(from left): Tylden Shaeffer, Republican candidate for Bexar County District Attorney, and his Democratic opponent Joe Gonzales participate in a forum at Texas A&M-San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Democrat Joe Gonzales and Republican Tylden Shaeffer met for a forum Wednesday afternoon at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where they answered questions about family violence, immigrants, and diversion programs.

Though the two attorneys are competing for the Bexar County district attorney seat in the Nov. 6 election, they voiced a few similar opinions Wednesday. Both want to investigate root causes and help prevent instances of family violence and agree the relationship between law enforcement and communities needs to be mended.

Gonzales, who beat incumbent District Attorney Nico LaHood in the March primary, stressed his dedication to criminal justice reform, including a plan to revamp the pretrial diversion program that keeps people accused of low-level crimes out of jail.

Shaeffer said he would have the resolve to seek the death penalty and accused Gonzales of changing his mind on the issue. Gonzales said earlier in the race he was against the death penalty, but later said he would seek it in rare cases.

“Having a DA who is able and willing to seek the death penalty is critical, because there are some crimes so heinous and evil that that is what we must seek,” Shaeffer said.

Gonzales said he would only seek the death penalty under extreme circumstances. Studies show the death penalty does not act as an effective deterrent to crime, he argued, and life without parole already takes criminals out of the public sphere.

“You’re seeking to end that person’s life,” Gonzales said. “I do not believe it is a deterrent, and that’s why it’s a last resort.”

While Gonzales said he thinks providing a “sanctuary city” environment gives undocumented immigrants peace of mind, Shaeffer voiced firm support of enforcing Senate Bill 4, which allows local law enforcement officials to question the immigration status of anyone they detain or arrest. The state law, which went into effect Sept. 1, 2017 and has been the subject of many lawsuits, also threatens officials with fines and removal from office if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“The law of the land is if you have somebody in custody, then law enforcement is supposed to alert federal officials that that person is there if they do not have legal status in this city,” he said. “You’re asking law enforcement officers to break the law. You’re asking a law enforcement officer to treat that person better than a U.S. citizen.”

Shaeffer said SB 4 did nothing to change undocumented immigrants’ attitude toward law enforcement. He said since the 1990s, he has seen immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally be afraid of interacting with the court system or law enforcement.

“As far as intimidation of witnesses, it’s always been here, folks,” he said. “SB 4 did not change a thing.”

Gonzales blasted Shaeffer for comparing immigration enforcement in the ’90s to the climate surrounding the issue today, calling his claim “disingenuous.”

“When was the last time you heard of moms and kids being separated?” Gonzales asked.

Both candidates promised to bring “integrity” back to the district attorney’s office.

“I will bring a policy of restorative justice,” Gonzales said. “I will focus on being smart on crime.”

Shaeffer maintained he would not only stand firm in the use of the death penalty, but also his commitment to following edicts from the Texas Legislature.

“You should vote for me because I have done my homework, and I won’t violate the law,” he said. “Sanctuary cities are a violation of state law. Period.”

Early voting in Bexar County starts Oct. 22 and Election Day is Nov. 6.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.