In 2010, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins fired one of his top prosecutors, apparently for attending a GOP election night watch party. In 2014, that fired prosecutor could return the favor by having Watkins, a Democrat, voted out of office and taking his job.
Welcome to the world of Tom Nowak, Republican candidate for Dallas District Attorney.
As a prosecutor, Nowak was once a rising star in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. Although he was hired under former D.A. Bill Hill, Watkins promoted him to the child abuse division, where he prosecuted what Nowak describes as “the worst of the worst cases…aggravated assault against children, the continuous sexual abuse of children, those kinds of cases.”
That all changed in November 2010, after Nowak attended a Republican election night watch party, the same night Watkins was reelected as D.A. “I went to the Republican watch party that Tuesday because many of my friends were in judicial races. I went to support them, and it had nothing to do with the district attorney’s office. I didn’t donate money to candidates, I didn’t put up signs in my yard for candidates, and I didn’t go to rallies or anything like that.”
Three days later, Nowak paid the price for appearing to take a political side, when assistant D.A. Terri Moore confronted him. “That Friday I was told that he (Watkins) didn’t want me working for him anymore. No other reason was given. To this day he says it wasn’t because of that, but he still hasn’t given any other reason why. I had an exemplary record and I had a high conviction rate. I was told he was the D.A. and he can fire whomever he wants and he didn’t want me to work for him anymore, and that was it.”
What seemed like an act of political retribution was one of many scandals Watkins has endured in recent years. Many questioned if he gave preferential treatment to companies that gave expensive gifts for the D.A.’s office Christmas party. Paul Adrian of Fox 4 News reported Watkins was spending large amounts of time at his private businesses instead of at the D.A.’s office. The Dallas Morning News reports the FBI is still investigating whether Watkins prosecuted businessman Al Hill on charges of mortgage fraud as a favor to a campaign supporter, attorney Lisa Blue.
As he did with Nowak, it appears Watkins continues to retaliate against those who oppose him politically. The Dallas Observer recently reported that Lisa Blue, the Watkins supporter at the center of the Al Hill scandal, is the chief donor to a PAC supporting Tammy Kemp’s run against Criminal Court Judge Lena Levario in the Democratic primary. Levario was the judge who found Watkins in contempt of court for failing to testify about the Hill scandal last year. Tammy Kemp is an administrator in Watkins’ office, and a number of his prosecutors are running for judicial benches in the county. “He is flexing his muscle in terms of what he wants to happen. He is trying to be the boss of Dallas County Democratic Party politics,” Nowak said. According to The Dallas Morning News, late last month, Watkins began distributing literature with his name and picture on it listing his endorsement of candidates for the Democratic March primary.
Nowak believes the myriad of scandals, as well as Watkins’ blatant politicizing for the Democratic party, is reason enough for a change, and it is why he is running for the office. “I think there is a general understanding of what the DA does: it is to fight crime and do the best you can to protect the citizens of Dallas County. When you have him doing things that have nothing to do with that goal, the voters really don’t like that, and they don’t like seeing that. I’ve heard that not just from Republican voters, but from Democrats as well. It’s all about Craig Watkins and nothing about justice.”
Even Watkins’ work with the Innocence Project of Texas, which looks to clear wrongly convicted criminals, has been tainted by his personal exploitation of the publicity those exonerations have produced. Watkins has appeared on 60 Minutes to speak about the program, and he is often asked to speak around the country, leading many to question if he is shirking his D.A. responsibilities in favor of media exposure. Ironically, Nowak points out the exoneration initiative was not Watkins’ idea at all; it was a program already in place before he became D.A.
Before he can take on Watkins, however, Nowak has an opponent in the Republican primary. Judge Susan Hawk, who recently resigned her seat in the criminal district court to run for D.A. as well. However, Hawk has been plagued by charges of political opportunism. In 2010, she switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, to avoid losing her seat in a very blue Dallas County. The move paid off, as she was reelected, but she switched back to the Republican party last year to run against Watkins. That move did not sit well with many in the GOP, including Nowak. “Obviously, flip-flopping parties and trying to stay in office is the extreme definition of a politician in a negative sense,” he said. “You’re not being honest with the public or honest with yourself. I think people do flip-flop opportunistically to stay in office and keep a job, and not necessarily because they’re trying to do what’s best for Dallas county citizens.”
Nowak also points out that over the past six years, Judge Hawk has scored poorly on the Dallas Bar Association judicial bar poll, voted on biannually by prosecutors and defense attorneys in Dallas. In each of those polls, Hawk ranked at or near the bottom of the poll in regards to various aspects of her job, including professionalism, impartiality, and a knowledge of the law.
Nowak, on the other hand, touts his experience and qualifications as giving him an upper hand. “I am board certified in criminal law,” he said. “I’m the only person in this race who can legally call himself an expert in criminal law. I was tested by the state by the board of legal specialization on my knowledge of federal and state law. Judge Hawk said she didn’t have time to take the test because she was serving Dallas County. Well, I took that test when I was a prosecutor and I had to study nights and weekends when I was also serving Dallas County.”
Moving to private practice as a defense attorney was also beneficial, Nowak said. “You know, it was a blessing that I did get fired from the D.A.’s office, because I got to handle the types of cases the district attorney is responsible for. When we talk about the D.A., we aren’t talking just about the death penalty cases or the big child abuse cases, we are talking about felony murder cases all the way down to misdemeanor cases. We’re talking about juvenile justice. We’re talking about CPS cases and removals from homes that are handled by the district attorney’s office. I’ve handled those cases. We’re talking about federal cases. We’re talking about civil cases. I have handled civil cases. When it comes to that kind of knowledge, I blow away the competition in terms of what I have done and what I’m capable of doing.”
Nowak’s personal story is the epitome of achieving the American Dream; his parents emigrated from Communist Poland in 1983 when he was a young boy. “We basically had nothing,” Nowak said of his family’s humble arrival in America. His father installed cable during hot Texas summers and his mother worked in a potato chip factory, and that hard work ethic paid off after Nowak graduated from North Mesquite High School. He doubled majored in History and Political Science at Texas A&M, and later earned a law degree at Baylor. While in college, he interned with the Dallas District Attorney’s office multiple times with the hopes of one day working there, a goal he achieved in 2005. Nowak also serves as an Air Force reservist.
If elected as district attorney, Nowak hopes to focus on some core issues, including public corruption, family violence, and child abuse. He promises a greater effort to address crime, something he thinks Watkins has failed to do. “When he (Watkins) first took office, he let 500 people out of jail just because it was overcrowded,” Nowak said. “That’s not the kind of behavior we need from the district attorney. We need to be working hard to make sure people pay for their crimes.”
However, Nowak wants to continue the review of cases to find wrongly convicted individuals, a program that received so much attention under Watkins. “I’ve told people that as a defense attorney, one of the people I represented was found guilty, and I believe he was innocent of the crime. It changes you as a lawyer, and it changes you as a person, how you view those cases. I would like to see us continue to review the cases, but also use what happened to teach people in other counties and jurisdictions around the country on what things we do differently now.”
The official campaign website for Tom Nowak is VotingForTom.com.
Author’s note: All quotes are taken from a one-on-one interview with Nowak conducted February 17, 2014.