SAN ANTONIO — Last March, Nicholas LaHood, a criminal defense lawyer known as “Nico,” was a candidate on the ropes. In his bid to become Bexar County’s next district attorney, he had squeaked past a challenger in the Democratic primary by just 47 votes.
By July, with only $15,000 in campaign money, LaHood appeared to stand little chance of mounting a serious challenge in his second bid to unseat a 16-year Republican incumbent, Susan Reed.
But by September, the fortunes of LaHood, a 42-year-old with a well-publicized criminal past, had turned. Just before the primary, a friend had introduced LaHood to Thomas J. Henry, a wealthy personal injury lawyer in Corpus Christi known for a series of 2014 Super Bowl ads that featured the 52-year-old walking marbled hallways and exiting a private jet.
“My friend said, ‘He’s someone who can donate. I didn’t know what that meant,’ ” LaHood wryly recalled. During an hour-long pitch in Henry’s downtown Corpus Christi offices, about 150 miles from San Antonio, LaHood said Bexar County prosecutors needed better training because they were being “outlawyered.” Then, he said, he struck a topic apparently dear to Henry’s heart: rising crime in San Antonio, particularly the high number of child abuse cases.
Henry made no commitment. “He said, ‘I’ll get back to you. Let me look into this,’ ” LaHood recounted. “He played it close to the vest.”
Since then, according to campaign finance disclosure reports, Henry has poured $694,000 into LaHood’s campaign — a princely sum for a county race, even in a state with no limits on campaign contributions in most races. A successful Bexar County district attorney’s campaign generally runs about $400,000.
LaHood called the cash infusion a “blessing” that would help his campaign “get the message out” in radio and television ads. A down-ballot race in a nonpresidential year typically draws fewer Democrats to the polls.
And Henry said more money will be coming in the final weeks before the Nov. 4 general election.
Reed, who is seeking her fifth term, has been a “pretty formidable” candidate, said Walter Wilson, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, adding of LaHood, “He’s hoping a low information electorate will be more familiar with the ads and that will be enough for him to defeat Reed.”
Campaign finance reports filed earlier this month showed that LaHood had collected more than $851,000 in contributions and spent more than $157,000. Reed had brought in just over $101,000 and spent $305,000.
Reed easily defeated a Libertarian opponent in her first re-election bid in 2002 and trounced a Democrat in 2006. Her first race against LaHood came in 2010, when she beat him by 23,000 votes. Reed had stressed LaHood’s pre-law-school arrest in 1994 for selling 200 Ecstasy pills to an undercover police officer in a strip club. LaHood openly discusses his crime, which resulted in probation.
“I don’t make excuses of 21 years ago,” LaHood said. “I’m proud of who I am today. I’m not proud of 21 years ago.”
Reed, who has continued to emphasize LaHood’s past, also assailed the contributions from Henry — the most he has given to a single political committee or candidate, according to Texas Ethics Commission records going back to 2000.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a candidate with any moral compass who would accept $700,000 from one donor,” Reed said.
The editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News, which had endorsed Reed, noted its own uneasiness with LaHood’s financing. “This amount pumped into a single local campaign by a single source — any single source — is troubling,” the editorial said.
Wilson said that such a large assist from a single source would only make a successful candidate beholden to the donor.
“This is the kind of contribution that access can buy,” he said, noting that Henry’s contributions to LaHood so far were more than 250 times the maximum individual donation allowed to a federal candidate in an election.
LaHood defends the contributions. "Everything is out in the open," he said. "Everything we're doing is within the parameters of the law."
It was LaHood’s stance on prosecuting child abuse, Henry said, that prompted his financial support. “I deal with a lot of different causes, and I help a lot of people, but this is the only cause that I’ve been involved in that’s gotten the most attention,” Henry said. “And it may be one of the most important causes.”
Reed has long been a tough-on-crime candidate, and her anti-drunken driving message has resonated with voters.
“It’s such an issue in Bexar County,” said Reed, who oversees 170 prosecutors. “We’ve been known as the DWI capital of Texas.”
Reed, a former state district judge, emphasizes that during her tenure she has made a drunken-driving charge harder to beat, with blood now drawn from anyone suspected of it in Bexar County.
LaHood has tried to refocus the campaign on child abuse in the county, which state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, has long held is a serious problem.
“We have the highest rate of confirmed abuse and neglect cases, as of 2013,” said Uresti, who said he has given money to LaHood’s campaign.
In 2013, Bexar County had 3,348 confirmed child abuse and neglect cases, accounting for 5,846 victims — just 83 fewer than Harris County, which includes Houston and had the most in the state, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
LaHood’s campaign and Henry have made much of the fact that of those confirmed cases, only 803 were prosecuted the same year.
“If you effectively mete out justice, then I believe those rates can be reduced,” Henry said.
But Reed has pointed out that only 803 cases had been referred to her office. She also said that most of the 3,348 confirmed cases involved neglect incidents which would not result in criminal charges. In the only appearance both candidates have made together, on Oct. 10 on KLRN television’s Texas Week, Reed also said that not every confirmed case of abuse zeroed in accurately on a suspect.
“I prosecute the cases that are brought to me,” she said on the program. “Am I supposed to prosecute someone who is not guilty?"
For more than a decade, Reed said, her office has helped police and social workers increase reporting of child abuse cases.
The election will tell if LaHood’s expensive advertising blast, courtesy of Henry, has been money well spent.
“I was honored by his commitment,” LaHood said of Henry.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.