Hunkered down in Washington, D.C., at the bitter end of a failed attempt to stop Republicans in Austin, the reality of returning to her old legislative life was looking bleak for Ina Minjarez.

“You always think about your options, but they’re pretty limited [for a Democrat],” Minjarez said in an interview this month. “I honestly didn’t know if I was going to go back.”

Though she had found her footing in the minority of the Republican-led statehouse, the ugliness of the summer 2021 battle over voting rights was different.

“What I prided myself on, and I think many of us in the Legislature did, is that we were not Washington,” the 47-year-old El Paso native said. “We had our differences, but we could always work together.”

“It’s unfortunate,” she determined: “We’d become D.C.”

Once considered a rising star in the state capital, Minjarez is now running to replace retiring Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

As Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick clash with the state’s urban centers over everything from school funding to infrastructure, Minjarez reasoned, “you’re going to need a leader who’s not afraid to take them on.”

Before she gets to those fights, however, Minjarez has to get past a problem that’s long dogged her political career, beginning with two failed bids for public office.

“I hope it’s not a popularity contest,” Minjarez said, referring to her years-long struggle to win allies in the “old guard” of the “Democratic bubble.”

Minjarez finished second in the March 1 Democratic primary behind former family court Judge Peter Sakai, who finished 10 percentage points ahead of her in the four-candidate primary. The two are now facing off in a May 24 runoff to decide their party’s nomination.

Two losses, then a win

After graduating from law school at St. Mary’s University in 2000, Minjarez worked for the Bexar County district attorney before running for a Bexar County court seat in 2008. She ran unopposed in the primary, and came roughly 4,000 votes short of defeating incumbent Republican Timothy Johnson. 

Two years later she ran again for that spot, beating Democrat Linda Penn in the primary, but losing to Republican Jason Pulliam in the general election 52% to 45%

“It was a hard disappointment, so I decided I’m just going to practice law and figure out where I go from there,” Minjarez said. “I really didn’t think I was going to run for office again.”

Rep. Ina Minjarez speaks about the important role families play in the voting process during the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention.
Rep. Ina Minjarez speaks about the important role families play in the voting process during the 2016 Texas Democratic Convention. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Minjarez opened her own legal practice, where she practiced criminal defense and represented families facing separation by Child Protective Services. She joined a civil litigation firm in 2013, working on labor law cases and representing families of people injured or killed on the job due to safety violations. 

She didn’t seek public office again until 2015, when she was elected to the state Legislature in a special election to replace José Menéndez, who had won a state Senate seat. She finished first in a four-way race, advancing to a runoff, where she beat Delicia Herrera.

“She was an inspiration for me,” said San Antonio City Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who lost her first council bid in 2017 and had met Minjarez at an Annie’s List event.

“In my darkest moments after I lost, I was upset that I had let everybody down, [and] I remember [Minjarez] saying, ‘There’s a path for you. … If you’re called to this, you’re going to figure it out,” said Havrda, who went on to win the council seat in 2019. She supports Minjarez for judge and has been door-knocking on her behalf.

Minjarez is indeed carving out a new path in her campaign for county judge.

“I was very naive to politics,” she said of her early races. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into.”

Minjarez has also remarried since her early political ventures, wedding Leo Gomez in October 2016. Gomez serves as president and CEO of the Brooks Development Authority.

Minjarez’s critics point to their relationship as a potential conflict, given that his business interests could stand to gain from county contracts. Speaking at a candidate forum Thursday night, Sakai predicted that avoiding conflicts when awarding contracts could be among the “biggest issues” facing the county court.

In an interview, Minjarez said she would recuse herself from any decisions involving her husband’s business interests, as she did when she was in the Legislature. During that time she did not vote on a bill in the 85th session that pertained to Port San Antonio and Brooks.

“He’ll have to work with the commissioners,” Minjarez said of her husband. “I wouldn’t touch [those decisions] with a 10-foot pole.”

Deal-makers and breakers

After serving in the rough-and-tumble Legislature, Minjarez says she hopes voters choose her in the runoff based on her “quality of experience” working on issues relevant to the court she would oversee.

The next county judge will be the chief executive officer of the county, she said, pointing to her experience on the appropriations, as well as committees overseeing transportation and infrastructure in the legislature.

Ina Minjarez participates in a business forum hosted by local San Antonio chambers in April.
Ina Minjarez participates in a business forum hosted by San Antonio chambers of commerce in April. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“You need to know not just the policy of planned growth, quality of life, transportation [and] taxation,” she said, but “how to work relationships. … I was a Democrat in a Republican majority and able to get things done for San Antonio.”

Minjarez has, in the past, gotten a lot of mileage out of her relationships with Republicans. When she arrived in the Legislature, House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, appointed her to the Transportation Committee, a get for a freshman. Texas Monthly named her the Legislature’s rookie of the year, and she went on to serve on the Appropriations Committee for two cycles — a role she has highlighted in her race for county judge.

“I was good at strategy, I was good at amendments. … I could weaken a bill, I could strengthen a bill … I just love policy,” Minjarez said of past legislative sessions.

The most recent session ended in Republicans pushing through bills that would outlaw most abortions, allow adults to carry handguns without permits and limit what teachers can say about slavery.

When Minjarez and other Democrats fled to Washington in their last-ditch effort to stop a bill that would severely limit voting access, she says some members of her party began cutting deals with GOP leadership to keep their committee positions in the next session. 

“You had some Democratic members essentially saying, ‘I’m going to deliver Democrats back [to Texas] and get rewarded,” Minjarez said.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan has denied making deals with Democrats to return to Austin in exchange for their committee assignments.   

“You can feel very defeated when you don’t feel like you’re in the trenches with members of your own party,” said Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), a close ally of Minjarez who also stayed in Washington until the end and later served on an exploratory committee for her county judge campaign. “It does make you think sometimes you can look for a place to be more effective.”

A court in transition

If elected as county judge, Minjarez’s next gig could look very different. 

Though hardly the epicenter of the state’s high-profile political battles, Texas’ commissioners courts have drawn increasing interest from ambitious Democrats seeking to push back against Republican-led policies.

“Local elections are run by the county,” said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), a Democrat who also left the Texas Legislature for county government in 2019. “We’ve got to follow the Election Code … [but] there are ways that the county government could be more innovative when it comes to getting people registered to vote.” 

Ina Minjarez campaigns for Bexar County Commissioner Commissioner Justin Rodriguez in 2019.
Ina Minjarez campaigns for Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez in 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Like other commissioners courts in the state’s rapidly growing urban centers, Bexar County’s has become younger and more liberal in recent years. 

Rodriguez, 47, was appointed in 2019 to replace longtime incumbent Paul Elizondo, who died serving on the court at age 83.

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1), 47, became the court’s first woman of color when she defeated four-term incumbent Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez in a 2020 primary runoff and went on to win the general election. A third Democrat on the court, Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), 41, replaced a Republican who had held the seat for 15 years when he was elected in 2014.

“A new judge coming in significantly changes the face of the court and, potentially, its direction,” said Rodriguez, who has endorsed Minjarez.

During a campaign event at The Rose Bush on San Antonio’s North Side, Minjarez laid out some of her own plans to use the county court to fight back against Republican-led policies coming out of Austin.

In particular, Minjarez said she hopes to expand access to family planning resources through the University Health System the Commissioners Court oversees.

“If [Republicans] are going to take away women’s access to health care, how do I continue providing for the indigent women in this community who don’t have health insurance?” she asked.

Minjarez also hopes to work with Rodriguez in getting creative to leverage the county elections office.

“Even though we’ve had this voter suppression bill [in the last legislative session], I think as a younger court, we can definitely look at some [additional] voter education [efforts],” she said in a separate interview. 

Carving her own path

That approach has helped Minjarez win over some different Democratic allies in recent years, ones with increasing influence in Bexar County.

The Texas Organizing Project is focused on organizing black and Latino communities around issues like criminal justice reform, housing inequality and immigration.

At The Rose Bush, Minjarez drew cheers for her response when asked whether she would join other nearby county officials in supporting the use of an emergency declaration to bolster security efforts at the Texas-Mexico border. 

Bexar County judge candidate Ina Minjarez talks on the phone as early vote tallies from the primary election are reported during her watch party at Acadiana Cafe in March.
Bexar County judge candidate Ina Minjarez talks on the phone as early vote tallies from the primary election are reported during her watch party at Acadiana Cafe in March. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

“Hell no, I will never support Operation Lonestar,” Minjarez said, referring to Abbott’s border security efforts. “I have fought against it at the Legislature, and I will never be supportive of policies like that.”

“Our membership base usually looks for who’s going to be the fighter,” said TOP’s electoral strategy coordinator Megan Macias. TOP endorsed Minjarez for county judge, and the group’s political arm is helping her in the runoff.

Even among Democrats who like Minjarez, some are skeptical about taking that approach to county government.

“I know she’s a fighter, and I was really kind of sad that she left the Legislature, because I feel that’s where we need her most,” said Democratic organizer Margaret Mireles, whose late husband, Andy Mireles, served on the 73rd District Court for two decades.

While guests sipped mint juleps and waited to watch the Kentucky Derby at her Monte Vista home this month, Mireles handed out postcards and stamps for attendees to mail to friends urging them to support Sakai in the runoff.

Minjarez said that if she loses the county judge primary, she will take some time to reassess. 

“I haven’t had a break,” she said, looking back at the grueling legislative session and then her subsequent decision to run for county judge.

But a runoff victory, which would more likely than not be viewed as a clear pathway to succeeding Wolff in Democrat-dominated Bexar County, could position Minjarez as a political force.

“Bexar County has a population greater than a lot of states,” said Matt Angle, a longtime Democratic strategist who pointed to former Gov. Ann Richards’ time on the Travis County Commissioners Court. “Being a county judge in a major county in Texas is a really big deal.”

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

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.