Ethics complaints and fake newspapers: Inside the wild Democratic primary for SD-19

TEXAS — Even by the standards of modern American politics, the race for Texas State Senate District 19 is getting ugly — and the main campaign hasn’t even started yet.

Instead, Xochil Peña Rodriguez and Roland Gutierrez, both Democratic candidates, are locked in a bitter run-off primary for the nomination for the massive Texas district, which stretches all the way from San Antonio to Brewster County. Early voting started on Monday.

Problems between the campaigns started as early as January, when one or more complaints were filed about the Rodriguez campaign with the Texas Ethics Commission. The campaign was cleared of one of those complaints last week, prompting a news release.

In the release, Rodriguez accused Gutierrez of being behind the “fraudulent” complaint against her. She also said he had created a “fake newspaper to further spread lies and misinformation to voters.”

The Gutierrez campaign says it was not behind the ethics complaint. In a statement, they said Rodriguez was not being “100% honest.”

The complaint alleged that Rodriguez had improperly reported campaign donations, according to KSAT News, a San Antonio TV station that gained access to the complaint and first reported on it. Unlike most court records, such complaints aren’t public unless there’s “a former hearing or a judicial proceeding,” according to state law.

It accused Rodriguez of not disclosing campaign donations from her father, Ciro Rodriguez, a former U.S. and Texas House representative and a current justice of the peace in San Antonio’s Bexar County. The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from using their name to “endorse another candidate for any public office,” though they are allowed to “attend political events” or “express his or her views on political matters.” State law also prevents judges from making political contributions.

Rodriguez says the donations came from her mother — not her father, and accused the Gutierrez campaign of engineering dishonest attacks against her.

KSAT News has run a number of critical stories about Rodriguez and her family — like in April, when they reported that her father was under investigation by the Texas attorney general’s office over salary increases. Or in June, when they questioned why he, as an active justice of the peace, was joining Rodriguez on the campaign trail.

The Texas AG declined to confirm, deny or comment on any possible investigations, citing office policy. In a statement, Rodriguez said Gutierrez had “decided to hide behind a mysterious PAC [political-action committee] to attack me and my family.”

“One look at their fraudulent complaint against my campaign makes it clear what they think about women — that a woman can’t make a decision about who she supports without the approval of her husband,” the statement added.

Rodriguez accused the Gutierrez campaign of dirty politics, including distributing a fake newspaper that disparaged her and her family to voters in the district. Under state law, political advertising must disclose that it is political advertising and include information on which person or political-action committee paid for it.

Instead, the San Antonio Post, as the newspaper was called, describes itself as “an independent newspaper” and “the voice of the people.” It has many of the trappings of a regular newspaper, from cartoons and a recipe to an advertisement for a San Antonio-area store. But much of the paper focused on what it described as “ongoing investigations” into Rodriguez and her family.

“What happens remains to be seen, but it does not look good,” one article concluded. “The San Antonio Post will continue looking into these ongoing investigations.”

Assumed-name records from Bexar County show that Chris Cantu, a spokesperson for the Gutierrez campaign, started the newspaper. And the address listed on those records match with the one on campaign finance filings for Gutierrez’ campaign.

When asked whether the campaign was involved with the paper, they did not address those allegations directly. Instead, in a statement responding to those allegations, they said they would see that the “Rodriguez Cartel” were “put in jail.”