Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his wife, Tracy Wolff, spent decades working hand-in-hand on shared projects, from overhauling the county’s children’s court to tackling the digital divide.

When Peter Sakai takes over as judge on Jan. 1, the county will once again have a first couple united by a shared goal: helping young people rise from challenging circumstances.

Recruited early in his legal career to oversee to the county’s children’s court, Sakai made his name as a District Court judge working to improve the way the county handles its unusually high number of child abuse and neglect cases.

Less well-known is the county’s incoming first lady, Raquel “Rachel” Dias-Sakai, a longtime educator in Bexar County and the daughter of a juvenile officer who often brought delinquent minors to their Laredo home so they wouldn’t have to share a jail cell with an adult.

“There was no juvenile detention” in Laredo, Dias-Sakai said of her early experiences working with troubled youth. “… Girls that would have been in juvie [stayed] in my room, and we sat down and had dinner as a family.”

Dias-Sakai was working as a special education instructor at Harlandale Independent School District when she and Sakai were introduced by a mutual friend at the Fiesta Oyster Bake in 1980.

Together, their careers working with children and young adults have intertwined for more than 40 years, laying the groundwork for Sakai’s vision as the new chief executive of Bexar County.

“My platform has focused on children and families because that’s where I’ve been, and that’s where I’m going,” Sakai said in an interview at a campaign event just before the election.

Shared interest in children

Sakai and Dias-Sakai each grew up near the border — he in McAllen and she in Laredo — and graduated from high school in 1972.

The son of farmers, Sakai played high school football before going on to graduate from the University of Texas.

Dias-Sakai’s parents divorced when she was in elementary school, and she lived with her mother, who worked at a drug store. As a girl she helped in the cafeteria at her middle school to help defray the cost of her Catholic school education.

The couple didn’t meet until after graduate school, when their careers took to San Antonio and they were introduced by Sakai’s high school classmate, who worked with Dias-Sakai at Harlandale ISD. They married two years later and had two children, Elizabeth and George.

Sakai started out working for the Bexar County District Attorney’s office after graduating from law school at the University of Texas.

“He went from being in the appellate section to the juvenile section chief,” Dias-Sakai said of her husband. “That started the journey of his lifelong focus of working with children and families.”

Dias-Sakai stayed close to home for her undergraduate degree at Laredo Junior College, then moved to San Antonio to pursue a master’s degree in guidance, counseling and psychology from UTSA.

“I was a special ed counselor at the time, and some of the kids that I serve ended up in juvenile and were being prosecuted,” said Dias-Sakai. “I would say, ‘I know you’re not supposed to talk [about your cases], but can you just check on one of my kids?'”

Dias-Sakai continued her work at Harlandale ISD, as a teacher, counselor, academic dean and eventually principal. Meanwhile, Sakai was recruited to serve as the associate judge of the Children’s Court in Bexar County, where he instituted new programs help protect abused and neglected children.

In 2004 Dias-Sakai left Harlandale to run a program at Palo Alto College that helps high school dropouts and at-risk teens achieve a high school diploma, as well as some college credits.

Shortly after, Sakai successfully sought election to the 225th District Court, where he was reelected three times without opposition.

Dias-Sakai eventually returned to the classroom as a teacher at Providence Catholic School, where she worked for 10 years before retiring in 2018.

Big shoes to fill

Under Wolff’s tenure as county judge, he and Tracy Wolff raised money for the Bibliotech libraries that give residents free access to the internet and a digital lending library. Together they also overhauled the Bexar County Children’s Court — a third-floor courtroom where Sakai heard cases involving abused and neglected children.

“People have asked [Sakai] if he plans to follow in Nelson’s footsteps, and I’ve been asked if I’m following in Tracy’s footsteps,” said Dias-Sakai, who added that both she and her husband planned to chart their own course.

Having played a key role in her husband’s campaign, however, she plans to be no less influential than Tracy Wolff.

Dias-Sakai watched as the rise of COVID-19 complicated her husband’s work at the courthouse, and the couple continues to see the pandemic’s lingering impacts on children. 

“We still have a lot of kids that are disenfranchised [from educational opportunities], and COVID added to those numbers,” said Dias-Sakai.

The pandemic also exacerbated the county’s already high rates of child abuse and neglect.

Thanks to the county’s high poverty rates, teen pregnancy and lack of parental education attainment, Bexar County has long led the state in its rate of child abuse and maltreatment cases, according to Monica Lawson, an assistant professor who is currently studying the issue for UTSA, UT Health San Antonio and the children’s advocacy center ChildSafe.

Lawson said the problem has only gotten worse on the heels of the pandemic, which put a strain on the mental health resources for parents and children alike.

Despite little electoral or executive experience, Sakai waged a campaign for the county’s top role with the help of San Antonio Democratic political operative Laura Barberena, who Dias-Sakai knew from working together on a fundraising gala for the Madonna Center.

Dias-Sakai was active in her husband’s campaign, holding meetings with campaign staff, raising money and speaking at events on Sakai’s behalf, while Sakai pitched his vision for a county that supports young people from “cradle to career.”

Sakai regularly referred to his wife as the “heart and soul” of his campaign, and vowed that if elected, the county would benefit from both of their efforts.

“He has in his mind a vision for the county, and one that he has because he worked in the county for so long,” said Dias-Sakai. “… I observe things differently than he does, I’m more one that sees the landscape.”

Sakai secured the Democratic nomination in a May 24 runoff, the same day 19 children and two adults were killed by a shooter at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School. The couple was too distraught to celebrate, offering brief remarks to supporters at Tony G’s Soul Food restaurant while while still visibly upset by the tragedy.

He easily defeated Republican Trish DeBerry in the November midterm.

A future of collaboration

As the couple gears up for Sakai’s new role, Dias-Sakai has stepped down from her role on the boards of Merced Housing Texas, a nonprofit organization aimed at providing affordable housing, and TEAMability, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for children with disabilities.

Sakai has offered few details about his cradle-to-career plan but said it will involve leveraging public-private partnerships to support education opportunities, as he did to create new dockets as a civil court judge.

Dias-Sakai said she hopes to help with those plans through her experience in education and the nonprofit world.

Dias-Sakai said their work and relationships have followed them from role to role, and will continue to do so as the county’s first couple. Sakai is still in contact with young people he worked with on the bench, some of whom even helped his campaign. Dias-Sakai said she also maintains relationships with past students, helping them by reading cover letters and graduate school applications.

“We don’t close the door because we opened another one,” she said. “We just keep opening the door wider.”

Avatar photo

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.