South Texas U.S. House candidate Tony Gonzales launched run before leaving Navy, filings show

click to enlarge Tony Gonzales is the Republican candidate in the race to represent Texas' 23rd House District. - Twitter / @TonyGonzales4TX
Twitter / @TonyGonzales4TX
Tony Gonzales is the Republican candidate in the race to represent Texas' 23rd House District.
Federal filings and statements at a recent debate raise questions whether Tony Gonzales, now running for the South Texas seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, launched his campaign before leaving the U.S. Navy.

Under Defense Department regulations, active duty military personnel are prohibited from running for office unless they obtain special permission to do so.

Gonzales — who's facing Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran, to represent the sprawling 23rd District — filed to run on May 15, 2019, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. However, his discharge paperwork from the Navy is dated August 7, 2019, nearly three months after he filed to seek office.

Gonzales' campaign responded to an inquiry about his filing date by forwarding a letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel stating that he'd been cleared of a complaint that his candidacy violates the Hatch Act. That act governs political work by federal civilian employees of the executive branch.

Campaign spokesman Matt Mackowiak said it's unclear who requested the federal investigation of Gonzales' candidacy. He offered no other comment on the timing of the candidate's FEC filing.

In a statement supplied to the Current, Jones campaign spokeswoman Sharon Yang said it's irrelevant whether Gonzales was cleared for violating Hatch act, adding that the timing of his run still breaches Defense Department rules.

"[T]his blatant violation of federal regulations is the latest example of Gonzales’ willingness to say or do anything to advance his own political ambitions, even at the expense of South and West Texans,” she said.

Announcements and debates

When Gonzales initially filed with the FEC, his plan was to chase the 35th District congressional seat now held by Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin-San Antonio. Gonzales discussed that campaign with the Express-News for a July 31, 2019 article, which stated that day would be "his last day in uniform."

Even so, a Facebook page created by Gonzales with a "Tony Gonzales for Congress" logo appeared on May 3, 2019, well in advance of him shifting shifting to civilian life, whether that change occurred on July 31 or August 7 of that year.

During an October 13 debate that's scheduled to air Sunday on an El Paso TV station, Gonzales again stated that July 31, 2019, was the date he left the service. The statement drew a sharp comeback from Jones.

"July 4 of last year, I was in active duty, and I was recovering [in] BAMC in a surgery that I had that almost killed me," Gonzales says on an audio recording of the debate obtained by the Current. "I was active duty military. ... I retired July 31 of last year after 20 years of honorable service."

On the recording, Jones responds that Gonzales filed his election paperwork in May. "So, he just admitted that he violated federal regulations by filing for federal office while he was still on active duty," she says. "You heard it from him himself."

"I filed on August 4th," Gonzales fires back. "Go ahead, look it up all day long."

While the Gonzales campaign did file FEC paperwork on August 5, 2019, that document simply amended his existing May 15, 2019 filing to switch the district from Doggett's 35th to the 23rd. That amendment occurred four days after Hurd announced his retirement.

Accusations and acrimony

The allegation that Gonzales filed before leaving active duty is the latest potshot in an increasingly acrimonious campaign to represent a swing district that, before Hurd's three-term tenure, regularly flipped between red and blue.

Jones' campaign has accused Gonzales of making false accusations in TV ads that she doesn't live in the district. The Gonzales claimed Jones lives in Washington D.C., where she owns a condo, even though she resides in a San Antonio home owned by her mother.

Jones' campaign maintains that the Republican candidate's statements about her place of residence, coupled with the timing of his FEC filing, show his eagerness to advance his own political ambitions at any cost.

"Gonzales filed to run for Congress in Texas’ 35th Congressional District months before he was discharged from active duty in clear violation of Department of Defense regulations, and then went on television and lied directly to voters about it during the most recent debate with Air Force veteran and San Antonio native Gina Ortiz Jones," Yang said in a statement. 

Despite the campaign's escalating rhetoric, Trinity University Political Science Professor Juan Sepulveda said it's been difficult for both sides to break through the clutter this election season. In the end, Jones' close run against Hurd in 2018 — she came within 1,000 votes — is likely to give her the upper hand thanks to name recognition, he added.

"The challenge for both them during a presidential cycle — especially one this high profile — is that it's difficult to get anyone to pay attention to a down ballot race," Sepulveda said.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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