In eulogizing County Commissioner Paul Elizondo last week, County Judge Nelson Wolff called him “my closest friend, period.” That may have surprised some San Antonians who saw Elizondo, who died Dec. 27 at 83, as an archaic practitioner of old-fashioned power-and-patronage politics.

But the two were very good friends. Paul would blow his jazzy sax at Nelson’s house, and on trips to New York the two would graze at antiquarian bookstores together, Nelson looking for history tomes and Paul for vintage sheet music.

More importantly, Elizondo became a close ally who helped Wolff transform county government from a medieval circus of competing fiefdoms into something of a modern big-city powerhouse. In the last decade, Bexar County has played an unprecedented role in San Antonio’s development – spending hundreds of millions of dollars on urban projects.

Their relationship didn’t begin that way. When ex-Mayor Wolff was appointed to fill the vacant county judge position in 2001, he found himself confronting a bureaucratic dinosaur with 10 heads. That was the number of departments reporting directly to Commissioners Court.

All 10 felt the need to attend every court meeting, making reports. In addition, Wolff said, they all seemed to feel the need to attend meetings by a capital improvements committee headed by Elizondo and his ally Lyle Larson, then the court’s only Republican member.

“I would go by there some days and the whole conference room would be full of County employees,” Wolff said. “And so two days out of the week, between the Commissioners Court and that committee, all the top people working for the County sat around listening to the commissioners. So they lost two days of work, was the way I was looking at it.”

Meanwhile, he said, the budget director was “messing” with the books, mixing capital expenses with operating expenses. “I got very angry about that,” Wolff said.

His general assessment of the staff leadership: “In my book, every one of them was incompetent.” It was, he said, “one of the weirdest forms of government I ever saw.”

He didn’t find the four commissioners to be much help.

“It was a political jungle,” he said. “Some commissioners would be protecting a guy that might be totally incompetent. And so the 10 [department heads] knew how to play it, how to get support of various commissioners.”

The result was that Wolff’s efforts to improve the staff and rationalize the bureaucracy were undermined by Elizondo, Larson, and others. As the ranking member and most politically skilled, Elizondo was key. So Wolff sat down with him one day – he doesn’t remember when – and made a proposal in his succinct style: “If you’d quit f—— with my stuff, I’d quit f—— with yours.” Wolff said. “Elizondo sat there and he listened a while, and he said maybe that’s not a bad idea.”

Still, it took a while. The turning point came in 2008. With the help of David Smith, who had developed the confidence of Wolff and the commissioners as the County’s new budget director, Wolff had discovered that the County had a new source of revenue for new projects. When the County had initiated new tourist taxes to pay for the San Antonio Spurs’ arena on the East Side, it had been conservative in its revenue projections. That stream flowed strong enough, Wolff learned, to fund ambitious county projects.

With that money available to avoid increasing taxes, Wolff with the support of Elizondo and the rest of the court, persuaded voters to approve a $100 million bond to convert the old Municipal Auditorium into the state-of-the-art Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The City of San Antonio contributed the building, on which it was losing money annually, but no cash. The private sector, led by the Tobin Endowment, raised about $50 million.

Subsequently, Wolff and Elizondo would lead the County into committing more than $150 million in funding to convert San Pedro Creek from a dreary drainage ditch on the west end of downtown into a linear park that will be a fitting companion for the venerable River Walk. And the County has played a major role in magnificently extending the River Walk south for eight beautifully landscaped miles, providing a huge economic magnet for the city’s South Side.

Wolff, in a way, was serving as San Antonio’s second mayor, using County resources for urban development at a level that rivaled the City’s own investments at Hemisfair and in downtown residential subsidies. But Wolff needed Elizondo’s backing to bring the rest of the Commissioners Court along. And Elizondo got Wolff’s backing for some of his projects, including a major expansion of University Hospital and the restoration and renovation of the Alameda Theater.

My opinion is that it is perfectly appropriate and fair for an urban county to help in city-building. Not only does most of the county’s revenue come from city residents, but it is the city and its investments that drive the regional economy. Without the city, the bedroom suburbs and unincorporated areas would be barren. As University of Texas at San Antonio professor Woody Sanders once told me, “Imagine Olmos Park as a suburb of Ozona.”

City-building isn’t the only way Elizondo teamed with Wolff. After being uninterested for some time, Wolff said, Elizondo agreed to a major reform for county government: the naming of a county manager to preside over those 10 department heads, much as the city manager does a block west at City Hall.

The first step was the election of Nelson Wolff’s son Kevin as the court’s only Republican in 2010. Kevin not only had a business background, having worked at Citigroup, but he also served on City Council. He knew the difference having a single county executive could make. But Elizondo and the other two Democratic commissioners needed to go along.

According to Wolff, two things swung Elizondo. One was that Kevin Wolff developed a good relationship with him, even making the motion to name a new county building after Elizondo. The other was that Budget Director David Smith had won Elizondo’s confidence. If Smith would be the county manager, Elizondo was for it. In 2011, it happened. The fiefdoms were substantially tamed. Wolff now brags on the quality top staff at the County.

It hardly means that politics and patronage have disappeared. But it does mean much more professional talent at the top.

And Paul Elizondo, who had thrived in the old system, figured out a way to continue to thrive in the new one.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.