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Heir Apparent

State Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, dropped her reelection bid on Wednesday to plead guilty to lying on a tax return. But it's too early for Eric Johnson, her West Dallas-born, Ivy League-educated primary opponent, to claim victory.

Democrat Eric Johnson campaigns to replace incumbent Dallas Rep. Terri Hodge in House District 100. Hodge has pleaded guilty to lying on her tax return.

When State Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, bowed out of her reelection bid on Wednesday to plead guilty to lying on a tax return, she handed what should be an easy victory to her opponent, Eric Johnson. It’s a good thing for Johnson, a neighborhood boy turned Ivy League attorney: He faced an uphill battle to defeat her.

In many state House districts, Johnson, an education-obsessed up-and-comer with a passion for improving inner city schools, would’ve had the race in the bag. His opponent was under indictment in a citywide corruption scandal, one in which other Dallas officials had already been convicted. But Hodge, 69, has a long and intimate history with the district and the aging residents who remember her days as an aggressive labor union and election precinct organizer. Her single biggest legislative priority, improving conditions for Texas prison inmates, made her a personal savior to grieving mothers and grandmothers across her low-income, majority-minority district — who may well see the irony now.

At least publicly, these constituents seemed nonplussed that Hodge was charged with accepting housing, utilities and carpet in exchange for her support of a developer’s projects, or that she was slated for trial mere days after next month’s Democratic primary. Many in District 100, a horizontal tract that spans West Dallas, the Harry Hines hospital district and Fair Park, saw her indictment as a badge of honor — yet another case of a black lawmaker being unfairly targeted by authorities. They re-elected her six times.

For Hodge, who spent the last two years espousing her innocence, the pressure finally became too great. On Wednesday, four days after a heated political debate with Johnson, she reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to confess to lying on a tax return, to resign her seat, and to never seek public office again. “I want to take this opportunity to express my remorse to my colleagues in the Legislature, my friends and my family for my actions,” Hodge said in a statement. “Most of all I want to apologize to all the citizens of District 100 for letting them down.”

But the end of Hodge’s campaign doesn’t necessarily signal the end of Johnson’s. Because Hodge dropped out just a month before the March 2 primary, her name will still appear next to Johnson’s on the ballot — and could suck votes away from him. There’s no Republican or Libertarian running for the seat in the general election. If Hodge inadvertently wins the primary, both the Democratic and Republican parties would get to field new candidates of their choosing for the general election. If Johnson wins, it's over.

Dallas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing said she’s hearing some precinct chairs in District 100 will continue campaigning for Hodge, in an effort to choose her successor if she wins the race.

“They’re saying they’d try to get other people to vote for her too,” Ewing said. “Whether anyone can organize an effort like that — I doubt it.”

Johnson knows if he looks too young, too educated, too much like an outsider, he risks alienating the district’s traditional voters, who still feel loyalty to Hodge. At the same time, he must race against the clock to educate voters of Hodge’s fate, so they show up to the polls to vote for him, and don’t mistakenly vote for her. “I think if we were a week out, it would be real cause for concern,” said Shawn Williams, a political observer and editor of Dallas South News. “But it’s not the time for Johnson to sit back and rest. He still needs people to get out to the polls, to participate in the process.”

For Johnson, that’s no problem. “I’ve worked hard my entire life. I’ve never been able to get away with mailing it in,” Johnson says. “I’m ready to hump it now.” 

But discussing Hodge’s decision to leave the race — and by default, her legal problems — would be a shift in message for Johnson, who has spent the campaign focused on improving education. Johnson was born to parents who attended segregated schools and met and married in the West Dallas housing projects. He was plucked Cinderella-style from the city’s rough and tumble public schools by his first grade teacher, who pitched him to a Boys and Girls Club program to send inner city kids to Dallas’ prestigious Greenhill School.

For years, Johnson lived a kind of double life — studying and socializing with wealthy prep school kids, then returning to his neighborhood to friends with names like Stewmeat and Skeeter who teased him for “talking white.” “I grew up hearing how different, how exceptional I was,” says Johnson, now 34.  “But what I knew internally was that there was no magic about Eric Johnson. I was just getting an opportunity my friends, my siblings, weren’t getting.”

From Greenhill, Johnson’s world exploded. He attended Harvard for college, the University of Pennsylvania for law school, and Princeton for a master’s degree in education policy. He returned to Dallas to practice law — but couldn’t shake a growing obsession with unequal education. He decided to run for office on a platform of closing the massive gap between Dallas’ neighborhood schools and its best private schools. The Texas Legislature, where the state’s education funding decisions are made, seemed the place to start. “I have siblings who didn’t have the opportunities I had, and they had very different outcomes,” Johnson says. “When you walk through metal detectors every day, when there’s violence and drugs at your school, you’re up against a far greater hurdle to get an education.”

To Johnson’s supporters, he’s got everything the district has been missing: youthful energy, fresh blood, and big ideas, plus the support of high-profile Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and The Dallas Morning News. Now they hope he’ll get the boost he was missing from the Dallas legislative delegation, which had overwhelmingly endorsed Hodge as the incumbent. Mere hours after Hodge announced her guilty plea, several Dallas lawmakers, including Sen. Royce West and Rep. Robert Miklos, had already switched to endorse Johnson. 

Meanwhile, Hodge appears to be beating a hasty retreat. Her spokesman cancelled a scheduled interview with the Texas Tribune last week, saying she wouldn’t speak to the media until after the primary because press coverage had been “pretty universally negative.” In a Wednesday press release, Hodge said she would not make any more public statements until she’s been sentenced. A sentencing date hasn't been set. “I ask that the press respect my request that my family and I not be contacted for any further statement,” she said.

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