On the first day of early voting, Liz Wolff was walking up to her Oak Cliff polling place when a man campaigning for Dallas County DA Faith Johnson approached her with a flyer. Wolff, a training director for the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a progressive group that endorsed Johnson’s Democratic opponent, told him no thanks. Wolff says the man then tried to win her over by claiming Johnson is actually a Democrat. “I was just so flabbergasted that anyone would even make that up,” Wolff told me.
The next day, TOP turned Wolff’s encounter into a campaign ad for Johnson’s challenger, former state district judge John Creuzot. Later, a Dallas County Democratic Party staffer, who asked that I not use her name, sent me an audio recording of what she says is a campaigner claiming that Johnson is a Democrat outside the same South Dallas polling place. “She wants you to vote Democrat,” an unidentified man says in the recording. He handed her a flyer explaining how to cast a straight-ticket ballot but still pick Johnson for DA.
Johnson’s supporters have reason to distance her from the GOP label in Dallas County this election. Johnson wasn’t elected to her current post, but rather appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in December 2016 after former DA Susan Hawk resigned due to mental health issues. Hawk was the first Republican in a decade to win a countywide race in Dallas, and only defeated her scandal-plagued opponent by less than one percentage point in 2014. GOP ties have been a liability for Johnson in the past — her 17-year run as a felony court judge ended in 2006, when Dallas County voters swept her and every other Republican judge out of office.
On one hand, that makes Johnson among the most vulnerable down-ballot Republicans in Texas this election. On the other, Johnson has hardly been a typical district attorney. In her short stint as Dallas County’s top prosecutor, she’s made a name for herself by prosecuting cops who shoot unarmed people. In a recent debate, Johnson pointed to the murder conviction her office secured against Roy Oliver, the former Balch Springs cop who fired into a car full of unarmed teenagers last year and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
Johnson called the case a watershed moment.
“People all over the world, not just the people in the state of Texas, but all over the world were rejoicing,” she said of Oliver’s murder conviction. “You know why? Because it didn’t happen in California. They couldn’t get a conviction in New York. They couldn’t get one in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We got it in Texas.”
Even with that record, Johnson hasn’t won over criminal justice reformers, who have made Dallas ground zero this election in the movement to elect progressive prosecutors. Groups like TOP and Faith in Texas have questioned Johnson’s commitment to ending mass incarceration, in part because she wouldn’t answer the groups’ detailed questions about everything from bail and charging decisions to data collection and transparency at the DA’s office.
Creuzot, a former Ann Richards appointee who pioneered the county’s specialty courts to keep people with drug abuse issues out of jail, says the DA’s office needs more diversion programs and should simply stop charging for certain low-level crimes that stem from homelessness. On the campaign trail he’s questioned Johnson’s commitment to ending mass incarceration in Dallas County. One example he points to is Johnson’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit that civil rights groups filed earlier this year to reform Dallas County’s secretive, discriminatory bail practices.
“I wouldn’t fight that lawsuit,” Creuzot told me. “I would have agreed that the current system is unconstitutional and worked with the parties to move forward and find ways to fix it.”
Johnson’s campaign wouldn’t make her available for an interview despite multiple requests over the past month. Her campaign wouldn’t respond to my questions this week.
Even if her campaign workers are fudging the truth about her party affiliation, Johnson herself doesn’t back away from it in public. At a recent debate, an audience member asked why some of her campaign mailers don’t say she’s a Republican.
“Believe it or not, I don’t think anybody is confused about whether or not I’m running as a Republican candidate,” Johnson told the crowd. “You know why I know they know I’m a Republican? Every time I’m in the street, somebody runs up and tells me, ‘DA Johnson, I’m voting for you. It’s going to be the first time I ever vote for a Republican.’”