Congressional grudge match: Why Eddie Bernice Johnson isn't ready to yield to Barbara Mallory Caraway
Dallas, TX - If you roll your eyes when Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson says her next term in Congress will be her last, she understands. The Dallas Democrat has been retiring for the last decade, only to change her mind and seek two more years.
In early 2017 enough people thought she was actually leaving that they started preparations to run to replace her.
She's staying put.
"I've been announcing my retirement for 10 years," Johnson said in recent meeting with members of The Dallas Morning News editorial board. "I have the ability to do the job, and I'm physically OK."
If she wants, Johnson, 82, can be District 30 congresswoman for life. She's one of the most popular elected officials in North Texas, easily winning re-election 12 times since joining Congress in 1993. Johnson was the first woman and the first black candidate from Dallas elected to the Texas Senate, and first black from Dallas elected to the Texas House.
She has helped shape growth and development in Dallas and beyond. And now, with the numerous retirements of Texas House members, Johnson is poised to become the dean of the state's delegation to Congress.
In many ways Johnson captures the positives and negatives of Dallas-area politics. She's a trailblazer beloved by voters, and a complex politico who got endorsements from former President Barack Obama and calls her Republican colleague Joe Barton a close friend. But her longtime tenure has stunted the growth of a few of the area's rising stars who are waiting for her to retire from the political scene.
There's one person who refuses to wait for Johnson to leave on her own terms.
Former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, D-Dallas, says it's time for new leadership. She points to southern Dallas, an area still struggling with blight and poverty, as an example of failed leadership by Johnson.
"It's clear that our district continues to suffer," said Caraway, who's making her fourth challenge of Johnson. "Look at the poverty."
Dallas Democrat Eric Williams is also a candidate for District 30, which includes parts of South Dallas, Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove.
Caraway, 61, said Johnson is the benefactor of what she calls a "sympathy vote" for a long tenure in several elected posts. That's how she explains why she and other challengers have been unable to come close to beating Johnson, who routinely gets over 70 percent of the vote in her elections. That means voters think she's doing a good job, or there's a lot of sympathy out there for her.
When she was a state representative campaigning for Congress in 2012, Barbara Mallory Caraway shook hands with Ella Richardson. Caraway is still trying to unseat longtime U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.
Undaunted, Caraway, a former city council member and the wife of council member Dwaine Caraway, says she's going to keep running for the District 30 seat until she wins it.
Johnson "doesn't have the tenacity to do the job," Caraway said. "She's become a phantom, more than a representative."
Johnson has heard these complaints from Caraway before and generally shrugs them off.
She addressed Caraway's charge that southern Dallas hasn't improved under her watch by saying the federal government has a limited role in local issues.
"We have to determine how that comes about," Johnson said of some of the lingering problems in parts of her district. "It is not a congressional action. It's not a federal first responsibility."
Johnson says she's does her best to steer federal dollars to local projects and nonprofits, as well as have meetings with officials inside the district to develop solutions. She cites getting more money for DART, the Trinity River project and other things that impact her district.
Johnson said she's now concerned with making sure District 30 residents are trained for the age of automation and so-called blue STEM jobs that don't require college degrees.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, spoke May 29, Memorial Day, in her office about how Donald Trump's election has changed Congress — and how it hasn't.
"We have a responsibility of teaching this workforce how to transition," she said. "We're at a turning point in our society as to how we're going to make money. Automation is not going to stop."
But Caraway says Johnson is no longer effective.
"She's fooled the people for far too long," she said.
Johnson said she was hopeful that quality people could emerge as potential successors, though she hasn't settled on a preferred replacement. She did make it clear that she would never, under any circumstances, endorse Caraway to replace her.
"She's not one that I would support," Johnson said. "You know she worked for me and I had to fire her because she's not efficient."
Caraway bristles at Johnson's occasional mentions of her termination. Johnson sometimes says that over the years she's fired her way to a good staff.
"I am in an elite club of people," Caraway said. "I wear it like a badge."
Indeed, Johnson isn't going anywhere for now, but neither is Caraway.