Republicans and Democrats are charting two different paths in the race to replace Republican Trish DeBerry on the Bexar County Commissioners Court in November.

While Democrats quietly selected their candidate in February, Republicans are still deciding how to choose their nominee, leaving prospective candidates in the dark about how and when it will happen. 

“It’s a fluid situation,” said Jeff McManus, the incoming chair of the Republican Party of Bexar County. “There are no rules stipulated by the state or county as to how this should be done.”

DeBerry’s last-minute decision to run for Bexar County judge has already created plenty of confusion about the Precinct 3 seat on the Commissioners Court. 

Election officials first believed the parties would choose candidates in the March primary to run to fill the rest of DeBerry’s four-year term, causing one Republican hopeful, Patty Gibbons, to file her candidacy with the county. The Texas Secretary of State’s office later decided the parties’ precinct chairs in Precinct 3 would have to choose their nominees to run on the November ballot.

In the meantime, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat, sought candidates from both parties to serve as an interim commissioner. He chose Republican Marialyn Barnard, who previously served on the 4th Court of Appeals.

“I already have a foundation of knowing a lot of people in the Republican Party and a lot of the precinct chairs,” said Barnard, who recruited precinct chairs to fill vacancies in Precinct 3 ahead of the March primary. “I just reach out, let everybody know I’m wanting to be considered” for the party’s nomination.

Barnard’s campaign said she has raised more than $70,000 for the potential November race.

As the official presiding over the Republicans’ selection process, McManus is himself new to his job.

He unseated John Austin in the May 24 primary runoff after campaigning on a plan to recruit “true Republicans” as candidates in Bexar County. He takes over the county party this month and now leads a five-person committee that he says will narrow down the field of interested candidates before precinct chairs vote. 

Other members of that committee include Lora Lane, Ellen Ott, Steven Jordan and Brenda Slatton.

McManus said they’ll be assessing candidates based on responses to a questionnaire that covers details ranging from personal information (date of birth and drivers license number) to ideological positions (whether people should be allowed to defend their property with deadly force).

McManus said Thursday that Barnard was the only candidate who had submitted the form.

Elected Republican precinct chairs within Precinct 3 will meet at Aggie Park on July 7 to decide their nominee. Not all of those positions are currently filled, but candidates seeking to fill the vacancies won’t be sworn in until after the Precinct 3 commissioner candidate has been decided. 

“I’m thinking two minutes for each [commissioner] candidate to speak regarding their qualifications, and then there’s a solicitation of votes in the first round,” McManus said of the July 7 gathering. Some candidates would be eliminated based on that vote, and the remaining candidates would again have a chance to speak before a final vote, he added.

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said only Precinct 3 chairs can vote on the nominations, but other elements of the process are up to the parties to decide. She said the deadline for the parties to nominate a candidate is Aug. 22.

Democrats chose Susan Korbel, a Castle Hills precinct chair who owns her own market research firm, in February.

“I was the only one who applied, and then I was elected during a meeting that we had on Zoom by acclamation,” said Korbel, who previously served as an Alamo Colleges trustee.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a bevy of candidates. 

Gathered at MacArthur Park Tuesday night, Gibbons, Barnard, City Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), former Councilman Carlton Soules, former precinct chair Billy Peche, conservative activist Patrick Von Dohlen and Valero policy director Grant Moody mingled with the precinct chairs who will choose the nominee.

“They’re working the room. They need to know who’s eligible to vote, give them their spiel, and tell them why they’re worthy of earning their vote,” said Marian Stanko, precinct chair in 3015. Stanko said at least 30 candidates had already contacted her about the position. 

Soules, who waged unsuccessful campaigns against Wolff for county judge in 2014 and for a state representative seat in 2018, said he’s been focused on meeting with precinct chairs one-on-one. 

“The audience is about 120 people,” said Soules. “Most of this is going to be person-to-person and phone calls and meetings and just sitting down with them and explaining what we want to accomplish.”

“If this were a normal election and somebody were vying for the precinct nomination, do you think that most people would be able to raise the what, $250,000 it takes to run?” said Peche, who works at Amazon. “That’s the reason I’m taking advantage of it,” he said of the Precinct 3 opening.

But even experienced candidates concede the process for this race is far from clear.

Perry’s spokeswoman, Landry Stafford, said in a statement Thursday that the councilman was unaware of McManus’ vetting form. San Antonio’s charter says that if a council member “shall file to become a candidate for nomination or election to any public office,” then they must “vacate immediately his or her place on the council.” 

“He has no intent to resign and would not have to resign unless he is nominated by the precinct chairs,” Stafford stated. 

While many of the precinct chairs at Tuesday’s event declined to say which candidate they plan to support, Rick Briscoe, who serves as precinct chair in 3078, said he was backing Moody.

“He’s a Marine fighter pilot. He’s got a business background, and he’s been active in Republican politics,” said Briscoe, who is also the legislative director for Open Carry Texas, a gun rights advocacy group. “We’re fortunate to have several qualified candidates who have expressed interest in the position.”

Former Hollywood Park Mayor David Ortega, who now lives in Stone Oak, is pitching himself as a candidate who can work with Democrats on the Commissioners Court.

“If we really care about the county then we have to get along, we have to work with each other,” said Ortega, who did not attend Tuesday’s event. 

Von Dohlen’s San Antonio Family Association endorsed candidates for Precinct 3 chairs, some of whom unseated incumbents. He did not respond to voicemails requesting comment.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.