DA's race will show impact of gun control and abortion access on election
Marc LaHood stood smiling at a podium surrounded by family and law enforcement late last month and accepted another endorsement from public safety unions in his race for Bexar County District Attorney.
LaHood has collected endorsements of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, the statewide police union CLEAT and the Bexar County Probation Officers Union. His message is that the Democratic incumbent, Joe Gonzales, is not tough enough.
“Criminal justice ends at the DA’s office. If we have a DA’s office that is soft on crime, that is not enforcing the law. That is picking and choosing what laws to enforce. We have issues,” he said.
LaHood and his campaign have attacked Gonzales’ marijuana cite and release program that kept an estimated 6,200 people out of jail and instead issued tickets for possession.
He attacked what he calls the DAs office “failure to work with law enforcement” — likely a reference to communication issues that have delayed evidence delivery to attorneys, ensnaring cases in constant resets.
Gonzales beat LaHood's brother, former Democratic DA Nico LaHood, in a 2018 primary.
Other than a smattering of attempts to connect his race to larger issues like immigration (“Joe Biden’s Failed Immigration policy,” etc.), much of his messaging revolves around local administration.
“Family violence cases are being dismissed 60%. It's gone up 60%. Family domestic violence case dismissals are up 32%. Unresolved case rate is up 40%. Those are facts here in Bexar County. Those aren't my facts. Those are objective facts,” Gonzales said in a recent debate on TPR’s "The Source."
The incumbent has had real concerns in administering justice. A year-long court shutdown mired his office in tens of thousands of backlogged cases. He has many open prosecutor positions and many new, untested prosecutors going into the courtroom.
His relationship with SAPD — the largest enforcement body referring cases to his office — is reputedly frosty. Gonzales came into the job promising reform and police accountability. He said he never wanted the endorsement or assistance of police union organizers, calling it a “conflict of interest.”
LaHood espouses a back to basics, aggressive law enforcement stance at a time when the murder rate is higher.
However, regardless of his argument that Gonzales is soft on crime, voters may wonder if locally focused campaign messages, relying on tried and true “tough on crime” talking points, are enough in light of tragic nearby events and attacks on civil rights.
For many voters, the everyday reality of how the DA’s office runs and its problems — real or perceived — is outweighed by national concerns.
Gonzales has tried to tap into those sentiments. For example, he has been outspoken on the issue of abortion access. The Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade has activated many voters and is expected to nationally blunt Republican gains.
“I'm outraged that we now have Roe v. Wade, which was settled law for about 50 years, now has taken away a woman's right to choose,” Gonzales said during a recent women's rights rally the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Gonzales said he couldn’t see prosecuting the cases and would instead continue to focus on violent crime.
“We should be focusing our resources on cases involving murder and sexual assault. It doesn't seem just to me to spend any time considering whether or not we're going to be prosecuting a woman for making a very personal decision to seek abortion care,” Gonzales said on "The Source."
LaHood has been clear he will prosecute crimes on the books, including Texas trigger ban. He said there was not a statute that allowed prosecution of would-be mothers in abortion cases. But he was critical of Gonzales “picking and choosing which laws to enforce.”
In Texas, those performing abortions or aiding people to get abortions can be sued, and one Texas woman has been arrested for attempting an abortion. The case was later dismissed.
The feeling that abortion rights are on the ballot is undeniable, and the two seem to represent two different approaches to the issue.
Add to that the deaths of 19 children at Robb Elementary, just 85 miles away in Uvalde, which are still on the minds of many locals. This brings gun control to the ballot as well. Both issues bolster the Gonzales campaign.
“I think in a way that can't be undone,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston. “These local elected officials, especially those in the criminal justice field, are connected to these global factors, and it's hard to be able to disentangle them.”
Gun control helps Democrats gain in Latino communities, and abortion access is popular with suburban women, Rottinghaus said. A UT Austin Texas Politics Project poll showed overwhelming support for abortion access in many cases.
Even on down ballot races, these issues of national concern are going to affect down ballot races, he explained. They are far more personal and activating than how the DA’s office is managed.
According to Rottinghaus, the old adage has been flipped on its head — all politics is now national.
Additional reporting contributed by Brian Kirkpatrick