Today marks the first chance for most candidates to file for a place on their respective primary’s ballot, an official start to a race for Gregg County District Attorney that’s been underway for months.
Incumbent Carl Dorrough is aiming for a re-election bid after a decade in office as challenger Tom Watson seeks for the GOP nomination come March 6.
Through a steady buildup in recent months, the two men have been refining their platforms and defining their differences – Dorrough touting and defending his record, Watson alleging weaknesses in the DA’s office and pushing for change.
“To me it boils down to my experience of over 25 years of prosecution versus two years worth of experience,” Dorrough contends. “I’ve picked juries and tried multiple cases in jury trial. I don’t believe my opponent can say that.”
The incumbent became DA when the late-Bill Jennings resigned from the post to become a judge. Dorrough had already been serving in the office as an Assistant District Attorney for 16 years. Not long after moving into the lead post, he hired Watson as an ADA in late-2007.
“I have spent over a quarter-century prosecuting cases, hundreds of cases: capital murder, murder, aggravated robbery, sexual assault,” Dorrough said, “and I bring that experience to the table.”
Prior to his time in the DA’s office, Watson spent 10 years as police officer, working in the Kilgore Police Officer under Chief (now Gregg County Sheriff) Maxey Cerliano.
“I have the experience from a police officer’s perspective,” Watson said, which he followed with a law degree: “I came back and I prosecuted cases for a couple of years,” today practicing criminal and civil law in Kilgore.
“There’s no question that he’s had more years of experience in a DA’s office. At the same time that’s all the experience he’s had. If you look at the diversity of experience, I think that’s where you can draw the comparison … I know what our law enforcement faces every day.”
The district attorney’s office is an extension of the county’s law enforcement agencies, Watson added, of the officers that are on the frontline.
“If there’s a disconnect there, a break in the chain of communication, the whole justice system is not going to work effectively,” he said. “They’re not receiving 100 percent of the support they need from the DA.”
The support is there, Dorrough says, and reciprocated with deputies, police officers, detectives and others backing his re-election bid.
“I have many friends in law enforcement who support me,” he emphasized, and his office is continuing work on their behalf: “There’s been this issue about cases taking too long but, frankly, if you look over the years, 1,000 cases indicted annually.
“I think you can look at the office of court administration and see that annually we are right up there with the state average in moving a multitude of those cases within one year.”
Watson contends there are too many cases moving too slowly through the justice system here.
“Since I’ve made my announcement, since I sat down with the incumbent in March, they have been trying to push these cases to trial, to get them resolved. The issue is, we believe they could have been doing it beforehand,” he said. “You have all these inmates sitting in the Gregg County Jail waiting on trial. They can’t get out on bond because the bond is too high. It’s costing the taxpayers quite a bit of money.”
Look at the murder trials prosecuted this year, Dorrough counters; look at the aggravated robbery cases.
“Look at the length of sentences, not only in the jury trials, but in the guilty pleas, the bench trials,” he said, adding that the suggestion his opponent could do differently is a stretch.
Watson is angling for the opportunity, noting his experience in civil litigation gives him added perspective on criminal cases, especially where the two collide in embezzlement cases, insider theft and similar issues.
When Judge Becky Simpson retired mid-term from Gregg County Court at Law No. 1, Watson was one of two local attorneys who applied to county commissioners for the appointment. Ultimately, he withdrew his bid in March, and Kent Phillips was appointed to finish out the term.
“I really didn’t want to jump into that position right away because I feel like I’ve been called to be the district attorney,” Watson said. “I’d like to have that experience first.
“I’m excited and I’m ready to go and I’m ready to serve Gregg County.”
Last month, Watson gathered with numerous law enforcement personnel – officials and officers – in Longview. Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter, Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, White Oak Police Chief Terry Roach and others offered personal endorsements alongside supporters from various policing associations.
“The endorsements that I have are from the majority of the law enforcement agencies in Gregg County,” he said this week. Watson contends, “The law enforcement guys, they are discouraged right now with the incumbent. It’s not that they don’t have a working relationship with him, it’s that they don’t think they’re receiving the support.
“They’re discouraged about a lot of the decisions he’s been making. They’re wanting somebody that’s going to be in there for him 100 percent.”
The incumbent counters his support among the law enforcement community remains strong.
“I work with a lot of officers,” Dorrough said. “I know that a lot of officers are supporting me.”
Ten years in the office, Dorrough cites experience working with the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies in a shared goal of pursuing justice and ensuring the safety of the public.
“I take that very seriously,” he said. “We continue, not only myself but the entire office, we continue to take that seriously. We work with every law enforcement agency in this county and even outside this county.
“Not only to ensure that justice is done but also to ensure the continued safety of the public.”
Both men say their paperwork will be on file before the Dec. 11 deadline.
Voters can apply between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23 for a ballot by mail for the March 6 primary election. The last day to register to vote is Monday, Feb. 5. Early voting runs Feb. 20 to March 2.