Nelson Wolff spent much of his career physically reshaping San Antonio and Bexar County, through development projects he shepherded as a member of the state Legislature, mayor of San Antonio and Bexar County Judge.
Given a windfall of federal funding at the end of his career, however, Wolff has dedicated much of his final chapter to a legacy that won’t take shape until long after he’s left office: improving the health care systems he believed failed many residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve got to do a better job of protecting ourselves and creating a stronger human being,” Wolff told graduates at Our Lady of The Lake University’s commencement ceremony earlier this month.
“The vast majority of the 48,000 people right here in San Antonio who went to the hospital with severe cases [of COVID-19]… had underlying health issues that we need to address.”
While Wolff still counts projects like building the Alamodome, the creation of the San Antonio Water System and the extension of the River Walk among his top accomplishments, he was deeply moved by the pandemic.
He and Mayor Ron Nirenberg received more than 600 situation updates, participated in 400 healthcare conferences and held 319 nightly media briefings, according to Wolff. Still, more than 5,400 Bexar County residents have died from COVID-19.
“That led to me thinking, we need to do more public health,” Wolff said in a recent interview. When the pandemic arrived, “we weren’t ready,” he said.
Texas leads the nation in the rate of residents who don’t have health insurance, according to the 2020 census. State leaders have repeatedly declined to expand access to federally-funded health care for people who can’t afford it, and more recently, redirected the state public health dollars to fund border security efforts.
In his final year as county judge, Wolff, who sparred regularly with state leaders over their handling of the pandemic, took measures into his own hands.
Of the $389 million the county received in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, roughly a third will go toward projects aimed at improving public health.
Wolff oversaw the allocation of $10 million for a new school of public health at the University of Texas at San Antonio, a $30 million investment in the newly-created Bexar County Health Department, another $30 million for a new public health division for University Health and $10 million for a new UT Health clinic.
Wolff said the county also allocated $60 million for building mental health facilities and partnerships with organizations that provide treatment and recovery services for people dealing with drug addiction and mental health issues.
The projects will take years to complete, long past the end of Wolff’s 21-year run as county judge. Former Children’s Court Judge Peter Sakai will be sworn into the role on Jan. 1.
Before he goes, the San Antonio Report took a look back at Wolff’s decades-long career in public service. Here are some of the highlights:
Elected state representative from Bexar County
Elected state senator, becoming the youngest member of the Texas State Senate
Served on the San Antonio City Council representing District 8
Ran for mayor against incumbent Lila Cockrell and went on to defeat Maria Berriozábal in a runoff. In December, he led the City Council vote to create the San Antonio
Water System (SAWS).
Oct. 7, 1992
As mayor, participated in a downtown ceremony with President George H.W. Bush, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to sign the historic North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered many trade barriers among the three nations.
Opened the Alamodome in May and as mayor presided over the city’s role as host of the first events there as part of the US. Olympic Festival in July.
Led opening of the Mission Baseball Park, which he championed and built as mayor. It was later renamed Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium in his honor.
Led the City Council in passing the first ordinance
to protect the aquifer recharge zone, then later pushed for state legislation to create the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which allowed the new agency to restrict pumping water out of the Edwards Aquifer.
Appointed to succeed Republican Cyndi Taylor Krier as Bexar County judge. Krier stepped down to join the University of Texas Board of Regents and supported the choice of Wolff, a Democrat, as her replacement. Wolff was the first county judge since the late 1800s to also have been a San Antonio mayor.
Concept design for the San Antonio River Improvement Project completed. Investments by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would create 13 additional miles of linear park extending the River Walk north to what is now the Pearl, and south to Mission Espada.
Celebrated the opening of the $175 million SBC Center, the new home of the San Antonio Spurs, owned by the county and built using revenue from the visitor tax and other fees, as approved by voters. While plans to build it were laid by his predecessor, Wolff oversaw the completion of the building.
Won election as Bexar County judge
Along with San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, brought a Toyota manufacturing plant plus dozens of suppliers to Bexar County. Local and state entities put up $133 million in incentives, resulting in thousands of jobs, and laid the groundwork for Bexar County to become an advanced manufacturing hub. The official announcement of the move came in February 2003.
Ran unopposed for reelection to a second term as county judge
Led the effort to persuade Bexar County voters to approve extending the visitor tax that built the AT&T Center to raise another $415 million, split to fund the bulk of construction of the Mission Reach, transform Municipal Auditorium into what would become the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, pay for upgrades to the AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum, and build a series of amateur sports complexes around the county.
Museum Reach of the San Antonio River opens, extending the River Walk north from Lexington Avenue
Defeated Libertarian Steve Mayer to win reelection as county judge
An avid book collector, Wolff spearheaded the $2.3 million effort to launch BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital library, on San Antonio’s South Side, lending digital content and e-readers.
After years spent championing light rail for San Antonio and Bexar County, Wolff and newly appointed Mayor Ivy Taylor scrap plans for the project amid widespread public opposition.
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opens. The building that once was the Municipal Auditorium was built at a cost of more than $200 million.
Defeated Republican Carlton Soules to win reelection as county judge
Renovation of Bexar County Commissioners Courtroom is completed, removing two additions built by architect Edward Gondeck in 1963 and 1972 and restoring the courthouse’s original exterior.
Construction begins on the first phase of the reconstruction of San Pedro Creek. A joint project of Bexar County, the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio River Authority, the county estimated the cost of the four-phase project to be $175 million.
Opening of the first of four phases of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, from North Santa Rosa to Houston streets.
Defeated Republican Tom Rickhoff to win reelection as county judge
COVID-19 pandemic arrives. Wolff begins nightly briefings with Mayor Ron Nirenberg to update the community on case numbers, safety recommendations and other topics. The pair soon found themselves in conflict with state officials over local control and pandemic-related restrictions.
Bexar County and the City of San Antonio sue Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his July executive order that prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates, challenging Abbott’s authority to suspend local emergency orders during the pandemic.
Wolff announces he will not seek reelection as county judge in 2022.