The decision by Nelson Wolff to end his long run as Bexar County judge has dominoed into one of the most interesting and unpredictable local political races in memory. The fight over succession should attract plenty of voters from both parties.

But the Democrat vs. Republican showdown will have to wait for summer and a post-Labor Day fight to the finish on Nov. 6. Act One will be the 90-day campaign leading up to the March 1 Democratic primary.

An unusually strong and diverse set of Democratic candidates promises a newsworthy opening to 2022, a campaign that should begin in earnest with the new year. Three of the four candidates are credible contenders, and each seems capable of running a well-organized, well-financed campaign.

The field includes Democratic state Rep. Ina Minjarez; longtime state district court Judge Peter Sakai, one of the county’s most experienced and respected jurists; and Ivalis Meza Gonzalez, who stepped down as Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s chief of staff to enter the fray. Former mayoral candidate Gerald Ponce also has filed.

While the Democrats were expected to dominate the chatter surrounding the contest to succeed Wolff, the 11th-hour decision by Precinct 3 County Commissioner Trish DeBerry to enter the race after less than a year in office has stunned many political observers and business community types invested in the outcome.

DeBerry’s decision set off another domino effect, with Wolff issuing a Wednesday afternoon press release announcing that anyone seeking the seat DeBerry eventually will relinquish will have to file for the special election by Monday.

Wolff’s press release:

“In accordance with Election Code Chapter 202, the local Party Chairs have been informed by the Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen, upon directive from the Keith Ingram, Elections Division Director for the Office of the Secretary of State, that filing for the recently vacated County Commissioner Precinct 3 seat will open immediately. The filing period for the Unexpired Term will end at 6:00pm Monday the 20th.”

One probable candidate will be former City Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who happened to be present when DeBerry filed for the county judge seat on Monday. She was quick to shoot down reports that Brockhouse will serve as her campaign chair.

“Greg Brockhouse will not play any role in my campaign,” she told me, adding, “He is a friend.”

Austin-based political consultants Murphy Nasica, the firm that ran her county commissioner campaign, will run her campaign, DeBerry said.

Meanwhile, people close to the three leading Democratic candidates are not pleased that Wolff has said he will keep DeBerry on the commissioners court for as long as 60 days, even though state election law requires her to resign her seat. Wolff has cited a number of initiatives, such as an intensified focus on domestic abuse that is a priority for DeBerry, that he wants her to see through as commissioners begin to allocate some of the $388 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds flowing to Bexar County.

“Others are vacating their elected offices now and not stalling, so why should Trish be allowed to do any differently?” asked one Democrat involved in the primary race. “This is so she can campaign on all the ARPA funding she has helped spread around before she leaves office.”

Wolff faced a political challenge in setting the terms for who will follow DeBerry. Had he been forced to allow the Bexar County chairs of the two parties to control the process, Bexar County Republican Party Chairman John Austin would have hand-picked a candidate to serve out the remaining years of DeBerry’s term.

By securing the secretary of state’s guidance on the special election, Wolff was able to open the process of selecting an interim commissioner from a far more diverse pool of prospective candidates. If he sticks to his plan, Wolff will name someone in February to fill DeBerry’s seat for the remainder of the year. He is said to be considering a Republican who will work in a bipartisan fashion and not be a divisive distraction on the court.

DeBerry’s decision mystified many Republicans in the business community who wonder why the first-term commissioner is risking her nascent career as an officeholder to pursue what many believe will be a very difficult race for a Republican to win.

“Trish tells people she has divested herself of majority ownership or control of her public relations and marketing agency,” one former chamber chairman told me. “Does she go back and take over the agency again if she loses? Does she simply become an employee? Doesn’t make sense to me.”

“I struggled with this tremendously. I’m a risk-taker and I’m willing to take one here,” DeBerry told me Wednesday, citing “a Republican moment” and a number of other competitive local races that she believes will strengthen her chances of attracting strong party support and crossover and independent voters.

“There is no law saying all Hispanics are Democratic voters,” she said. “And while I’ve only been in office [since January], I’ve accomplished more … than others accomplished in 15 to 18 years on the court.”

She cited her push for greater accountability in management of the county jail and sheriff’s office, and her successful push to force more timely release of body camera footage. Until she pressed the issue, the county did not have formal maternity or paternity leave policies.

“This city and county are too great not to have strong candidates from both parties,” DeBerry said. “I’ve tried to make county government accountable. The opportunity is there to do more.”

DeBerry does face her own primary opponent, Nate Buchanan, who ran unsuccessfully for Precinct 3 Constable in 2016 and 2020.

Before DeBerry joined the race my intention was to focus on the three leading Democratic candidates, each of whom deserve their own space here. I will do that in the coming weeks as the campaign gets underway.

This article has been updated to clarify DeBerry’s time in office and correct the spelling of Murphy Nasica’s name.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.