Republican runoff in battleground congressional district turns explosive with focus on sex trafficking in Fort Bend County

Republican runoff in battleground congressional district turns explosive with focus on sex trafficking in Fort Bend County

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

The Republican primary runoff for a Houston-area congressional seat that national Democrats are targeting has come to an explosive home stretch over allegations that one of the candidates, a sheriff, did not take sex trafficking seriously.

Over the weekend, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls’ opponent, Kathaleen Wall, launched a TV ad featuring a prominent sex-trafficking survivor, Courtney Litvak, and her family blasting Nehls. It is the second ad released by Wall in recent weeks questioning Nehl’s commitment to battling human trafficking.

Both ads are partially based on a pair of Houston Chronicle articles in recent years highlighting Nehls’ reluctance to label human trafficking as a widespread problem in Fort Bend County. Nehls argues he has stayed on top of the problem.

In the minute-long ad released this weekend, Litvak’s father is visibly angry as he addresses the sheriff directly.

“I’d love to look you in the eye and have you tell me how you can possibly sit there and not do your job and not protect my family because that’s what you’ve done for years,” he says.

Wall’s campaign is also airing a 30-second TV ad featuring only Courtney Litvak sharing her story, calling Nehls a “disgrace” who “should not be sheriff, let alone in Congress.” Both spots with the Litvaks are running in the pricey Houston broadcast market.

On Tuesday, Nehls forcefully pushed back against the Litvak family ad in a Facebook post, saying the idea that his office ignored or turned a blind eye to sex trafficking cases is “an ABSOLUTE LIE.”

“As Sheriff, I’ve jailed sex traffickers, I’ve established a local 24/7 human trafficking hotline, I’ve closed down numerous illicit massage parlors, which are known to be a hub for sex trafficking, and I’ve requested and received funding for two additional detectives who specialize in human trafficking investigations,” he wrote.

Nehls also said he has “never met or spoken to” Courtney Litvak and while his office handled her case at one point, her family was “completely uncooperative.” Nehls added that his human-trafficking record “is clear but Kathaleen Wall is distorting it for political gain because she has no record and no accomplishments.”

The events have marked an incendiary turn in the race for the 22nd District — and could have reverberations in the general election, where Democrats were already waiting to make an issue out of Nehls’ law enforcement career.

Nehls and Wall are competing for the nomination to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. The seat is among seven that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting this November in Texas, and it ranks high on that list. Democratic nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni is among three candidates across those seven districts that the DCCC has enrolled in its Red to Blue program for top recruits.

Nehls finished first in the 15-way GOP primary in March, earning 41% of the vote to 19% for Wall. Nehls entered the runoff confident, touting a post-primary internal poll that had him crushing Wall.

Several days after the primary, the National Republican Congressional Committee gave Nehls a boost by naming him an “On the Radar” candidate, the first level of its Young Guns program for promising candidates. Since then, though, major endorsements in the race have been few and far between, save for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce getting behind Nehls earlier this month.

For Wall, the runoff represents an opportunity to avenge her embarrassing 2018 loss in the GOP primary for the nearby 2nd Congressional District. She narrowly missed a runoff there after self-funding to the tune of over $6 million.

This time around, Wall is self-funding again — $4.5 million as of the end of March — and has spent the runoff pouring more of her fortune into the campaign, including on attention-grabbing TV ads like the ones with the Litvaks. Earlier in the runoff period, she went up with a commercial embracing President Donald Trump’s scapegoating of China for the coronavirus pandemic, a spot that Democrats denounced as racist as well as tone-deaf in a racially diverse district.

Wall shifted her focus to Nehls’ record on human trafficking in recent weeks, first with a TV ad in which Fort Bend County Constable Wayne Thompson, a Nehls rival locally, criticized the sheriff’s human trafficking record, saying he has “allowed it to get much worse.” The ad cites a Chronicle article, published in April 2019, that said Nehls “and his office have notoriously denied reports of human trafficking being as widespread a problem as other area law enforcement agencies have said it is, often using Harris County and Houston as examples to downplay the issue in Fort Bend County.”

Nehls told the Chronicle this month that Thompson was “lying through his teeth,” noting his office’s anti-trafficking efforts.

But the minute-long spot released over the weekend goes a step further, placing the family of a sex-trafficking survivor front and center. Litvak’s mom says in the commercial that Nehls “has publicly blamed and shamed our family” and her dad says Nehls “has the gall to re-victimize” them.

The ad does not give details to support those assertions, and neither Wall’s campaign nor Litvak’s family responded to messages seeking elaboration. Nehls has not specifically addressed those claims in multiple social media posts denouncing the ads.

Courtney Litvak’s story is well-known. She has said she met people at her Katy high school who groomed her and left home at 18 with people who trafficked her throughout the Houston area and across the country.

She and her mother now spearhead Childproof America, a nonprofit focused on shielding young people from sex trafficking.

The mother and daughter have worked with U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, on human trafficking legislation, and they met last year at the White House with Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter. Earlier this year, the president tapped Courtney Litvak to serve on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

Nehls said Tuesday that multiple Harris County law enforcement agencies, including a special human-trafficking unit, investigated Litvak’s allegations, but they did not bring any charges or make any arrests. After her parents reported the case to the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, Nehls said, veteran Lt. Brad Whichard “attempted to investigate the alleged crimes” but was not allowed access to the daughter.

“He was never able to speak to the daughter despite numerous attempts,” Nehls said.

As he pushes back against Wall’s claims, Nehls does not appear to have the resources to respond in kind. He had a paltry $24,000 cash on hand at the end of March, and while he attributed it to a fundraising suspension due to the coronavirus, he has much more recently suggested his campaign is hurting for money.

“I don’t have money to go on TV, I’m running a frugal grassroots campaign,” Nehls wrote Monday on Facebook.

Asked about Wall’s ad offensive during a forum Saturday, Nehls said he does not “really have the time or the energy or certainly I don’t have the resources to go out and try to combat every single attack.” That promptly drew a response from Wall.

“Man up, Troy Nehls,” she said in a statement. “If Texans can’t count on you to stand up to violent sex traffickers, how can we expect you to stand up to Nancy Pelosi and the liberals in Washington?”

The brutal offensive has the potential to further damage Nehls if he is the Republican nominee, and Democrats have wasted little time seizing on the intraparty chaos — and drawing attention to other parts of Nehls’ law enforcement record.

After the release of the Litvak ad, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started referring to Nehls as “fired cop Troy Nehls” for the first time, a reference to his termination from the Richmond Police Department in 1998. Nehls was fired from the Richmond Police Department in 1998 for a long list of violations, including destroying evidence, a chapter he has downplayed as small-town politics that did not keep him from becoming sheriff.

Kulkarni’s campaign on Saturday said the sex-trafficking ad was among three “crises” Nehls was facing ahead of the runoff. In a news release, Kulkarni’s campaign also pointed to Nehls’ criticism of Harris County’s mask mandate in mid-April — an order that has since been defanged by Gov. Greg Abbott — and the recent emergence of coronavirus inside Fort Bend County jails after Nehls previously boasted that it had not infected the facilities yet.

“Sheriff Nehls’s incompetence is why he was fired from being a police officer and rewarding his gross negligence with a promotion to Congress would put even more families at risk,” Kulkarni campaign manager Allen Chen said in a statement. “It’s clear that whenever Troy Nehls is in power, innocent people get hurt.

Source: Texas Tribune