Eddie Bernice Johnson backs state Rep. Jasmine Crockett as replacement. Photo by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson/Texas Tribune.

A rare occurrence is unfolding this primary season across South Dallas: Candidates are actually campaigning for Congress.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has been so politically dominant that for decades, few serious Democrats have dared to challenge her. But late last year, the Dallas powerbroker announced she would retire, unleashing a burst of young political talent who are blitzing the district in their bids to succeed her.

“We’ve got nine campaigns working in that district right now,” said Dallas County Democratic Chair Kristy Noble.

“There are going to be people that are going to be touched numerous times — Democratic voters that haven’t been touched before,” she said of the campaigns’ outreach efforts. “That’s going to bring about a high level of excitement and a high level of engagement that we just haven’t seen for awhile.”

Texas’ 30th Congressional District has never known any federal representative except Johnson — after all, she helped draw the district as a state legislator in the early 1990s. Now the dean of the Texas Congressional delegation, the 85-year-old will retire next year and hand over the duties of the district to a new generation.

It is all but certain whoever wins the Democratic nomination either in March or in the May runoff will easily carry this heavily Democratic district in the fall general election. The district is predominantly Black, as are most of the leading Democratic candidates.

Johnson did not make her retirement official until November, setting off an abridged scramble to set up campaigns ahead of the December filing deadline but attracting a packed lineup of experienced candidates who are either well connected, well known or well funded.

The presumptive frontrunner is freshman state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas-based attorney who sprang to prominence last summer as a spokesperson on national television for the House Democratic Caucus when the state legislators temporarily relocated to Washington, D.C., to fight the GOP’s voting bill.

From that experience, Crockett gained the largest social media presence and political profile, and she said it was then that party elders began to recruit her for a potential Congressional run.

But there are eight other candidates in the Democratic primary race with their own bonafides: former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, community organizer Arthur Dixon, 2020 Biden Texas state director Jane Hope Hamilton, former Dallas City Council member Vonciel Jones Hill, Cedar Hill School Board Member Keisha Lankford, Navy veteran Jessica Mason, former legislative staffer Abel Mulugheta and former Dallas County Constable Roy Williams Jr.

Among the crowd, Crockett enjoys a key advantage: the coveted Johnson endorsement. Johnson told The Texas Tribune that she recruited Crockett for a run.

“She didn’t seek me out,” Johnson said. “I sought her out because I was not pleased with the people that were lining up.”

The pair of women did not know each other well until last year’s round of redistricting, the decennial process in which state lawmakers redraw political maps to reflect census changes.

Johnson is a former state legislator and was intimately involved in the drawing of the district when she was a state senator in 1991. Last year, Crockett reached out to Johnson as a state legislator who shared parts of Dallas with the congressional district in order to discuss how to best advocate for the federal district among state lawmakers.

Through that experience, Crockett stayed in close touch with Johnson — often with calls from the state House floor — and Crockett quickly learned that Johnson was avidly monitoring the redraw through livestreams and by keeping up with the political intelligence.

The new 30th District saw few changes from its old version. It encompasses many of the Dallas landmark highlights: downtown, the train station named for Johnson, Love Field, the Cotton Bowl and Fair Park, Deep Ellum, suburbs like Cedar Park and De Soto, plus a new small sliver of Tarrant County to the west.

“You did well, you did really, really well, and I want you to know I’m proud of you,” Crockett recalled Johnson telling her.

The day before Johnson announced her retirement, she texted Crockett while en route home from Washington, curious if the state legislator had filed to run for reelection in the state House. Crockett had not, but within days, Crockett was a candidate for Congress.

“She absolutely wanted somebody who’s young, female, someone who had actually served in an elected capacity,” Crockett recounted of the congresswoman’s wishes.

But Crockett’s emergent status as a frontrunner has also made her a target among her competitors. A video surfaced earlier this month showing Crockett characterizing Johnson as an entrenched career politician.

“We have a congresswoman here in Texas, a U.S. Congresswoman who has been in that seat for 28 years,” Crockett said in a 2020 livestream called Barbershop Conversations. “Ever since they created that seat, she’s been in that seat…She has been an elected official for 47 years. By education, she is an RN. Somehow, she is a multimillionaire.”

Johnson said she suspected the person responsible for drawing attention to the video was an opponent of Crockett’s who is “very far behind in the polls.”

“I consider it an act of desperation to dig up different statements and mesh them in to make it say what they say what they wanted it to say and to bash me,” she said, adding that it did not change her support for Crockett.

Crockett brushed off the incident, explaining she did not initially remember the video and called it “much ado about nothing.”

“I’m not a good politician, that’s the bottom line,” Crockett said of the incident, adding that it showed running for Congress this cycle was “never part of my plan” and that the endorsement competition was not “about who can kiss up” to Johnson the most.

Crockett said the comments came because she was defending President Joe Biden for shepherding the 1994 Crime Bill that has since become anathema in many progressive circles.

Her point, she said, was to explain that other politicians these supporters back, like Johnson, also backed the crime bill and have not recanted that vote.

“I was trying to draw out how ridiculous it was,” Crockett said.