San Antonio DA Nico LaHood, an Anti-Islam, Pro-Death Penalty Democrat, Faces Former Pal in Primary
He’s a death-penalty championing, Islam-bashing vaccine skeptic who believes the U.S. is “rooted in Christian principles.” And he’s currently campaigning for re-election in Texas as the district attorney of Bexar County, a populous county of nearly two million residents, close to 60 percent of whom are Hispanic — as a Democrat.
But Nico LaHood isn’t just a conservative Democrat. He is more ideologically aligned with Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott and President Trump than he is with members of his own party. His opponent in the March 6 Democratic primary next month is local San Antonio defense attorney Joe Gonzales, who has called LaHood a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Gonzales used to be LaHood’s friend and business partner. But now he says that rank-and-file Democrats “would be shocked” if they heard some of the things LaHood has said and done.
In the summer of 2016, for instance, LaHood appeared on the conservative Joe Pags’s nationally syndicated radio show, based in San Antonio, and called Islam a “horrifically violent” religion, claiming Muslims “tried to set up a Sharia court” near Dallas. LaHood was simply repeating a debunked news item published by Breitbart, which the Houston Chronicle dubbed the “Texas Hoax of the Year” in 2015.
Meanwhile, in a 2016 appearance on the Doc Owen Show, a Trump-supporting conservative radio program out of Texas, LaHood warned of the “dangers” of Sharia law, saying it mandated the death of gay people, that women were treated like property and could be beaten for insubordination, and that it sanctioned genital mutilation. “Let’s talk about Islam,” he added, shifting gears to immigration. “I am not supportive of bringing in a bunch of refugees without any type of background check. And we cannot background check them,” he said. “There’s no way.”
He’s been equally outspoken on vaccines. To coincide with the April 2016 release of the documentary Vaxxed, directed by disgraced former British doctor Andrew Wakefield about his (later found to be fraudulent) research paper on the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, LaHood positioned himself as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement. From behind an office desk, Lahood appeared in a video posted to Wakefield’s Autism Media Channel Facebook page, saying: “I’m the criminal district attorney in San Antonio, Texas. I’m here to tell you that vaccines can and do cause autism.” LaHood then talked about his own son, whose autism, he believes, was caused by vaccines.
“His position on vaccines actually could harm public safety and health,” wrote Brian Chasnoff, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News in August 2016. Chasnoff quoted the president of the San Antonio Pediatric Society, Dr. Sharvari Parghi, who reportedly addressed LaHood’s comments without naming the DA. Vaccines are “the ONLY way to prevent threatening diseases such as measles, mumps, polio and rubella amongst many other diseases,” Parghi said. A year later, after other critical articles, LaHood barred the Express-News from press briefings.
But it’s not just LaHood’s controversial statements that have critics riled up. Last year, allegations of misconduct were leveled against him when he prosecuted a murder case. LaHood’s former friend Gonzales, who was representing the defendant in the case, claimed that a prosecutor from LaHood’s office withheld exculpatory evidence about a previous sexual encounter between a witness and a fellow prosecutor. He also claimed LaHood threatened to destroy the legal practice of Gonzales and co-counsel Christian Henricksen if they pursued the claim in court.
The presiding judge in the case said she’d heard LaHood threaten the defense attorneys, calling it an unprofessional rant that could be subject to sanction in another tribunal. The Express-News weighed in, saying the state bar should step up after a complaint is filed. In its January 2018 issue, Texas Monthlymagazine bestowed on LaHood the dubious distinction of “bum steer” — its annual effort to poke fun at Texas politicians and policies — specifically citing his threat to “shut down” Gonzales’s legal practice.
Since then, the bad blood between LaHood and Gonzales seems only to have worsened. At the beginning of February, LaHood accused Gonzales of specializing in defending clients accused of child abuse. Afterward, a political action committee backing Gonzales and funded by the billionaire George Soros sent a direct mailer to voters with a cut-out picture of LaHood’s head on a shrugging body that accused him of being prejudiced and intolerant.
LaHood asked members of the public in a campaign ad what people like Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and Soros all had in common. The answer? “They all want Joe Gonzales to be the DA of Bexar County.”
When LaHood isn’t gunning for his opponent, he is running a seemingly regressive DA’s office. Last summer, a report by local TV station Spectrum News showed that Bexar County’s jail population was bursting at the seams, at 98 percent capacity. There was also a surprising uptick in female prisoners facing minor drug charges or accused of prostitution, theft, or DWI.
Last fall, LaHood announced a new pilot program to deal with low-level misdemeanor offenses, such as driving without a license, theft of amounts under $750, or possession of less than four ounces of marijuana. But by the beginning of this year, the so-called cite-and-release program still hadn’t been launched. Five months after the announcement was made, LaHood’s office announced that the program would finally be implemented — albeit solely within the Bexar County sheriff’s office — and that it would expand in the future, but that it was not mandatory for law enforcement agencies.
On the death penalty, he has said the justice system should “be swift,” adding that in Texas, “we have something called capital punishment. It doesn’t get any swifter than that.” But the opposite is true. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle last year found that 13 percent of Texas death row prisoners wait 25 years or more for execution, nearly a decade above the national average. LaHood has also said he favors Texas’s controversial law of parties, which allows juries to sentence a co-defendant involved in a crime that results in murder to death even if that person didn’t know the crime was going to happen.
And his stance on sanctuary cities and immigration is murky at best. While he urged Texas Governor Greg Abbott to veto SB 4, legislation that would outlaw sanctuary cities, he said he understood “the spirit of what the governor was trying to do, and I appreciate it.”
Despite criticism, LaHood is still the frontrunner, according to David Crockett, chair of the department of political science at Trinity University in San Antonio. He said LaHood’s biggest challenge is the primary against Gonzales, but if he wins that, he’ll have the upper hand against his Republican opponent in the midterms. “Barring something really strange happening, the incumbent has the edge,” Crockett said, “even in his fight for the nomination with the other Democrat.” When it comes to the general election, Crockett added, LaHood’s party affiliation is a boost. “With a Trump presidency, Democrats will gain ground and a bunch of them will be elected in Bexar county … expect Republicans to be on the defensive.”
Ironically, when LaHood unseated Republican incumbent Susan Reed after her 16-year reign as DA in 2014, it was a year in which Obama was still in the White House. “It should not have been a Democratic year because Obama lost ground in the midterm elections,” Crockett said, “but LaHood had some high-profile endorsements.” These included San Antonio Spurs basketball team members Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
He also had at least one donor with very deep pockets. According to the Express-News, LaHood raised about $1.2 million for his 2014 race from Texas-based personal injury lawyer Thomas J. Henry. This time, the newspaper reports, he received $100,000 from Martin Phipps PLLC, whose law firm is representing the county in a suit against opioid manufacturers. Gonzales, meanwhile, has accepted nearly $1 million in donations from a political action committee funded by Soros.
Regardless of whether LaHood’s opponents see him as a DINO — a Democrat In Name Only — Crockett said candidates for DA have to give people a compelling reason to vote contrary to how they voted four years earlier. “LaHood is a personality,” he said. “And people don’t necessarily dislike personalities.”