The Republican candidates for Denton County district attorney came out swinging before a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday in one of the first debates of the political season.
Incumbent District Attorney Paul Johnson squared off with his two opponents in the March 4 Republican primary election — Lantana attorney Karen Alexander and Denton attorney Hank Paine — in the debate conducted by the Denton Republican Women’s Club at El Guapo’s restaurant.
Alexander and Paine challenged Johnson on his handling of the district attorney’s office, from failure to seek the death penalty in his seven years in office to his handling of personnel. Johnson defended his tenure in office, saying he considers each case individually and has worked in the community to help veterans.
Each candidate was allowed opening and closing remarks and took questions from among the estimated 95 people who attended.
Alexander and Paine criticized Johnson for not seeking the death penalty. Paine said that offered an incentive for individuals in neighboring counties to commit crimes here instead of in their own backyard.
Alexander, 37, a former prosecutor who now has her own law practice, said if she were the next district attorney, she would not be “soft on crime.”
Both also criticized Johnson as being inaccessible to the public, with Alexander saying Johnson “sits in an ivory tower and doesn’t reach out to the public.”
Johnson, 55, who touted his 30 years of experience, spoke about his ongoing involvement with the Denton County Veterans Treatment Court Program.
The program is designed to bring together the courts, defense attorneys and prosecutors to treat combat-related mental illnesses that can contribute to criminal behavior in veterans. After a lengthy treatment process, the veteran’s criminal record would be expunged.
Paine, 61, told the crowd that he would bring not only his 33 years of experience as an attorney — including 25 years as a board-certified lawyer in criminal and juvenile law — but also pledged to be accessible to staff and the public if elected.
Paine, a former Denton school board member who has been involved for years with the GOP, spoke of the need to put together a Citizens Prosecutors Academy to help people better understand the workings of the office.
Alexander stressed the need to focus on establishing a mental health court within the county to address mental health issues that she said are running rampant in the county. She also questioned Johnson’s handling of personnel cases within his office, hinting at a racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit that was filed against the district attorney’s office.
The very public racial discrimination suit filed by Nadiya Williams-Boldware accused four prosecutors of making racial remarks toward her or protecting those who did in 2009. In June 2012, a federal jury ruled in favor of Williams-Boldware and shortly after, Johnson fired all four involved. The case is being appealed by the county.
Alexander worked about 18 months as an assistant district attorney in misdemeanor cases before moving to a law firm. In 2004, she started her own legal practice.
Johnson has been district attorney for seven years and spent 15 years before that as an assistant district attorney, moving up from misdemeanors to higher positions in the office.
While the questions from the audience were few and time was cut short, all candidates asked those in attendance to check their websites for further information.
Michelle French, the Denton County tax assessor-collector who serves as program chairwoman for the group, said she was excited to see so many in attendance.
“We are one of the largest groups in the area and this kind of turnout is very typical for election season,” French said after the debate.
The group will conduct its next debate on Feb. 19, featuring the Republican candidates for county judge.
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.