If the sheer number of endorsements from the political class were enough to decide runoff elections in Texas, Jane Hope Hamilton would almost surely be the next representative of Dallas’ 30th Congressional District. A longtime congressional aide and political operative in North Texas, she has parlayed her connections into support from some of the biggest Democratic names in the area.
But not all endorsements are equal. If the political force of the Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson is enough, her chosen successor, the one-term Dallas state representative and rising Democratic star Jasmine Crockett—will take her place in Washington come next January.
Johnson’s nod—along with the backing of an array of national progressive groups and local activists—vaulted Crockett into frontrunner status in a crowded primary field. In the March primary, she narrowly missed winning outright, garnering 48.5 percent of the vote.
That set up a May 24 runoff battle against Hamilton, who pulled in 17 percent of the March vote. Over the last three months, the race has escalated into one of the most bitterly contested electoral duels in Texas. Crockett touts herself as a progressive fighter who’s carved her political path in Dallas as an underdog. A 41-year-old St. Louis native, Crockett came to Dallas by way of Texarkana, where she was a public defender and criminal defense attorney. Hamilton is pitching herself as the more seasoned candidate, who knows the political and legislative process inside and out. She served most recently as the state director for President Joe Biden’s 2020 primary campaign.
The runoff between Crockett and Hamilton has led to a stark divide between Congresswoman Johnson, a singular power in Dallas politics, on one side and most of the other titans of the city’s establishment on the other. The stakes are high, with the district’s constituents set to lose a potent voice in Washington who built her legacy on delivering the goods to the 30th—and North Texas more broadly. In a deep-blue seat that President Biden would have carried with 80 percent had it existed in 2020, the winner of Tuesday’s runoff should cruise to victory in November and, like Johnson, could well hold the position for decades to come.
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson—EBJ for short—is arguably the most revered Democratic politician in Dallas, having held various elected offices for six decades. After the courts brought an end to Dallas’ at-large legislative seats in 1972 (to get elected, candidates had to win a county-wide vote), she ran for a state House district in the southwest neighborhood of Oak Cliff, beating a candidate who was backed by the city’s conservative business interests. Johnson became the first Black woman elected to office in Dallas.
As a state senator, she led a prolonged push to draw a majority-Black congressional district in Dallas and ultimately succeeded in the 1991 redistricting cycle. She then became the first to hold the seat and, for 30 years, never let go. The district, which is still Dallas’ only majority nonwhite congressional seat, currently encompasses the heart of the city and extends south into outlying suburbs.
By 2018, her influence had reached its height with Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives. She became the dean of the Texas congressional delegation and rose to chair the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, once again becoming the first Black woman to hold either position.
Then, last November, with Democrats likely headed for the minority again in 2023, an 85-year-old EBJ made it official: Her 15th term in Congress would be her last. But she intended to have a say in who took her place, making clear she would endorse another woman.
“I will retire,” she said, “and let me assure you that I will also recommend to you whom I feel is the best to follow me.”
A long list of ambitious Dallas politicians has coveted Johnson’s seat over the years, quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) hoping for her to step aside. Most grew tired of waiting and moved on to other ambitions. Those who didn’t and tried to oust her were easily swatted down.
Her retirement marked a rare opportunity. Incumbents in safe seats are generally able to stay in office for as long as they desire, creating a pent-up pipeline of promising politicians stuck on the lower rungs of the ladder. Johnson’s announcement, then, sparked a predictable scramble: Both in public and private, a pack of Dallas politicos began plotting potential bids and angling for the congresswoman’s blessing.
But the most high-profile potential contenders, like longtime state Senator Royce West and County Commissioner John Wiley Price, stayed out of the race. The result was a field of younger and more progressive candidates, queuing up a passing-of-the-torch to a new generation. In an orchestrated move, Crockett—who’d recently distinguished herself as a staunch criminal justice and voting rights advocate in her first legislative term—announced her bid for Johnson’s seat at an event while the congresswoman issued a statement delivering her endorsement to the novice legislator. This surprised many political power brokers in Dallas. But it was nonetheless a major coup for Crockett, setting her up for an unusually rapid ascent to higher office.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Crockett burst onto the political scene back in 2020 with an upset victory in a race to fill a state House seat left open by the new Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. In the spring primary, she went up against local party activist Lorraine Biribal, the nominal incumbent who had just won the special election to hold the seat for the remainder of the term. Birabil had won the special with backing from a coterie of labor unions, trial lawyers, and other Democratic-aligned groups along with the city’s top elected officials.
In the primary, Crockett ran as a grassroots progressive against an establishment-backed insider, narrowly beating Birabil in a runoff by just 100 votes.
“Anyone who questions if their vote counts, let our election be an answer,” Crockett proclaimed. “We didn’t have the most money, the backing of those in power, and were labeled ‘too progressive’ for the bluest seat in Texas.”
The same coalition that Crockett toppled in her state House bid is arrayed against her now in her congressional race. Her first win was an upset that sent ripples through the political world of Dallas; now, she’s ready to make waves—unless Hamilton can turn the tide.
A political operator in North Texas for about 20 years, Hamilton has a long résumé as a top aide for former Dallas Congressman Martin Frost and chief of staff to Fort Worth Congressman Marc Veasey. She also ran campaigns for former Fort Worth state Senator Wendy Davis and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. A consummate insider with a Rolodex of political and donor connections, Hamilton announced an exploratory committee for the position in the 30th months before Johnson made her expected retirement formal, and she launched her campaign the day the announcement was made.
Hamilton’s former employers lined up behind her, as did a host of other prominent Dallas Dems like former Mayor Ron Kirk, state Senator Royce West, and Commissioner Wiley Price. Two of the top Democrats in the Texas House, Caucus Chair Chris Turner and Dallas state Representative Rafael Anchía, are also backing Hamilton—a notable departure from the typical tradition of Dem legislators supporting their colleagues’ bids for higher office. In the 2021 legislative session, Crockett butted heads with Democratic House leaders over their purported reluctance to embrace a quorum-breaking flight to Washington, D.C., to try to stymie state Republicans’ anti-voting legislation.
With lots of ground to gain in the runoff, Hamilton has gone on the offensive against Crockett.
“She’s definitely not ready,” Hamilton said in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune. “The things that she talks about on her campaign, I think they demonstrate that she has a lack of understanding of what’s important. She uses the word fight a lot, right? But she can’t point to what she’s actually delivered.”
Hamilton’s campaign declined the Texas Observer’s interview request.
“The differences [in this race] are we’ve got one person who is a politician and one person who is a public servant,” Crockett told the Observer. “When you ask her, ‘Why are you running?’ you don’t really get an answer. She says, ‘Oh I used to work in Congress.’ That’s not a reason.”
Johnson has shrugged off the apparent split in the party’s Dallas establishment and remained steadfast in her support for Crockett.
“That’s their opinion and they are entitled to theirs, and I’m entitled to mine too,” she told the Observer, explaining that she endorsed the person “who would be looking after the district rather than the title. … There’s a difference between being interested in the job and being interested in the title.”
On the other side, EBJ’s Democratic colleagues say it’s nothing personal; they’re backing Hamilton because of their relationships and her experience.
“When I’ve thought about it, she’s been there for me. It’s a sense of loyalty, I guess you can say, that made me compelled to support her,” Senator West told the Dallas Morning News.
Other Hamilton allies have been more openly critical of Crockett.
“I’ve never met a non-incumbent more prepared to go to Congress than Jane Hamilton,” Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic operative who worked for Congressmen Frost and Veasey, told the Observer. Angle runs the Democratic group Lone Star Project, which Hamilton has also worked for in the past. Of Crockett, Angle says, “She’s a bad choice. I think Congresswoman Johnson made a bad choice, picked someone who is divisive by nature. She’s new to the area and doesn’t have a record.”
A key point of contention has been the outside cash that has flooded into the primary race on Crockett’s behalf—roughly $2 million from a pair of super PACs funded by cryptocurrency traders for TV ads and mailers touting her legislative record and her EBJ endorsement. Crypto financiers have played heavily in several Democratic primaries across the country. The Lone Star Project’s 501(c)4 arm, the Texas Justice Fund, has financed attack ads blasting Crockett for being bought and paid for by “bitcoin billionaires.” Crockett has dismissed the attacks, saying the crypto support is an indication that they think she’ll win.
Another Texas Justice Fund ad claims Crockett helped Republicans pass their “election integrity” law because she was absent when the anti-voting bill passed in the House in late August. After a prolonged summer holdout in D.C., most House Democrats came back to Austin, giving Republicans the necessary quorum to ram through the bill. Crockett was one of the few who refused to come back.
“What am I going to do at the Texas Capitol except for provide my body for the purpose of being rolled over?” she said at the time.
Comments that Crockett made in the past that were critical of Johnson have also circulated. Last month, the mother of Botham Jean, who was killed in his home by an off-duty Dallas police officer, also accused Crockett of falsely claiming to have represented Jean’s family on her campaign website. Crockett said the statement was a mistake and took it off her site.
Johnson says she’s been surprised by what she calls Hamilton’s “dirty campaign.”
“It is clear that the interest is really not on the issues. It’s in tearing down the [opposing] candidate with nothing to have in return,” she said. “I have learned a lot and learned the depths of dirt that people go to just to win a race with no record.”
Crockett defeated Dallas’ political coalition before and she’s facing the same again, now as the presumptive front-runner instead of the outsider. If she prevails, Crockett will be headed to Washington once again—not as a quorum-breaking state lawmaker, but as Dallas’ next congresswoman.