Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is taking aim at the state’s Republican leaders on his way out the door, lamenting the changing nature of the institutions in which he once served.

In a wide-ranging interview with San Antonio Report co-founder Robert Rivard at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, Wolff said he “can’t come to terms with” the deterioration of the relationship between the the state and local governments.

“I feel like I’m living in a time that’s hard for me to grasp right now,” said Wolff, who is retiring at the end of the year after more than two decades as county judge.

Wolff, a Democrat, served as mayor of San Antonio from 1991 to 1995. Earlier in his career, he was a member of the Texas House of Representatives, elected in 1971, and the Texas Senate, where he was elected in 1973.

“I have House privileges. I can go on the House floor, Senate floor anytime I want,” Wolff told an audience of local business leaders at the San Antonio Report’s CityFest. “But you know what, I won’t do it. I can’t stomach to do it.”

Wolff’s comments come as leaders of the state’s biggest cities and counties have become increasingly vocal about their disagreements with the state.

Last month, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican, endorsed Democrat Mike Collier over Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, citing his preference for a candidate who “understands local control.”

Among other issues, GOP leaders have moved to limit annexation, curb local governments’ ability to raise revenue, intervened in county-run elections and thwarted cities efforts to create pedestrian corridors.

“I don’t want to go through the whole list of things but they have no respect for local government,” Wolff said. “They have no respect for a lot of metropolitan areas, they had no respect for our rights with regard for trying to save people during Covid.”

Clashes between Wolff and Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott about how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic led to lawsuits, and Wolff says he believes thousands of lives could have been saved if not for the governor’s intervention.

Referring to his frustration with state leadership, Wolff added, “there’s only one way that changes, and that’s elections.”

Looking back on his time in the state House and Senate, Wolff said “we were mostly a conservative, moderate body. But even way back in that history, we were the first state to pass an equal rights amendment.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, center, is joined by wife Tracy Wolff and San Antonio Report co-founder Robert Rivard on stage at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts during CityFest on Wednesday.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, center, is joined by wife Tracy Wolff and San Antonio Report co-founder Robert Rivard on stage at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It was what I would call reasonable positions by a legislative body, and we’re not seeing that today,” he added, pointing to the GOP’s efforts to remove former moderate Republican House Speaker Joe Straus as an example of the changing environment.

“Unless society stands up and people that are in more moderate positions, people that believe in bipartisanship, people that believe in civility, if they don’t stand up, we’re gonna have some real problems down the road,” said Wolff.

Democrat Peter Sakai and Republican Trish DeBerry are vying to replace Wolff as county judge. They’ll debate at 6 p.m. Thursday at San Antonio College’s McAllister Auditorium as part of the San Antonio Report’s CityFest.

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.