By Jennifer Emily
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Attorney Faith Simmons Johnson will be sworn in as Dallas DA later this month. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to the post after Susan Hawk resigned three months ago. Johnson says her father, more than anyone else, inspired her values, her worth ethic and determination to succeed.
The Dallas Morning News
To understand Faith Simmons Johnson, you have to know something about her father.
Benjamin Simmons Sr. had 13 children. He worked a lot of jobs to keep his family fed and clothed. He refused to accept welfare and handouts. He was a lifelong Democrat.
And he is why Dallas’ newly appointed district attorney is a Republican. Johnson says her father, more than anyone else, inspired her values, her worth ethic and her belief that people must be responsible for their own actions and full of determination to succeed.
Johnson tells the family story of how her father once became so desperate for a job that he went door to door in their hometown of Atlanta, asking and asking. But no one was hiring.
Finally, he walked into a business and refused to take “no” for an answer. The owner kept turning down his pleas for work and repeatedly told him to leave.
“My dad saw a broom in the corner, and he went over there and grabbed the broom and just started sweeping,” Johnson said.
The man asked, “What are you doing?”
Her father just kept sweeping.
The man became furious and yelled for him to leave. He threatened to call the cops.
“Even with that, my dad just kept sweeping. And the guy stepped back and said, ‘OK, you got a job,’ ” Johnson said. “That’s where I got tenacity from, hard work. My dad didn’t finish high school but he was my hero because he taught us integrity, hard work.”
Johnson, 66, is expected to take that work ethic into the DA’s office after she is sworn in as DA, tentatively set for Dec. 16. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to the post after Susan Hawk resigned three months ago. Johnson says she’ll run for the office in 2018.
She has made few public decisions about changes she’ll make, but says firmly that she’s a “servant leader” who wants to rebuild morale within the district attorney’s office and trust with residents.
Hawk, also a Republican, quit to focus on her mental health. She was frequently absent, hospitalized for mental health treatment or just not around.
Hawk defeated Democrat Craig Watkins in the largely blue county with the help of some Democrats who abandoned him over questionable decisions. His office was also under federal investigation.
“The community doesn’t really have trust in our office anymore because of all the changes and everything that has it through,” Johnson said. “We are all in it together. Doesn’t matter where live, rich or poor. No one likes crime.”
Johnson wants to start satellite DA offices as a way to reach out the the community about crime prevention and not always make residents come to the courthouse. The head of the conviction integrity unit, a position that examines possible wrongful convictions that is now vacant, will also now directly report to Johnson.
‘I didn’t know I was poor’
Johnson’s parents owned their own home and her father was determined that his daughters would learn to play the piano. Johnson began playing at age 5 and became a concert pianist, playing the classical music of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.
“We were not rich people,” Johnson said. “We were pretty much poor. But I didn’t know I was poor. I didn’t get the memo because we always had food and a few changes of clothes. But I thought that was life.”
Food wasn’t fancy growing up. Weekday meals didn’t have much variety. Rice, black-eyed peas and corn bread … or rice, collard greens and corn bread … or rice, string beans and corn bread.
Fish on Fridays. Hot dogs on Saturdays and meat, once a week, on Sundays.
She went to school and lived the life of a bookworm. Once she made it to college, she earned a degree in psychology and then a graduate degree in community counseling at Georgia State University. She thought of becoming a professional student. But the law beckoned.
After earning a law degree at Houston’s Texas Southern University in 1980, she joined the Dallas County DA’s office as a prosecutor. Johnson was the first black female chief felony prosecutor and helped start the child abuse unit. Now, she’ll be the county’s first black female DA.
Manny Alvarez met Johnson in 1985 when they prosecuted child abuse cases together for the DA’s office. When she was appointed to the bench in 1989, he went into private practice and he tried cases before her as a defense attorney. When he, too, became a felony court judge, Johnson swore him in.
“We’ve been close for a long time,” said Alvarez, who is now retired and living in Tampa, Fla. “She’s a great lady.”
Alvarez said Johnson came up with the idea of taking children into the courtroom, where they would testify days beforehand to let them see the courtroom and get comfortable on the witness stand. Now, the practice is commonplace.
“She really had an impact on children — she was at her best with them,” Alvarez said. “She made the children feel as good as they could feel about what was about to happen.”
It isn’t just kids who are drawn to Johnson, said Bill Wirskye, a top prosecutor for Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis. Wirskye worked for several years as a prosecutor in Johnson’s court.
“She’s genuine and approachable, and you always leave conversations with her, even hard conversations, feeling good. I think that’s going to serve her well as DA.”
Her older sister, Marilyn Simmons, said people have always been happier around her sister, and she always thrived when surrounded by others.
As a child, “she told our mom she wanted 100 friends. My mom said ‘What are you going to do with 100 friends?’ ” recalled Simmons, who still lives in Georgia, like most of the family. “She couldn’t answer. I think she just liked people.”
Johnson is the member of the family who makes sure the siblings and the extended family see each other, Simmons said. Johnson goes “home” most Christmases and organizes family reunions.
The new DA also has a silly side. Growing up, another sister could be “challenging,” Simmons said. Johnson, the youngest child, would sit on that sister’s head.
“This was her way of telling her ‘be cool,’ ” Simmons said.
Force of nature
At the courthouse, Johnson was known for working long hours. She was the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave. Alvarez said he’d drop his kid off at school and arrive at the courthouse at 8:30 a.m. and her car would already be there. And when he left, inevitably, Johnson was still hard at work.
At one point, Johnson tossed out the idea of holding court at night.
Alvarez recalled that he’d told her, only half joking: “You need to get a life and go home. No one is going to come in at night.”
Alvarez said that while Johnson is good at delegating, she will also be hands-on — and work a lot of hours.
“She’ll be sleeping there, if history holds true” Alvarez said.
During her interview with The Dallas Morning News on a busy day in which she had meetings at the Crescent, Johnson howled with laughter at his exaggeration — a boisterous chortle that fills the room where a Christmas tree sparkled with red and gold ornaments in an otherwise sedate setting.
Johnson shines a bit, as well, frequently gesturing with her hands and using facial expressions that can’t help but draw people to her.
Alvarez’s ribbing isn’t the first time recently that she she’s been told that she can push people — especially herself — to their limits. At a meeting of attorneys and party faithful this week, they reminded her of how she worked herself and others all the time. As a judge, she’d keep court in session until a midafternoon lunch break and then push on to the evening.
Those who’ve worked with her say she’s a force of nature. Even Johnson says it’s true.
“I don’t mean to be that way. I don’t know what it is about me,” she said. “But I’m a born leader, and that’s what’s so exciting about this job.”
Johnson was re-elected several times and remained a judge for 17 years until she lost in 2006 when Democrats swept the courthouse races. She spent the last 10 years in private practice. She could have switched to the blue team and won back a seat on the bench. But she’s too loyal to her party to make such a move — even though other judges did. She was a delegate in 2000 for the national GOP convention.
When Johnson set her sights on becoming a judge, she studied the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties. She found more of what she believed lined up with the Republicans.
“It spoke to a lot of my Christian values, I’ve got to be honest with you,” she said. “Republicans tend to help us want to try to help us do our own thing, entrepreneur, work for what we get. And really, that was my dad. My dad was a man who did that.”
Her mother, Eva, cooked meals and sold them at a time when restaurants refused to serve blacks. Her father, who lived a hundred years, grew vegetables — corn, collard greens — in their backyard and sold them to support his family.
Their ambition helped form Johnson’s political ideas.
“I felt that in the Republican Party, and I identify with that,” she said.
Her father died in 2007. Her mother died in 1989 at 85, two days after Johnson learned that Gov. Bill Clements had appointed her a state district judge in Dallas County.
Johnson said she’s sensitive to the needs of others but tough. As a judge, she would hand down sentences that sometimes surprised defendants because she’d been polite and kind to them in court.
“When I put that hammer down and give them a life sentence,” she said, “they’d say, ‘Wait a minute — I thought you were a nice person.’ ”
She once threw a party in her courtroom to celebrate the capture of a man who’d fled during a trial. He’d previously been convicted of murder. She sentenced him to life in prison in his absence.
Her celebration, complete with cake and balloons, earned her a public admonishment from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2005. She later apologized.
Johnson doesn’t believe everyone needs maximum punishment. She rewards those who help themselves and make efforts to improve themselves, said Gary Dittrich, a long-serving Dallas County bailiff. And she makes sure others at the courthouse — clerks, probation officers — notice, too.
“I’ve seen her pay particular attention to people who have truly changed, making sure they didn’t fall through the cracks,” Dittrich said. “There’s a lot of cases, things fall through, we’ve all seen it. She made sure the good didn’t fall through.”
About Faith Johnson
Salary as DA: About $210,000 from the state and county
Education: Johnson graduated from Price High School in Atlanta in 1968. She earned a psychology degree from Georgia State University in 1972 and then a graduate degree in community counseling. She earned her law degree from Houston’s Texas Southern University in 1980.
Professional: She was a Dallas County prosecutor from 1982 to 1989. She was the county’s first black female chief felony prosecutor and helped start the child abuse unit. She was appointed to preside over the 363rd District Court, a felony court in Dallas County, and served for 17 years before she lost a re-election bid and went into private practice. She is shutting down her law firm in Irving. She serves on the Department of Public Safety Commission and has previously sat on the county’s juvenile board.
Personal: She is the youngest of 13 kids. She is also a secretary and board member of The Potter’s House church. Her parents were married until her mother’s death at 85 in 1989, two days after Johnson learned she had been appointed a state district judge. Her father died in 2007 at age 100.