When a growing list of Democrats face off in a primary next spring for the office of Bexar County judge, it will be the first serious race for that office in 30 years. Bexar County has had only two county judges in that period. One never had an opponent after her first race, and the other never had to sweat.
The main reason for the interest in the position is the retirement of the current county judge, Nelson Wolff, the one who occasionally had opponents but never had to sweat.
Not only did Wolff, who will have held the job for two of those three decades, perform in such a way as to ward off top-tier contenders, but he also transformed the position into one that would attract office seekers who actually want to accomplish something.
Our story starts back in 1992. The incumbent county judge, John Longoria, had been appointed by his fellow county commissioners to replace Tom Vickers, who had resigned to take a position in Gov. Ann Richards’ administration.
The main reason his colleagues chose Longoria was that they figured he couldn’t win an election to hold onto the office. He apparently agreed and ran for the Legislature instead. Meanwhile, state Sen. Cyndi Krier’s political life was being made miserable by Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.
Krier, a reform-oriented Republican, defeated Southside politician Tommy Adkisson in a close race to serve out the unexpired term as county judge. The courthouse, having been controlled by Democrats for more than a century, was ripe for reform. Krier was reelected in 1994 and 1998 without opposition in either the primary or in the general election.
In 2001 Krier resigned in order to take a position on the Board of Regents of her alma mater, the University of Texas. In a bipartisan move that is almost unimaginable now, she joined her colleagues in unanimously appointing Nelson Wolff, a Democrat, to replace her until the 2002 election.
Wolff would win the next five elections. In the first, he faced a little-known Republican and a Libertarian. In the second he had no opponent and in the third only a Libertarian. In the fourth he easily fended off Adkisson in the Democratic primary and City Councilman Carlton Soules in the general election. Finally, in 2018 he defeated Republican Tom Rickhoff, who had held a variety of judicial positions, by 20 points.
With Wolff’s tenure nearing an end, former Bexar County District Judge Peter Sakai declared his candidacy for the job last week, and on Monday state Rep. Ina Minjarez joined the field.
When Krier ran for the job in 1992 it was attractive for the salary more than for the power. The county judge now makes $172,000 a year, nearly $20,000 more than the Texas governor. The “judge,” a misnomer in urban counties, presides over the five-member Commissioners Court, which approves the county budget. It has little power other than funding over the dozens of elected judges, court clerks, sheriff and district attorney.
The Commissioners Court operates county roads and parks departments, and appoints and oversees the board of the hospital district, but traditionally these were not the kinds of high-profile tasks that attract ambitious politicians.
Wolff changed that. Politically sophisticated after serving as a state representative, state senator and two-terms as one of San Antonio’s more effective mayors, he fashioned the county judge job into what might best be described as San Antonio’s second mayor.
He started by bringing some discipline to what he described as “the weirdest government I had ever seen.”
Ten department heads reported to five commissioners, he said, often playing them off each other. Krier tried to increase efficiency through performance audits but met strong resistance. Wolff won support from Commissioners Court to hire a county manager, whose job is to coordinate county functions and to alert the Commissioners Court to areas in which improvements can be made.
Wolff led in making some other organizational improvements, but the primary way you can see how he acted as a second mayor is the list of projects he pushed. Previously the county played very little role in what might be called city building. Krier had cracked the door open when City Hall hesitated on providing a new arena for the Spurs. She led the county in building and virtually donating to the Spurs what is now called the AT&T Center located on county-owned land on the East Side.
Wolff went much farther. Consider this partial list of city-building projects he championed:
He took over the ancient and aptly named Municipal Auditorium and led the effort to turn it into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a state-of-the-art venue. The city donated the 1926 auditorium and an old adjacent structure. Wolff persuaded voters to approve a $100 million bond issue and put together a private-sector group to raise millions more to convert the facility into the gem it is today.
In 2008 he led the effort to permit University Health, formerly the Bexar County Hospital District, to sell bonds for expansion. The district now boasts more than two dozen facilities, including a diabetes hospital on the West Side, the expansion of the old Robert B. Green facility on the edge of downtown with a six-story pavilion that makes it the largest outpatient facility in the county, and the addition of the million-square-foot Sky Tower at the original hospital at the South Texas Medical Center. In addition, a new Women’s and Children’s Hospital is scheduled to open in 2023.
Under Wolff’s leadership the county was a major force in developing the Mission Reach extension of the San Antonio River Walk, allocating more than $200 million while working with the San Antonio River Authority. Together with the Museum Reach to the north of downtown developed by the City, the entire 15-mile stretch is one the nation’s great linear parks.
Wolff persuaded the Commissioners Court to also play a major role in the San Pedro Creek development along the west side of downtown, putting up about $175 million to provide the bulk of the project’s funding.
He led the county in contributing to then-Mayor Julian Castro’s Decade of Downtown, providing tax incentives for projects ranging from housing to the new Frost Tower.
Other county efforts under Wolff include part of the funding for the Alameda Theater restoration and the creation of BiblioTech, an all-digital library with three locations and 24-hour online access to digital books and publications.
There’s more, and you can agree or not with the county’s role in some of these projects. But I think an urban county deserves an urban leader. The Texas Constitution does not give us that, but former Mayor Wolff has. I hope his successor can do the same.
San Antonio has benefited from having two mayors.
This article has been updated to correct the name of the Bexar County Hospital District.