LaHood out as Bexar County district attorney
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, who gained national attention for his anti-Islamic comments and support of a debunked claim that vaccines cause autism, was decisively defeated after just a single term by Joe Gonzales, a one-time business associate.
Gonzales jumped into what became a bitter and divisive race after LaHood, in front of a judge, threatened to destroy his legal practice.
His race was aided by nearly $1 million in donations from liberal hedge fund magnate George Soros. LaHood struck back with lurid attack ads that claimed Soros “owned” Gonzales while deriding his commitment to not prosecute prostitution.
Gonzales will face another local defense attorney, Republican Tylden Shaeffer, in the general election.
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Wearing a short-sleeved campaign T-shirt and jeans, LaHood conceded the election shortly before 8:30 p.m. after early voting results put Gonzales up by more than 20 points. Gonzales maintained the advantage after 11 p.m., leading 59 to 41 percent with about 91 percent of precincts reporting.
Gonzales’ victory speech at Tomatillos Cafe carried a tone of unity. He called the win a “team effort,” acknowledging in particular his two campaign managers, Robert Vargas and Laura Barberena.
“When we first talked about running for district attorney, I was the unknown, I was the challenger, I was going up against a very popular incumbent,” Gonzales said. “But I knew I had to do this. I knew that I had to send a message to this community that you cannot run the district attorney’s office through intimidation.”
In his concession speech, LaHood ran through a list of accomplishments and acknowledged the work of the 479 employees in the DA’s office. He said morale in the office “is, or was, at an all-time high.”
“Whomever the next DA is, they will be starting off in a much better position than I started off in,” LaHood said, speaking from the San Antonio Firefighters Banquet Hall.
He added: “As the Bexar County DA, my work is not finished. I was not elected for three years and three months. I was elected for four years. I still have nine months or so to do everything I can to continue the progress we have made.”
The race contained everything from bitter personal feuding to substance-based discussions about criminal justice reform.
LaHood’s already controversial profile drew outside attention from the start, yet the race made further noise in conservative circles with the release of campaign finance reports showing Soros had supplied Gonzales, through a political action committee, with about $900,000 worth of ads.
LaHood chalked the loss up to Soros’ influence.
“In my opinion, the voters were unfairly influenced by $1 million worth of lies,” he said in conceding. “There’s no other way to say it. But we have a system and the voters have spoken, and I respect their voice, even if I know they were fed these misconceptions and dishonesty by my opponent.”
Since taking office, LaHood has expanded a diversion program to include some nonviolent felonies and created special units to investigate potentially wrongful convictions. He also established a unit to focus on cases of child abuse, his top campaign issue.
Periods of turbulence have defined part of his tenure, notably when his biggest political donor in 2014, Thomas J. Henry, represented the family of a man shot to death by Bexar County deputies. LaHood promised to investigate, though Henry downplayed the conflict-of-interest concern.
LaHood also drew flak for failing to report a business interest in an LLC owned by Gary Cain, who last month was convicted of defrauding investors in a sand fracking company.
He also gained notoriety for stating vaccines “can and do cause autism,” a view disproved by scientific research, and for calling Islam “horrifically violent.”
Running on his experience, Gonzales throughout the campaign said LaHood’s demeanor and sparse prosecutorial background made him unfit to hold the office. LaHood defended his first-term record, claiming Gonzales’ platform consisted of restorative justice measures his administration had already created.
Gonzales said LaHood hadn’t done enough. He pointed to the high cost of entry to the office’s pretrial diversion program and LaHood’s slow rollout of a cite-and-release program.
The animosity between the candidates dated to an episode in a judge’s chambers in 2017, when LaHood reportedly threatened to shut down Gonzales’ legal practice if he sought to dismiss a murder case LaHood was prosecuting. LaHood denied making the charge but the judge backed up Gonzales’ account under oath.
Months later, LaHood lobbed one of the campaign’s first major bombs, accusing Gonzales in an interview of specializing in child sex crime defense.
Throughout the race, he sought to juxtapose Gonzales’ record with his own focus on protecting children, though as a defense attorney LaHood represented similar clients .
In an interview, Gonzales said he was surprised at the wide margin of victory, but thought it had to do with the tone of LaHood’s attacks.
“One thing that may have played in was the whole negative attack he had on me, in regard to what I do for a living,” Gonzales said. “I believe the voters saw right through that.”
During the last six weeks of the campaign, Gonzales received about $900,000 from Soros, allowing him to extend the LaHood-Trump strategy to TV ads.
Gonzales acknowledged Soros’ contributions in his victory speech.
“There have been a lot of negative attacks about that group” Gonzales said. “But they’re a group of people that are looking for progressive prosecutors All they want is for people to be treated fairly. They never asked anything from me.”
Jasper Scherer is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. | firstname.lastname@example.org | @jaspscherer