Former family court Judge Peter Sakai easily defeated state Rep. Ina Minjarez in their Democratic primary runoff for Bexar County judge Tuesday night.

Sakai claimed more than 58% of the vote in the low-turnout race, according to unofficial results. Minjarez, who has represented the 124th district in the Texas Legislature since 2015, got 42%. They were the top two finishers in the March 1 primary, propelling them to a runoff after neither secured 50% of the vote. 

Sakai will face Republican Trish DeBerry in November in an election to replace retiring Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat who has occupied the seat since 2001. DeBerry previously represented Precinct 3 on the commissioners’ court, and won her party’s nomination outright in the March primary. 

Sakai, 67, is best known for his nearly 26 years of work overseeing the Bexar County Children’s Court, which handles the county’s unusually high numbers of abused and neglected children.

With election results coming in just hours after a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde left 18 children and three adults dead, Sakai had a subdued reaction to his victory.

“My heart is breaking right now,” he said at Tony G’s Soul Food restaurant on San Antonio’s East Side where he gathered with supporters. “I know we’re here to celebrate, but it takes a backseat as to what has happened today.”

He said during the campaign that his family court experience fueled his bid for county judge, where he could do more to address the economic, education, health and criminal justice problems families are facing in Bexar County. 

“People know him as ‘Judge,’” Republican activist Denise Gutierrez-Homer said of Sakai while the two sought to influence voters in opposite directions on the city bond at the Lions Adult and Senior Center earlier this month. “He has a good reputation among the people.”

That goodwill has gone a long way in helping Sakai’s campaign, including withstanding attack ads from Minjarez in the final stretch. Sakai also brought on professional campaign help for the first nonjudicial campaign of his career, helping him make inroads with the reliable Democratic voters who supported him in a low turnout primary runoff

Wolff, a Democrat, was appointed by his predecessor, Republican Cyndi Krier in 2001, and faced little opposition in his five bids for reelection.

The November election to replace him is likely to look much different.

Headed into the first midterm of President Joe Biden’s administration, partisan tensions are high and Texas Republicans are optimistic about their prospects of making inroads in traditionally blue territory. 

“[Gov. Greg Abbott] is very bullish about Bexar County, and from a block walking standpoint, targeting standpoint, there’s money that’s coming in here,” said DeBerry, who campaigned at an education event with the governor on San Antonio’s South Side earlier this month. 

Minjarez, who framed her campaign as a referendum on Gov. Gregg Abbott and other Republicans in Austin, echoed those sentiments at her own campaign gathering Tuesday night.  

Bexar County judge candidate Ina Minjarez hugs a supporter during an election night watch party at Acadiana Cafe on Tuesday.
Bexar County judge candidate Ina Minjarez hugs a supporter during an election night watch party at Acadiana Cafe on Tuesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“It’s a competitive race,” said Minjarez, who vowed to throw her support and resources behind Sakai. “[Democrats] need to accept that this is a battleground area and need to be ready to fight to keep the seat in November.”

Sakai focused his campaign message on increasing government transparency and using the court to address systemic problems he says are causing high poverty rates in Bexar County.

“Right now, it’s a matter of healing and making sure that we bring people together,” he said Tuesday night. “And that’s the reason why I’m stepping up to be the next county judge is to unify  this community and to find a way that we can provide healing, especially with these senseless acts of violence.”

Laying out a preview of what the November race could look like, DeBerry said Sakai had “been a great judge” in the Children’s Court, but “the judge of Bexar County is largely a CEO administrative position,” she said. “That requires a skill set much like I have, owning a small business for 25 years.” 

DeBerry, 57, owned a public relations firm before running successfully for Precinct 3 county commissioner in 2020. Just under a year after taking office, she announced plans to run for county judge, filing her candidacy minutes before the deadline. Krier is helping her in the race.

“I saw an environment that I thought was going to be right for Republicans, and I feel like that’s gotten even better,” DeBerry said of her decision. “We’re looking at inflation being the highest it’s been in 40 years, gas prices that are approaching $6 a gallon, a baby formula crisis that hasn’t been effectively dealt with. And then we look at what’s going on on the border, which is not too far away from us.”

Among Bexar County Republicans, many are still skeptical about DeBerry’s prospects of flipping the county red. Notably, Minjarez’s campaign was run by CSG, a San Antonio political consulting firm that works primarily with Republican candidates. 

“I think the major urban areas will continue to vote Democrat,” said Wolff, who spent much of his last term fighting Abbott over the county’s plans to implement COVID-19 precautions.

“[Bexar County Court is] structured now where we can be a force in the community, partnered with the city, and I just hope they keep that going,” he said of whoever steps into the role next.

Disclosure: Ina Minjarez’s husband, Leo Gomez, is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors.

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.