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In a historic first in Bexar County, two women are vying for the Precinct 3 seat on the commissioners court. One is a lawyer and first-time electoral candidate and the other a businesswoman who ran for mayor in 2009.
Edging out Tom Rickhoff in the Republican primary runoffs in July, Trish DeBerry is up against Democratic candidate Christine Hortick for Precinct 3 commissioner, ensuring that for the first time in the county’s history, the precinct will be represented by a woman.
The winner in the upcoming Nov. 3 contest will represent about 450,000 people who live in the Northside precinct, which is home to six school districts, the University of Texas at San Antonio, several military installations, and the city’s largest corporate headquarters.
Kevin Wolff, who has represented the precinct since 2008, recently endorsed DeBerry, and said last year he is confident that the historically conservative voters in his precinct will elect another Republican. “The [Democrats] would have to luck into a win in Precinct 3,” he said.
But more than one precedent could be reversed in this race.
In contrast to San Antonio’s City Council, where women make up a majority, the Bexar County Commissioners Court has no female members. In fact, only two women have ever been elected to commissioners court. Helen Dutmer represented Pct. 4 for one term starting in 1991 and Cyndi Taylor Krier in 1990 became the first woman and first Republican ever elected as Bexar County judge. Krier ran unopposed for two more terms before vacating the seat to serve on the University of Texas Board of Regents.
“I found on issue after issue that would come up, whether it was health care or education or the juvenile alternative school … it really did help to have a broad base of perspectives, of representatives on the court,” Krier said. “There will be a woman on commissioner’s court … so that’s great. We’ll have that perspective represented. I think it’s also important to have both political parties represented.”
Along with Precinct 1 candidate Rebeca Clay-Flores, DeBerry and Hortick mark a new generation of women trying for a seat in county government.
“More important than just having a woman on the court, I think it’s more important that we have a qualified woman because whoever is on the court needs to be able to represent their constituents to the best of their ability – they deserve that,” Hortick said.
When a friend asked Hortick if she was interested in running for a seat on the judicial bench, she didn’t hesitate to decline. The only judgeship she would consider was in the 225th District Court (Children’s Court), where she most often pleaded cases, but that was not open.
Public service through the commissioners court, however, had always piqued her interest, and when Wolff announced he was leaving, she texted her friend right away: “This is what I’m going to do.”
DeBerry said politics got into her blood during the mayoral campaign. But after losing to Julián Castro in the 2009 race, she made a commitment to her kids that she wouldn’t run again until they were older. The opportunity to serve Precinct 3 made sense to her. “I just feel like my entire life has really been built around Precinct 3, and I have a unique understanding of the growth and the opportunities and challenges associated with it,” she said.
Both Hortick and DeBerry feel a woman would bring a unique perspective to what has been a male-dominated court.
“I think there’s certainly something to be said for diversity on the court … not just from a gender standpoint but diversity from a partisan standpoint,” DeBerry said. But as a woman, she hopes to influence issues involving domestic violence, child care, and parental leave policies.
Those issues are at the core of Hortick’s 12 years of work as an attorney in Children’s Court, where she said she refined the advocacy skills she first developed working as a congressional aide for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in Boston during her final semester at the University of Massachusetts.
When she returned home to San Antonio, Hortick enrolled at St. Mary’s University School of Law, graduating in 2005 and starting a private practice representing individuals in criminal, family, and probate matters. More recently, she has represented parents and children involved in abuse and neglect cases, and leads the Bexar County Children’s Court Attorney Association.
Her work has allowed her to gain a good understanding of the issues facing Bexar County residents, Hortick said. “Dealing with these people and helping them with whatever issue it is, whether it’s unemployment or mental health … I think that that puts me in a unique position [to advocate], just because of the nature of the type of law that I practice.”
Hortick plans to give all that up if she is elected to commissioners court. She considers the position, which pays about $140,000, a full-time job. “I can’t imagine anyone being able to devote the kind of time that you need to devote to doing this job well while you’re trying to do something else at the same time,” she said.
She also wants to ensure there are no issues with conflict of interest that could come if she was representing a client before a Bexar County district judge while also making decisions that affect the county court system.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to avoid that,” Hortick said, and she takes issue with the fact that DeBerry has said she doesn’t plan to cut ties with the marketing agency she founded.
“There’s no question I’ll be a full-time commissioner,” DeBerry responded. She has a succession plan in place that will elevate others into leadership roles within the organization, she added, and if elected, the agency will no longer bid on public sector contracts. “And if we have a contract and a real or perceived conflict of interest we will walk away from that contract.”
DeBerry, in fact, pitches her experience as a small business owner as what qualifies her to serve on commissioners court. After graduating from Trinity University, DeBerry started a career in television broadcasting before joining forces to establish a local marketing and advertising agency and later starting The DeBerry Group, the agency she leads today.
“I really thought there needs to be a pragmatic business skill set on the court,” she said. “I’ve thought there have been anti-business decisions that have been made in local leadership.” She has led her business through economic downturns before, she said, “and pragmatic, business leadership is what is going to take us out of the downturn we’re facing right now.”
That approach calls for scrubbing the budget, she said, especially with regard to discretionary spending and “nice to have” legacy projects, and taking a hard look at consolidating City and County operations, such as Metro Health and the University Health System.
DeBerry and Hortick threw their hats into the ring shortly after Wolff’s announcement that he was stepping down and have continued to lobby for voters’ attention despite lockdowns and social distancing rules that have changed the nature of campaigning for candidates at every level of government. Block-walking, door-knocking, and fundraising has gone largely virtual, but that hasn’t deterred either of them.
As of July, when the last campaign finance reports were filed with the Bexar County Elections Office, DeBerry had spent over $50,500 on her campaign. Hortick had spent over $4,600.
“I always kind of joke with people that I can never seem to do things the easy way, and so not only am I trying to run and win a race that hasn’t been won by a Democrat in more than 50 years, I’m trying to do it in a pandemic,” Hortick said.
Despite the altered landscape for campaigning, DeBerry and Hortick have appeared in televised forums on the local Public Broadcasting Station KLRN and the ABC-affiliate KSAT. Another is scheduled for noon, Oct. 1, on Texas Public Radio’s show, The Source.
Hortick said she’s focused on what the county needs to do to help residents and the economy recover, especially through aid to small business owners.
“There’s more people than money to go around,” she said. “If the county can shift more funds that way, I think it would be really helpful because then those small businesses are able to stay open, they can pay their employees, those employees can pay their bills, and put food on the table.”
Before the pandemic, DeBerry said her campaign messaging was focused on issues that Precinct 3 constituents were talking about, such as property tax reform and the county jail administration.
“Post-COVID, I think it’s even more important … to focus on just starting this economy and putting people back to work, [and] a sweeping infrastructure program, encompassing shovel-ready projects that we know will put people back to work quickly,” she said.
On both personal and professional levels, Hortick and DeBerry say the greatest influences in their lives were strong and supportive mothers – but also tragic loss.
Hortick, who is 41, looks back on the years spent away from home and family when she attended college in Boston as a difficult but defining time in her life. But losing her husband this year, just after the primary election, then forging ahead with her campaign at his urging before he died in March, has been stressful, she said.
“That was really difficult – managing a campaign, the practice, my kids, and taking care of him,” she said. “Because when I made the decision to run, he had a different diagnosis … and he was very supportive of me running. But we made that decision and I’m glad I continued.”
DeBerry, who is 55, also has two children, one in college and another in high school. She was 30 years old when her older brother, who had dreamed of entering politics himself, was killed in a plane crash.
“You do a lot of soul searching when you’re faced with a tragic loss like that and … you forever don’t understand why something like that happened, but you also know that person would want you to move on with your life,” she said.
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5. Early voting begins Oct. 13. Election Day is Nov. 3. Find more information on voter registration and casting a ballot here.
San Antonio Report is a nonpartisan news organization and does not support or endorse political candidates or ballot propositions.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct that Kevin Wolff has endorsed Trish DeBerry.