By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
The retirement of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson could retool a district that includes growth areas, business hubs and neighborhoods plagued by lingering problems of inequity and poverty.
Johnson, 86, is serving her 15th two-year term and has been one of the most consequential public servants in Dallas history, so replacing her in the southern Dallas-anchored district is a watershed event in local politics.
On Monday residents begin the early voting in a Democratic primary that includes nine candidates. The party’s nominee is a cinch to win the November general election, since District 30 is one of the bluest areas in the country.
“It’s time to pick up the mantle from Rep. Johnson and push the district forward in exciting ways,” said Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell. “What you hope is that you’ve got people running who have a compelling vision.”
Ed Gray has featured many of the contenders on his online radio show called The Commish.
“It’s time for generational change,” Gray said. “This is a trend that we’re seeing somewhat across the nation, because a lot of our elected leaders are elder statesmen and stateswomen, so now we get the opportunity to push forward with a new generation of political leaders.”
Finding the right leader
Crockett, a Dallas lawyer, has praised the congresswoman’s decades-long push for voter and economic empowerment. In the past, she questioned Johnson’s vote for the 1994 crime bill that critics say promoted mass incarceration. Johnson maintains her support of Crockett and has appeared in a campaign video released days before early voting.
“One of the things that she said about me is that the district really would benefit from young energy,” Crockett said of Johnson’s endorsement.
“It’s going to be a lot of the same song, but it’s just going to be remixed a little bit,” Crockett said of what she’d bring to the district. “Not that one version is better than the other. It’s just a little different, but at the heart it’s still the same song.”
Crockett, 40, is in her first term in the Texas Legislature, and was frequently in the news as a leader of last summer’s quorum break by state House Democrats to stall a redistricting bill. She was recently featured in People Magazine, a rarity for a local politician.
Crockett said one of her priorities would be advocating for the district beyond the halls of Congress.
“Right now what the district really needs is somebody that is a community connector and is very good with communicating and working with partners,” Crockett said.
Crockett’s rivals say she’s not from the same mold as Johnson, who is considered a moderate Democrat. But Crockett says she can’t be put into an ideology box, and neither should Johnson.
“I am a Texas progressive, for sure,” Crockett said. “I’ve told people over and over that I think progressive is billed a little differently in Texas than it is in other places…My moral compass is always one of equity for all.”
One of Crockett’s primary rivals is Jane Hamilton, a former congressional chief of staff and former 2020 Texas primary campaign director for President Joe Biden.
Hamilton, 43, said that her experience in working on issues important to the district is what sets her apart from her opponents.
“I plan on getting things done. And that’s what I have always done, delivered results,” Hamilton said. “I’m going to continue just like I have been in the past — with on the ground and hands-on leadership.”
Hamilton is backed by former U.S. Trade Representative and Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, whom she served as chief of staff.
She was the campaign manager for the successful efforts of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Veasey, and in 2006 led the coordinated effort that helped turn Dallas County blue and the campaign of Democrat Craig Watkins, Texas’ first Black district attorney.
“These campaigns that I have worked on have a direct correlation with policies that we need, like criminal justice reform,” Hamilton said. “It matters because I can go to Congress and get started on Day 1.”
Hamilton said she understands the frustration of residents beset by poverty and inequality.
“We have to regain trust in our leadership,” she said. “We need to know that leadership is fighting for us and not some special interest groups.”
Abel Mulugheta, a former Texas House legislative aide, is also touting his experience.
“There’s no surprise that when you look at the northern sector of Dallas County versus the southern sector there is a disparity in investment,” he said. “All of our levers of politics and all of our elected officials need to be working in tandem to ensure that the southern sector gets its fair share.”
Mulugheta, 33, is backed by state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas. He touts his work on key issues as important experience, including criminal justice reform bills and natural gas safety legislation.
“The most important thing that District 30 needs is an injection of investment funds and an injection of capital in order to stimulate economic opportunities for the residents who live there,” he said.
Mulugheta said his biography sets him apart from his opponents. He grew up in Pleasant Grove and is the son of immigrants who fled a civil war in East Africa. He’s also a lawyer.
“I’m standing on their shoulders and really am the embodiment of the American dream,” he said. “It’s that dream I want to be able to provide for the residents of this district.”
Veteran politicians in the mix
Crockett is likely to finish first on March 1, so the fight for the rest of the field is for a second-place finish and a spot in a potential runoff.
Former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway of Dallas has mounted five unsuccessful campaigns against Johnson. She also has residual name recognition from her days as a Dallas council member.
“I have experience and a track record of affecting people’s lives, whether it’s on the lowest spectrum, the middle income,” Caraway said. “I’ve also had the opportunity to affect those on a higher income because of policies and laws that I supported as a Dallas City Council member, as well as a state legislator.”
Former Dallas council member Vonciel Jones Hill, 73, could also be a factor because of name ID.
She said jobs, health care and education would lift residents out of poverty.
“We have got to direct regulations from Congress to the local school boards so that the educational opportunity is equally there,” Hill said.
Navy veteran Jessica Mason, 29, says the district needs bold leadership. Her experience includes being a legislative staffer in the Virginia General Assembly.
A native of South Dallas, she said the Child Tax Credit program should be made permanent and there should be a renewed push for affordable housing.
“A lot of the time we focus on how we can build our local economy and the infrastructure dollars that are coming into our community, which is very important,” said Mason, a Democratic socialist. “But given the pandemic and the effects that it has had on people’s lives. I think we need some, some quick fix to that. And since we already have established a child tax credit program, I think that we should make it permanent.”
Cedar Hill ISD trustee Keisha Williams-Lankford, 50, said she has a history of working in the southern Dallas County community.
“I’ve devoted my life to helping empower our community,” she said.
Democrat Arthur Dixon, 25, and former Dallas County Constable Roy Williams Jr., 53, are also candidates.
The money race
Crockett trails several of her rivals in fundraising, raising just over $100,000 in the period that ended December 31, 2021. But two new super PACs backed by cryptocurrency financiers are promoting her effort. Last week a group called Web 3 Forward began airing television commercials to boost Crockett. They have pledged to spend $1 million to help her win, according to The Texas Tribune. A Democratic super PAC called Protect Our Future also plans to spend $1 million to promote Crockett.
Crockett said she backs the goals of Protect Our Future.
“We talked a lot about the fact that our vulnerabilities have been exposed with this current pandemic, and if anybody thinks this is the last one, they’re wrong,” Crockett said.
Crockett said she doesn’t have a position on whether regulation is needed for the crypto currency space. Biden is expected to push to regulate the industry.
Mulugheta has raised over $252,000 for his campaign, more than any other candidate. Hamilton hauled in $228,600 and has the backing of the DMFI PAC that supports pro-Israeli candidates.
Mason raised nearly $200,000, an impressive total compared to most of the field.