the Democratic Float in the Highland Park 4th of July Parade. A matron pointed at me and said “Look at the Democrats.” She ran up to me and sprayed me in the face with silly string while about 10 of her friends and 20 children laughed hysterically. The people not laughing were the domestic help sitting on the curb. My 15 year old son who was with me turned and offered his one word critique of that scene, “Fanatics,” he said. I’ve never been more proud.

The topper was my experience with the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board for the endorsement interview. I had assumed, since the paper claimed to advocate non-partisan elections I would not be grilled on ideology. I assumed they would ask thoughtful questions regarding my credentials. I also assumed the three interviewers would know what the Court of Appeals does; I assumed wrong. They did not seem to know or care that over 50% of the cases appealed were criminal trials and that an additional large percentage is family and juvenile, my practice area.

The majority of the time with the editorial board was taken up with repeated questions about why I was a Democrat. One interviewer was particularly insistent in cross examining me about being a Democrat. Two months later, this interviewer was affectionately described in an article by his colleagues as their “resident right wing nut.” My hostile reception was not improved by my explanation that I was a Democrat because I grew up in the segregated South. I thought President Johnson had done two great things; promoted integration and created programs that helped poor and working people move up. I knew when I made that statement their endorsement was never going to happen and qualifications and experience were not their issues. There is a moment in a trial, all trial lawyers know this, when you see the faces of the jury and you know it’s either slipped away or you’ve closed the deal. The interviewer who questioned me about being a Democrat actually insisted that the Democrats were not responsible for civil rights’ progress in the 60s. I left the interview speechless. While I had been grilled as to why I was unapologetic about being a Democrat, the interviewers never inquired why my opponent was a Republican. I remember on the campaign trail he described himself as a “Christian Conservative.” I wondered what Thomas Jefferson would say about campaigning on that platform.

Oddly this interview was recorded. After the interview I requested from the newspaper a copy of the recording. I was told that the tape was not available. When I told my friends, they said; “Well it is a Republican Paper; Nixonian in fact. The tape is either lost or erased.” They all had a good laugh.

In the published endorsement my Republican opponent’s career was not well portrayed. They failed to note either his time as a lobbyist, or the fact that he had no criminal trial experience. However, the paper opined that he had “practical experience.” That meant he had been appointed to the court for a year. I had assumed we would get questions such as “Do you believe the right to privacy is found in the Constitution?” or “Do you advocate any procedural change to ensure the fairness of trials.” I admit that may not be as interesting or entertaining as Commissioner’s Court shenanigans but by golly it’s important.

As anyone can see based upon the pending bills the Texas Legislature, many of the laws that are going to be passed will be challenged on constitutional grounds. Those challenges will end up in the courts of appeal. Do we know if any of those Justices actually have experience representing citizens against the power of government? In 2012 seven of the thirteen Justices in the 5th District will be up for election. Do we know which groups support them and why? Judicial races should be non-partisan. A newspaper endorsement should be also. The rules of evidence and our constitution are not Democratic or Republican.

I have learned a lot in that campaign. My sons and I visited various ethnic and cultural groups I never knew existed. I learned more about Dallas County in 18 months than I did in my previous 25 years living here. I met many statewide candidates and leaders. Some organizations have it right. The League of Women Voters had a forum for candidates where they were asked intelligent and thoughtful questions.

The Texas Democratic Women of Collin County sponsored several educational seminars where they had candidates and political science teachers explain what each office does, and discussed the qualifications of the people seeking these offices. The Dallas County East Democrats as well as other clubs also had interesting meetings allowing their members to question all the candidates in great detail. Some of these meetings featured Republicans. They were treated respectfully.

I did not win the election; although the morning after voting the Dallas Morning News reported I had won. It was interesting to see the well wishers who showed up at my office. I had to tell them individually that the Dallas Morning News reported I won because I had carried Dallas County, but since my race was in six counties and my opponent won the others, he took the election. Several suggested I have a fund raiser before everyone figured it out.

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