Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood conceded defeat less than 90 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday night, blaming outside money from Democratic businessman and political activist George Soros to his opponent, Joe Gonzales.
“In my opinion the voters were unfairly influenced by $1 million worth of lies. There’s no other way to say it,” LaHood told supporters at his post-election gathering at the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Banquet Hall.
“This, unfortunately, is not the worst thing I’ve been through in my life,” he said. “I’m at peace.”
Gonzales claimed victory soon after LaHood conceded, and the mood at his post-election party at Tomatillo’s on Broadway was light and festive as he made his rounds to the various tables of supporters and reporters.
Gonzales will face Republican candidate Tylden Shaeffer, a local defense attorney, in the November general election. Shaeffer has worked as a Bexar County prosecutor and ran unopposed in the Republican primary. Until LaHood won in 2014, Republicans held the seat for 24 years.
Gonzales said the financial support from Soros “is what allowed us to get our message out, but I think this speaks to this being a mandate from the voters.
“What the voters are saying is that you don’t run a DA’s office through intimidation, that they aren’t going to tolerate a DA that’s going to bully people and throw temper tantrums,” Gonzales continued. “They’re looking for someone who is going to be fair.”
Gonzales added that he ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, “and that’s what I intend to do … reforming the bail bond system is important to me – I want to look at increasing the diversionary programs, especially for our youth.
“Obviously we still have an obstacle to overcome, we still have the general election.”
Early voting totals showed Gonzales receiving about 61 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary race compared to LaHood’s 39 percent – a lead that LaHood’s campaign manager, Colin Strother, said made catching up on election day “mathematically a moot point.”
Gonzales received 30,193 votes during the 11-day early-vote period compared to LaHood’s 19,190. Early voting in Bexar County saw higher turnout for the Democratic ballot than in recent years.
With all of the county’s 726 precinct votes counted after midnight, LaHood trailed Gonzales’ 59 percent by 18-points.
The district attorney race in the general election may not be as political as it was in the primary election, said Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University.
Undetermined, independent voters don’t typically show up to primary elections, Flores said. “The one who can capture the largest share of the middle [is] going to carry the day. … Come the general election you’ve got a whole different electorate.”
Candidates led aggressive campaigns against their opponent, making calls and visits to voters right up until the polls closed Tuesday evening.
Some voters woke up at 5 a.m. Tuesday to anti-Gonzales “robocalls,” according to media reports. Both campaigns denied any involvement with the illegal calls that did not include a disclaimer identifying who paid for the telephone ads.
LaHood’s latest round of attacks against Gonzales – which peaked over the weekend with a series of ads placed in the San Antonio Express-News – was that he, as a defense lawyer, made his living “defending convicted sex criminals.” LaHood, once a defense attorney himself, has also solicited business from individuals accused of such crimes, according to media reports.
Several mail-outs from the Gonzales campaign compared LaHood to President Donald Trump. Though he called himself a “conservative guy” in an interview with the Express-News, LaHood said he does not agree with the president on all issues.
Negative attack ads aren’t likely to work on voters, Flores said. “But what’s interesting about these two is that they are both criminal defense attorneys so by nature they are really zealous advocates.”
The kind of burst the LaHood campaign made against Gonzales over the weekend, Flores said, can be seen as “a last grasp for them to try to take down the other guy.”
LaHood, 45, ousted Republican incumbent Susan Reed, who held the seat for 16 years, in November 2014 after an embittered campaign. He unsuccessfully challenged her in 2010.
In 1994, LaHood was arrested for selling ecstasy pills to an undercover policeman. In 1996, LaHood’s older brother, Michael, was shot and killed outside their parents’ home. He was able to overcome the conviction and seemed to convince most voters that his troubled past and self-described “anger-holic” issues were behind him.
LaHood’s 2014 campaign received a $1.2 million boost from personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry. Beyond standing beside LaHood as he announced his re-election bid, Henry has not supported the incumbent monetarily this year.
LaHood worked as a prosecutor in Bexar, LaSalle, Wilson, Karnes, and Medina counties, according to his website, and built a private law practice with his father.
Both LaHood and Gonzales are native San Antonians and graduates of St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Gonzales, 58, received $958,000 from the Texas Justice & Public Safety political action committee backed by liberal philanthropist, billionaire, and hedge fund mogul George Soros.
Gonzales and three other attorneys accused LaHood of threatening to destroy their law practices during a homicide case LaHood was prosecuting last spring. The judge presiding over the case testified that LaHood did make such statements, but LaHood denied it in his testimony. This threat, and other disagreements on how the district attorney’s office should be run, led Gonzales to launch his campaign, he told the Rivard Report Tuesday night.
“That was the last straw,” he said of the incident. “You can tolerate a lot of things, but to me a lack of integrity is everything. I remember my mother saying, ‘You do the right thing even when no one is looking.’ And when he testified that the didn’t make the threat even though a district judge heard him, that was it for me. I cannot let that go.”
Gonzales said he has always wanted to be a district attorney, but the timing this year wasn’t ideal as his daughter, Marisa, is headed off to college soon.
“They allowed me to disrupt their lives,” he said of Marisa and his wife, Yvonne, as they stood next to him during his victory speech. “They allowed me to follow my dreams.”
Facing Shaeffer in the general election will require a different strategy, Gonzales told the Rivard Report.
“We’re going to be looking at what we need to do to get the message out to the independent voters and even those that are not traditionally Democrat,” he said.
There’s a lot of uncharted ground between now and November, Flores said. “Who knows, for instance, what’s going to transpire between [other candidates in other races] … who knows what’s going to happen with Trump – there’s a lot of conservatives that have tied themselves to his coattails.”
Gonzales and public health officials have cited LaHood’s controversial support of the anti-vaccination movement as cause for concern.
Previously, Gonzales has worked as assistant district attorney in Bexar County and assistant criminal district attorney in Harris County in the 1990s. He came back to San Antonio and served as a magistrate and municipal judge for the City of San Antonio for seven years, according to his website. He opened his private firm 22 years ago.
LaHood will finish out the rest of his term with honor, he said, refusing to be a “lame duck” district attorney.
“I’m going to keep loving my kids, I’m going to keep serving people,” he said. “I’m going to make a difference in lives, we’ve made a difference in a lot of lives – things that you don’t see and doesn’t get before the cameras every day. I’m just going to keep on serving for another nine months.”
As for his political career, LaHood said he doesn’t know what comes next. “I’ll follow a calling, as I’m called to it at the right time.”
This story was originally published on March 6, 2018.