A Trumpist Texas Sheriff is Running for Congress. If He Wins, His Brother Might Take Over the Sheriff’s Office.
Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls wants voters to send him to Congress despite his department’s history of jail deaths and allegations of racial-profiling.
In the years after a troubling number of suicides rocked his jail, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls did little to remedy the long-standing problems at his facility. Instead, he posted angry rants about President Trump on Facebook and faced accusations of racially profiling Latinx drivers. Nehls, 52, has served as the sheriff of the Texas county—a suburb of Houston home to more than 800,000 people—since 2012.
In 2017, Nehls took to Facebook to blast the “offensive display” of a local woman named Karen Fonseca who had a sign on her family’s truck reading “Fuck Donald Trump and fuck you for voting for him.” Nehls then threatened to charge Karen and her husband with disorderly conduct. Nehls later deleted the Facebook post and backed off the threats of charges after the ACLU of Texas wrote in a Facebook post “Sheriff Troy E. Nehls, Constitutional Law 101: You can’t ban speech just because it has ‘f@ck’ in it.”
This year, Nehls used Facebook to attack racial justice protesters. “God bless President Trump for taking action to reinstate law and order and God bless all our service members and law enforcement officers out on the streets tonight,” Nehls wrote in a June 1 Facebook post in which he cheered on the president’s decision to send federal agents into cities to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests.
Now, Nehls is seeking the Congressional seat in Texas’s 22nd District, which has, in years past (and through a few re-districtings), been represented by Ron Paul, Tom DeLay, and Pete Olson, the retiring incumbent. The district, which includes parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Harris counties, has been staunchly Republican historically, but is considered very competitive this year.
Even if Nehls is elected to Congress, his family may maintain its hold on the sheriff’s office. Nehls’ twin brother Trever Nehls has secured the Republican nomination to be the next sheriff of Fort Bend County.
Advocates for criminal legal reform are concerned that the brothers could end up controlling Fort Bend politics.
On October 16, a group of activists, including members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Libro Trafficante movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Houston gathered outside the Fort Bend County Justice Center to denounce the profiling Latinx drivers by Fort Bend County officers.
“This is under the administration of Sheriff Troy Nehls, who we have tried to interview several times,” LULAC and Libro Trafficante activist Tony Diaz said as a protester held a “Troy Nehls is a Racist” sign behind his head. “He should be speaking on this, he should be denouncing this, he should make this stop. Worse, we are in an election cycle — this could intimidate Latinos and others to even stray out of their house during the COVID-19 epidemic to vote.”
“How can you have the audacity,” Diaz added, “to not answer questions from our community and then run for office?”
Troy faces Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former Foreign Service officer, in the general election. Kulkarni nearly beat incumbent GOP Rep. Olson in 2018—because of that close race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has invested significant resources in Kulkarni’s 2020 run. Kulkarni has raised more than $4.5 million in the race—compared to Troy’s $1 million.
In the Fort Bend sheriff’s race, Trever’s opponent is Democrat Eric Fagan, a Black former officer with the Houston Police Department who once served on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s personal security detail. Among other proposals, Fagan says he’d like to outfit each Fort Bend officer with body-worn cameras and has promised to bring “progressive policing” to the department. (Trever has also pledged to make his officers wear body-cams if elected.)
“I believe that the Sheriff should create and implement policies that focus on reducing the county jail population and also have programs for inmates to participate in while incarcerated that will help them when they re-enter the community,” Fagan wrote on his campaign webpage.
The Nehls brothers have a long law enforcement lineage: their father Edwin and older brother Todd were both sheriffs in their native Dodge County, Wisconsin. (Despite their long histories in Texas, the brothers, who live next-door to one another, still talk in Wisconsinite accents.) Both later also served in the U.S. Army Reserves and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Nehls’ also served in police departments in Fort Bend County—Troy with the Richmond Police Department and Trever with Sugar Land Police. In 2017, KUHF, Houston’s NPR affiliate, obtained documents showing that Troy was fired from the Richmond Police in 1998 for a staggering list of offenses, including: improperly buying a wall-plaque with public money; not telling his dispatchers he’d gone to a restaurant while on-duty; taking an extra off-duty job after he’d been told not to and then “misleading” his superiors about it; repeatedly being warned to do more police work; “improperly” arresting someone; and destroying state evidence.
Neither of the Nehls brothers responded to requests for comment from The Appeal.
But what Troy lacked in basic crime-fight skills, he made up for in bravado. Troy has repeatedly made headlines for making outlandish comments in the press and on social-media, especially as the Trump years have dragged on. Political Research Associates, a self-described “social-justice think-tank,” included Troy on its list of sheriffs “affiliated with far-right and anti-immigrant networks” after a “Patriot-movement” website listed Troy as an ally in 2013.
After a Fort Bend County homeowner shot an alleged robber to death in 2016, Troy defended the homeowner—and told the shooter to “go back” to where he came from.
“Don’t come into Fort Bend County and start waving guns around because you could leave in a bag,” Troy said. “We don’t need thugs coming into this county and pulling handguns and trying to rob us for our possessions. So that’s my warning to the criminals here, you may want to go back to Harris County [Houston].”
But it is the string of deaths at Troy’s jail—not his rhetoric on social media and elsewhere—that has local advocates alarmed.
On Sept. 27, 2015, a 40-year-old man named Heriberto Coreas attempted suicide inside the Fort Bend jail. He was transported to a Houston hospital, but he died three days later. In response, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards told Troy that jail staff were not checking on incarcerated people at regular intervals, so the facility was at risk of failing to meet minimum standards for state inspection.
On November 3, 2015, Eugene Ethridge Jr., died by suicide at the Fort Bend jail while detained on a DWI charge. According to a lawsuit filed by Ethridge’s father, Eugene Sr., against Fort Bend County and Troy, Ethdrige Jr. frantically pressed an intercom button asking for help the morning he died, but a guard allegedly left his post for at least two hours and thus Ethridge Jr.’s cries for help went unheeded. (Ethridge Sr.’s lawsuit was later dismissed.)
The sheriff department has also attracted scrutiny for its conduct outside the jail. In a Hosuton Chronicle investigation published in July of this year, reporters found patterns of racial profiling in stops made by its narcotics task force. One officer, for example, pulled over Latinx drivers 98 percent of the time —and of the 187 people he searched, 185 were Latinx.
“This blatant act of racial profiling will not be tolerated in my administration,” Fagan, Trever Nehls’s opponent, writes on his campaign site. “It’s wrong and illegal.”
In a recent speech before the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce, Trever said he would “not tolerate any racial profiling—period” if elected to replace his brother.
Troy is now running a Trumpian, far-right campaign for Congress. This includes tweeting out a Breitbart News article in which U.S. Attorney General William Barr alleged that mail-in voting could lead to “fraud” and holding a campaign rally with Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, who once spoke at a convention for a white-supremacist group founded by Klansman David Duke.
After one of Troy’s primary opponents, far-right Christian conservative Kathaleen Wall, accused him of being soft on immigrants, he responded by posting an anti-immigration screed to his Facebook page.
“Let me set the record straight: I have never and will never support sanctuary cities,” Troy wrote. “Don’t just take my word, look at my record. In my 7 years as Sheriff, I’ve worked with ICE to detain over 2,500 criminal illegals for deportation processing—no one in this race, including Kathaleen Wall, can claim they’ve done more, or anything close, to addressing illegal immigration. My stance against sanctuary cities and against illegal immigration is undeniable.”
He added that he supports “President Trump 100 percent.”
In August, Troy attacked Kulkarni, his Democratic opponent, for taking donations from progressive organizations whom he said he support defunding the police. “In the most diverse county in the country, we don’t see tension between law-enforcement and the communities we serve,” he said, “because we work together and there’s a mutual respect.”
The following month, Troy released a television ad that depicted burning cars and called Kulkarni a “liberal extremist.”
“In congress, Troy Nehls will stand up to the anti-law-enforcement extremists and put our safety first,” intoned the ad’s narrator.
Trever, meanwhile, has kept his own political beliefs a bit closer to the vest (though in 2019 he tweeted an image of himself smiling next to the pro-Trump “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson while calling him a “great American.”) Trever’s pitch to voters seems to be that he’ll continue his brother’s policies. Troy and Trever have held joint campaign events and the pair shares a volunteer signup Facebook page. On October 13, Troy posted a joint campaign photo in which he and Trever seem impossible to even tell apart.
And during a recent speech before the local Chamber of Commerce, Trever mimicked some of his brother’s racially coded, anti-Houston language.
“I do not believe we want Harris County policies in Fort Bend County,” Trever said.