Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff wants the Texas Legislature to take up comprehensive campaign finance reform in its 2019 session.
In a letter sent to Bexar County’s statehouse delegation, including to retiring House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), Wolff wrote that political spending in County elections has dramatically changed during his 17-year tenure as judge. The letter dated Monday, June 11, described how millions of dollars have poured into local races from outside organizations, and how personal and family loans influence campaigning.
Wolff said the influences of the current campaign finance laws “distort the whole system,” requiring candidates to prepare for the possibility of being outspent by an opponent receiving large contributions or able to invest a personal fortune in a campaign. Wolff recommends pursuing legislation that would limit campaign contributions at the State and county level to $2,500, prohibit personal loans to campaigns, and limit the amount political action committees and individuals may spend influencing elections in ways other than directly contributing to an individual candidate’s campaign.
“During my first 3 re-elections … I spent very little funds on my re-election if any,” Wolff, a Democrat, wrote in the letter. He went on to say that things were different in 2014 when he faced a well-funded primary challenger, former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, and general election challenger, former San Antonio City Councilman Carlton Soules. Each, he said, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I had to raise significant campaign funds to offset personal and family loans by my opponents,” Wolff wrote.
He also highlighted the influence of big campaign contributions in the 2014 and 2018 Bexar County district attorney’s races. Nico LaHood defeated 16-year incumbent Susan Reed in 2014 after “a prominent attorney spent over $1 million dollars [for Nico],” Wolff wrote, referring to contributions from personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry.
LaHood similarly lost his own Democratic primary earlier this year after a political action committee bankrolled by billionaire George Soros spent nearly $1 million in support of challenger Joe Gonzales’ campaign.
“These were not donations to campaigns, but rather individuals or political action committees spending outside the candidate’s campaigns,” Wolff wrote. “Any candidate could wake up 30-60 days before Election Day and find a huge amount of money being spent to defeat him.”
Texas does not have campaign contribution limits for county and statewide offices. There are also no limits on how much political action committees or individuals may spend on efforts not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, such as paying for ads.
“This is just simply my opinion,” Wolff told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “I have talked to five or six of the legislators already though.”
Wolff has amassed more than $600,000 for his re-election effort, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. His opponent, Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff, has no campaign funds, according to documents filed in the same period.
Rickhoff has criticized Wolff for accepting contributions from individuals who do business with the County. There are no limitations on the number of campaign contributions individuals pursuing or receiving county contracts may give to candidates or elected county commissioners.
While not originally included in the letter,Wolff told the Rivard Report that he would also support adding restrictions to contributions given by potential bidders on county contracts if legislators were to consider adding those restrictions as well.
Wolff ends his letter saying “there are constitutional issues with this proposal,” but offers a suggestion for successfully arguing his case.
“I believe that if the Texas Legislature passes comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation, the State of Texas could assert state’s rights as a defense and that the Supreme Court might reconsider its position,” Wolff wrote.
Jerad Najvar, a Houston attorney at Najvar Law Firm specializing in campaign finance law, presented a counter argument to the Rivard Report that said the First Amendment protects against violations of political association at the state and federal level.
“Thankfully, the constitution means that government officials like Mr. Wolff don’t get to restrict the ability of groups of citizens to spend money criticizing public officials and candidates,” Najvar wrote.
The City of San Antonio may vote on its own ethics and campaign finance changes as early as June 21, including requiring additional campaign contribution reporting.