Questions on abortion sparked passionate responses from Bexar County’s district attorney candidates, as well as the audience, at the San Antonio Report’s town hall-style debate Wednesday.
District Attorney Joe Gonzales flirted with the idea of flouting Texas law that criminalizes abortion, while challenger Marc LaHood said he would enforce all laws no matter how he or the public feels about them.
The audience for the debate at San Antonio College, which was moderated by Andrea Drusch, the Report’s political reporter, cheered and heckled the candidates throughout the hour-long event, but the candidates’ answers on abortion drew the loudest and most impassioned outbursts.
Last month, Texas’ law went into effect that makes performing an abortion a criminal felony punishable by up to life in prison, with only narrow exceptions to save the life of a pregnant patient. It also prohibits prosecuting the woman who gets the abortion. The law was triggered after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.
“My job is not to prosecute but to seek justice,” Gonzales said. “I don’t see the justice in prosecuting women for personal choice decisions like abortion.”
Gonzales shied away from saying outright that he wouldn’t prosecute abortion-related cases, however. He said he would use his discretion, and offered the hypothetical example of someone who forced a teenager to get an abortion as someone he would prosecute.
He acknowledged Texas law could allow the governor’s office to suspend him for that practice.
LaHood meanwhile indicated no specific reservations about enforcing the criminal abortion statutes. “The law is clear,” he said. “We don’t want our law enforcement to pick and choose what laws to enforce based on their personal beliefs.”
As to LaHood’s own personal beliefs, he said he is a Catholic. “My church teaches that abortion is murder.” He said his own personal beliefs would not be relevant if he were elected district attorney.
Like Gonzales, LaHood also said he could not give a blanket answer. He said he would evaluate abortion cases like any other. “Every case is based on the charges, the evidence and the history,” he said.
Gonzales was elected in 2018 after defeating embattled incumbent Nico LaHood in the Democratic Party primary. Gonzales’ challenger is Nico LaHood’s brother, who is running as a Republican.
In the last midterm election cycle, Bexar County’s district attorney race became a top target for progressives, who spent roughly $1 million to help elect Gonzales in 2018.
During the debate, LaHood repeatedly criticized Gonzales’ cite-and-release program. The program has stopped roughly 6,200 low-level offenders from being arrested. Most were for marijuana possession, according to Gonzales’ office.
“We know crime is on the rise,” LaHood said. “Criminals aren’t being held accountable.”
LaHood, who has been endorsed by the sheriff’s deputies union and by CLEAT, the largest police officers’ union in the state, advocated for what’s known as “broken window” policing.
“If we don’t address low-level offenses, they only escalate,” he said. He criticized Gonzales’ guidelines that discourage some criminal trespassing cases.
Under Gonzales, who has been praised by Sheriff Javier Salazar, a fellow Democrat, the district attorney’s office has a policy of rejecting criminal trespass charges for non-residential properties when the suspect is homeless and has no prior violent history.
At the debate, Gonzales emphasized that the policy was in response to a man who died in custody for trespassing charges. Gonzales said homelessness is a societal problem “you can’t criminalize away.”