Composite / Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
After defense attorney Joe Gonzales trounced incumbent Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood in the Democratic primary election, he told his supporters, “We’re only halfway there.” In eight months, voters will see his name and that of Republican candidate Tylden Shaeffer on the general election ballot.
Shaeffer, also a defense attorney, ran unopposed in the Republican primary but paid close attention to the Democrats’ race.
“We knew the results at 7:01,” Shaeffer said of the early vote totals posted Tuesday evening. At that point, Gonzales led LaHood by about 22 percentage points, a spread that narrowed to 18 by the time all votes were counted. LaHood, however, conceded defeat hours before that.
Each with experience on both sides of a courtroom and decades spent working in San Antonio, Gonzales and Shaeffer agree on some issues, but none as strongly as the belief that LaHood’s brazen behavior as DA was inappropriate and seeped into the culture of the office.
“The lack of respect starts at the top,” Gonzales told the Rivard Report. “We want to change that culture.”
“I think this community is ready for somebody to be in that office [whom] we don’t have to worry about,” Shaeffer said. “The DA has to set the tone on character.”
LaHood and Gonzales waged vigorous campaigns that turned sharply negative in television, print, online, and direct-mail advertisements. Gonzales compared LaHood to President Donald Trump, and LaHood accused Gonzales of being soft on sex crimes. Neither candidate claimed responsibility for a 5 a.m. anti-Gonzales robocall that went out to voters on election day.
“No, this is not going to get dirty,” Shaeffer said of his campaign against Gonzales.
The two worked together in the DA’s office early in their careers, they said, more than 20 years ago. Neither would characterize their relationship as either friendly or frosty.
“I think it’s going to be a different sort of race,” Gonzales said. “I believe it’s going to be a civil contest. … I’m hoping we can focus on the issues.”
But there’s already a possible partisan fight brewing.
Gonzales’ campaign received almost $1 million from a political action committee funded by liberal philanthropist and billionaire investor George Soros.
“Last cycle we had a newcomer to San Antonio drop $1.2 million on the challenger,” Shaeffer said of Corpus Christi attorney Thomas J. Henry, who contributed to LaHood’s campaign. “Now we have someone who doesn’t even live in Texas fund what he thinks is best for us.”
Gonzales said he isn’t sure whether Soros’s group will make further contributions to his campaign. “We hope that it continues.”
Regardless, he said, the money was and will be used for his own message, not that of Soros’ Texas Justice & Public Safety PAC.
“This time we want our message to reach the entire electorate,” Gonzales said. “I believe it’s going to come down to whether the voter is reform-minded. … An elected official has to be open-minded, especially when it comes to fighting crime.”
Gonzales emphasizes the need for lower bail costs, jail diversion programs, and cracking down on domestic violence. He’s not opposed to the death penalty but said he’s “not a firm believer” in it.
“That’s not to say that I would never use it, but I would use it with extreme amounts of caution,” he said, noting the possibility of wrongful conviction. “If you make an error, you can’t bring that [person] back to life.”
Shaeffer says he has an open mind on reform, but he took a stronger stance on the death penalty. “There [are] some times that a person needs to be taken out of society” and removed even from the prison population and staff. “Why would we subject people to that kind of evil?”
However, he agreed that when seeking the death penalty, a prosecutor needs to be “extremely careful … I don’t take it lightly.
“If you’re going to be the chief prosecutor in the county, you have to use all the tools available to you,” Shaeffer said. “If you’re too scared to act, then you’re going to be paralyzed.”
Prosecuting death penalty cases is not a matter of fear, Gonzales said. “There is too much room for human error. If I’m going to consider the death penalty, it’s going to be an extreme situation. It’s going to be the exception to the rule,” he added. “We still have the ability to seek life without parole.”
With years of appeals that typically follow a death sentence, the process of seeing a death penalty case through to the end is expensive, Gonzales said.
He and Shaeffer also have different views when it comes to enforcement of the so-called “anti-sanctuary cities” state laws that were established with Senate Bill 4 – some elements of which are temporarily in effect while an appeals court considers challenges.
“We want to educate the prosecutors on the significance and the consequences [for] non-citizens that come into the justice system,” Gonzales said. “We want to make sure prosecutors are aware that if they offer a plea bargain, that’s going to expose someone to deportation. … Sometimes you have to look at collateral consequences when deciding what is the appropriate punishment.”
In January, the state launched an investigation into how the San Antonio Police Department handled the arrest of a human trafficker and subsequent release of 12 immigrants. Some state officials said that those being trafficked should have been handed over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) instead of to local immigrant services groups.
Gonzales said Police Chief William McManus “made the right call” in releasing the victims.
“[McManus] determined these individuals did not commit a crime. … It’s not our job to do ICE’s job for them,” he said, noting that Homeland Security officials were on the scene and could have made arrests.
Non-citizens should not have to “hide in the shadows” because they fear deportation, Gonzales said.
“It’s not an absurd proposition that you would call ICE,” if local law enforcement came across someone in the country illegally, Shaeffer said.
The fear of deportation and its chilling effect on undocumented people’s willingness to communicate with police is not a new phenomenon, he added. “That has been a problem in law enforcement for decades.”
Shaeffer said if a similar situation arose, as DA he would be concerned about releasing victims before getting critical testimony from them. “What have we just done? We’ve made it impossible to prosecute this human trafficker.”
Gonzales called this unfair. “They shouldn’t be incarcerated because you’re holding them as potential victims to a crime.”
The candidates did agree, however, that as DA, they will follow and enforce the law – however the Legislature – or in this case, the court system – prescribes.
During his primary campaign, Gonzales emphasized the need for bail reform and diversion programs that focus on rehabilitation over incarceration. That will continue into the general election, he said.
“As a true Democrat, it’s important to me to give everybody a fair shot at the administration of justice,” he said. “And it just does not sound right that someone should languish in jail while they’re waiting for court just because they can’t afford to bond out.”
When a person is charged with a nonviolent offense and have little or no criminal history, “then I don’t see why we can’t agree to [personal recognizance] bonds so that these people can be released to go back to work, and then we’ll see them when they have their day in court.”
Shaeffer is hesitant to tamper with the bail system, he said, noting that setting bail is up to judges, with the DA making recommendations.
“[But] I’m open to looking at all solutions,” he said. “I’m conservative, but I am forward-thinking. … There is a real need to have these people show up [for court] when they need to … but there is going to be an element of compassion in the situation.”
Financially, it might make sense, he said. “Someone sitting in jail costs us all money, and it may not solve anything,” adding, “I’m going to trust the prosecutors that I put into place to use their discretion.”
Like Gonzales, Shaeffer also believes that more resources need to be dedicated to prosecuting domestic and sexual violence. The unit that handles such cases has been “watered down” with caseloads involving other types of crimes, he said.
“For victims, there has been a feeling that they don’t have a go-to person to talk to,” Shaeffer said, adding that a more efficient office would decrease the number of times victims would have to recount traumatic experiences.
Expanding diversionary programs for youth, veterans, those with mental illness, and people who are addicted to drugs is also key, Gonzales said.
“A lot of times the root cause of criminal activity is because they’re hooked on drugs, and that’s something that my opponent [LaHood] distorted when I talked about prosecuting prostitution cases,” he said. “My concern was that a lot of times [women and men] that are charged with prostitution are victims of human trafficking or they’re addicted to drugs.”
Shaeffer agreed that Gonzales’ suggestions for diversion programs was misconstrued by LaHood’s campaign. Shaeffer is specifically interested in seeing programs to help those with mental illness and veterans avoid jail time while addressing underlying issues.
“The issue is why does crime occur? What makes someone do something, and then what is the best position to take on a particular case?” Shaeffer said. That answer could lie in incarceration or rehabilitation.
Whatever the path, Shaeffer said, “This is not about national politics. This is law enforcement. This is the criminal justice system. …. There are no easy fixes to all these problems.”