Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Dallas DA's Depression Drama
Dallas County is big time.
It's mostly one big city - Big D - pockmarked by a handful of rapidly-shrinking undeveloped areas, mostly along the flood-prone Trinity River watershed.
It has a population of 2.5 million people, ranging from some of the world's wealthiest to some of this country's poorest. It has deep social divisions rooted in racism and class. Its courts have a painful history of sending black men to prison for crimes they didn't commit. Its largest city is staggering under a steep rise in violent crimes, including a 75% increase in its murder rate.
Dallas County does not provide a supportive environment for somebody who wants to be its district attorney. Although most of its wealth is conservative and Republican, most of its voters are liberal and Democratic, and the partisan politics between county officials can be fierce. The media's scrutiny of the Dallas DA's office can be relentless, and the public's demands unrealistic.
Indeed, being the top lawyer of Dallas County is no easy job.
Two years ago, Susan Hawk defied the odds and became Dallas County's first Republican DA in years, after the tumultuous reign of her predecessor, Craig Watkins. To much acclaim, Watkins became the first black DA in the entire state of Texas back in 2006, but his time in office unraveled to the point where he became a byword for incompetence. These days, his reputation has sunk so low, Dallas' liberal media makes fun of him, saying he "can't even ambulance-chase correctly."
Being the top lawyer of Dallas County is no easy job.
Yesterday, Hawk's office announced that she has gone to Arizona for inpatient therapy to treat depression. This is the third time Hawk has taken a leave of absence from a job she's held for 18 months. And all three times, her absence has been due to her depression. Last summer, she was out for two months, and this past May, she was out for three weeks. It's unclear when she will return to work from Arizona.
So far, local media has been uncharacteristically subdued in its reporting of Hawk's medical travails, perhaps because complaining about somebody's mental and emotional health is considered being politically incorrect. Even the Dallas County Democratic Party has refrained from commenting to the media about Hawk's leaves of absence. But people are starting to wonder out loud: Is Hawk up to the job?
Is being the DA for a county as conflicted as Dallas too much for her? How stricken by depression was she before she ran for office? Did the DA's office make her sick, or worsen her sickness?
Dallas County Republicans say Hawk's depression is an illness like cancer, and if a DA were to come down with cancer while in office, nobody would second-guess a leave of absence for treatment. But is depression like Hawk's the same type of illness as cancer?
For one thing, cancer can be quantified far more readily than depression can. Cancer can be identified and targeted, whereas depression doesn't show up in blood samples or brain scans. Depression is a physical condition, but it also involves mental and emotional conditions that have become ingrained in the psyche. Cancer isn't known to force its victim to act in ways we consider to be irrational, yet depression can, and often does.
Whether it's a broken bone, cancer, the flu, or any physical illness, can we say that a conventional malady equates to the type of depression that forces the district attorney in one of America's largest counties into therapy three times in less than two years? After all, it takes an extraordinary amount of emotional ambition and physical energy for anybody to win Dallas County's DA's race in the first place. Hawk didn't win her office without enormous mental resources, and she's not likely the type of person to flake out simply because she has a few stressful days. So this means there are some serious problems taking place here; problems she couldn't hope to cover up or excuse away if she tried to stay on the job.
And it's not like Hawk's office is lavishing the public with details about her condition. During her two-month absence last year, it took some prolonged hounding by the media before Hawk's people admitted that she was in therapy for depression. Yet hers is a public position. She ran for the office. She knew that being Dallas County DA would put her under a microscope. Shouldn't she and her office be more transparent with the public about what's going on?
Hawk herself has stated that she doesn't like people second-guessing her health decisions, or whether having depression disqualifies her from being DA. But when a public figure complains about such things, doesn't it sound a bit hollow?
Besides, it's not like public officials haven't ever resigned their posts in the face of a severe cancer diagnosis. There's no shame in recognizing that one's health may be compromising one's ability to perform one's job. Especially a job that the public elected you to do.
The district attorney's job is a four-year stint, and it's a job chock-full of public responsibility. So far, the DA's office says it can handle things in Hawk's absence, which actually should be a bit embarrassing to Hawk, don't you think? If things are supposedly running so well in her absence, what is it about her presence that's required? Or is the office really running as well as her staff says it is? What would Hawk be doing, if she was in the office instead of in therapy, to make her office function even better? Is she really an essential county leader, or is she a figurehead?
These are questions people are going to start asking, and they're going to be uncomfortable for Hawk. It's not like she's discretely accountable to a select group of executives at a private company; she's got a big county's worth of voters, taxpayers, crime victims, crime perpetrators, and civic boosters with skin in her game, and frankly, they've got a right to know what she's doing and how she's doing it.
If she were to resign and go back into private law practice, the scrutiny would notch down several levels, and that might actually help her recover.
As it is, the longer she needs therapy, the louder people are going to second-guess her, and the worse things could become for her. Mental illness still has strong taboos in our society, and while people might be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt at first, after a while, the good graces will begin to run thin. And how will that help alleviate anybody's depression?
When the DA's job is done in a way that wins its officeholder widespread public acclaim, it's a reward that most any hard-charging lawyer type likely relishes. However, in the punishing world of Dallas County crime politics, the risk of landing hard on the wrong side of public opinion can make public service unrewarding at best.
As a person who himself suffers from chronic clinical depression, I know enough about the illness to recognize that I'm no expert on Hawk's condition. But like a lot of people, I can see the predicament that's building up around Hawk, and it doesn't look good.
It's been speculated that the reason Hawk is waiting to resign involves the reappointment laws in Texas, and whether her resignation now would trigger a vote to replace her (which Republicans could easily lose), or whether waiting a few more months would give Texas' Republican governor the chance to appoint somebody to take her place without an election. Considering how political many district attorney races are, at least in Texas' largest urban counties, Hawk may indeed simply be biding her time for her party's sake.
But would that help her in the long run? Dragging out her case in the court of public opinion, where depression is widely misunderstood and popularly ridiculed? Or will the image of her fighting for her mental health work in her favor, and help her come back stronger than ever when this current stint of therapy is over?
If she was not a public official, her decision could more easily center on whatever is best for her. Yet as a public official, isn't there more to be considered?
Often, people with genuine depression are suspected of actually have a problem with narcissism, which makes them exceptionally focused on themselves in a way that exacerbates their mental condition.
A person has to have a pretty strong opinion of themselves to run for an office like district attorney. But don't strong people also need to know where their weaknesses lie, so they can address those weaknesses before others exploit them?
Let's hope Hawk's depression doesn't muddle her choices in charting her present, and her future.
Update: Hawk resigned on Tuesday, September 6.
Update: Hawk reportedly surprised her staff by returning to work today, August 11.
Update: As of Tuesday, August 9, Hawk has yet to return to work, and reportedly remains in a treatment facility in Arizona. It is unclear when she will return to work, but she has said she currently has no plans to resign.