Tarrant County D.A.’s race could be decided in primary

Marice Richter

Business Press Correspondent

The Tarrant County district attorney’s race has three candidates battling to become successor to the reign of one of the longest-serving and most respected district attorneys in Texas.

Between Tim Curry and his protege, Joe Shannon, the DA’s office hasn’t seen new blood in nearly half a century.

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Republican candidates Kathy Lowthorp, George Mackey and Sharen Wilson are each trying to convince voters they have what it takes to fill the big boots of Curry and make their own mark on criminal justice in Tarrant County.

With no DA candidate on the Democratic primary ballot, the winner of the March 4 GOP primary is set to become the next district attorney.

With three experienced attorneys running, insiders predict a runoff is likely in this race.

“This is a very hot contest that is very important to the criminal justice system here,” said Fort Worth attorney Mimi Coffey.

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“Depending on the outcome, there could be changes to how criminal law is practiced in Tarrant County,” said attorney James Baker.

Shannon was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009 to serve out Curry’s unexpired term after Curry died in office. Shannon then was elected in 2010 but decided not to run again after a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by one of his prosecutors resulted in a controversial settlement by the county of $375,000.

Former State District Judge Bob Gill, now a top prosecutor in the DA’s office, had announced plans to run but then withdrew, citing personal reasons.

All three candidates say they want to continue Curry’s legacy of innovation and reform.

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But they agree that’s where the similarities end.

As first-time candidates, Lowthorp and Mackey are focusing on maintaining the reputation of the district attorney’s office – and providing an alternative to Wilson, who has the most high-profile support, has raised the most money and is widely viewed as the frontrunner for the $193,402-a-year job. Wilson’s extensive list of supporters includes Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, Arlington Mayor Bob Cluck, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, the mayors of other Tarrant County cities, judges and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson.

Wilson served 23 years as a state district judge before stepping down to run for district attorney for the second time. She first ran for the job in 1990 against Curry for philosophical reasons.

A criminal defense attorney, Lowthorp of Arlington has had a contentious professional relationship with Wilson over the years. Lowthorp filed a complaint against Wilson with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which resulted in a private admonition for Wilson.

Lowthorp accused Wilson of denying one of her clients’ constitutional rights by revoking his bail before trial and of inappropriately meeting privately with jurors during the trial.

At first, Lowthorp filed to challenge Wilson in the judicial race. But when Wilson filed for district attorney, Lowthorp jumped into that contest.

“I wanted to run for district attorney all along,” Lowthorp said. “I was going to run for judge because I wanted to make sure she had a challenger.

“There a lot of people who are very concerned about her ethics, her integrity and the practices she might put into place in the district attorney’s office.”

Wilson said she has a strong moral compass and got into the race to restore high ethical standards to the office. In her campaign announcement, she pledged to “right the ship” as a reference to restoring credibility and removing the taint of the Shannon lawsuit and settlement, she said.

As for the 2006 incident that led to the state commission’s admonition in 2008, she defended her position as being in the best interest of the community.

“I had a person charged with a violent crime held without bond and away from the community,” she said. “This was one incident in 23 years. I think that is a very good record.”

Wilson said her platform is about strong leadership, innovation and instituting “best practices” in the district attorney’s office to create efficiency and to ensure that justice is fair and the consequences fit the crime.

Wilson’s detractors include defense attorneys who view her as a loose cannon and fear retribution.

Some top prosecutors, who asked not to be identified, said there is a lot of jitteriness among the 164 attorneys in the DA’s office about potential change.

“The district attorney is the most powerful law enforcement official in the county,” Coffey said. “We do not need someone with a history of documented unethical behavior and judicial punishment.”

The district attorney’s office handles about 45,000 criminal cases and 2,500 juvenile referrals and has a budget of about $34 million. In their Feb. 24 campaign finance statements, Wilson reported cash on hand of $145,512.66 and expenses of $70,622.78; Mackey reported cash on hand of $43,461.52 and expenses of $37,558.57; and Lowthorp reported contributions of $4,450 and expenses of $11,065.54.

Mackey lent his campaign $75,000, according to the report.

Mackey’s platform is about maintaining the status quo. A defense attorney and former chief felony prosecutor, he was the first to enter the race, not long after the details of the Shannon settlement were announced.

“I want to continue the legacy of Tim Curry and build upon it,” he said. “I want to restore the reputation of excellence the Tarrant County district attorney’s office has long been known for.”

Mackey has stayed low-key in his criticism of Wilson but has cited the judicial complaint in his campaign literature.

“My experience, qualifications and leadership are what set me apart,” said Mackey, who has the endorsement of Marvin Collins, first assistant chief in the district attorney’s office and a former U.S. attorney, State Rep. Charlie Geren and many others.

As a former police officer, Lowthorp said she would like to see prosecutors receive training in technology such as field sobriety testing and a more aggressive approach to gang violence.

“I’m a person of integrity who cares and believes in fair play,” Lowthorp said. “I don’t want to rock the boat.”