Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and supporters pose for a selfie on election night. Nov. 4, 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and supporters pose for a selfie during the Wolff campaign's victory on election night. Photo by Scott Ball.

It’s an unavoidable temptation to compare the general election victory of County Judge Nelson Wolff, a Democrat, with the defeat of District Attorney Susan Reed, a Republican. It’s also an object lesson.

Both were nearing the end of long public service careers, and both wanted at least one more term. Wolff, 74, had held his current office since his appointment in 2001, and had won re-election three times. Tuesday was win number four. His big project agenda remains as ambitious as it was when he first took office.

Reed, 64, had held her office even longer, since 1998, and before then, she served as a judge for 12 years. The Bexar County Courthouse was her fiefdom. Even when leaders in her own party tired of her tenure last year, no one was willing to step forward and challenge her in the primary.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and District Attorney Susan Reed pose for a photo during the opening night of the art installation in Main Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and District Attorney Susan Reed pose for a photo during the opening night of “The Saga” art installation in Main Plaza in June 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Given the Republican demolition of the Democratic ballot here, there, and everywhere, some might conclude that Wolff had no business winning again. Some might conclude that Reed had no business losing. Both faced candidates who campaigned on the belief that the incumbents had held office too long and needed to be swept out.

Wolff is still standing. Reed is now at the end of her career as an elected officeholder. What happened? The explanation, I think, is fairly simple. Wolff has known defeat in his long political career, and he knows it can visit at any time – especially when it is least expected. Power held for a long enough time can convert to complacency. Reed, in contrast, grew complacent, and even worse, contemptuous of her challenger.

This morning, Wolff is wearing the smile of success. His vanquished primary opponent, Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, was in attendance to celebrate Wolff’s win, no hard feelings evident six months later. Wolff’s Republican challenger in the general election, former District 10 Councilmember Carlton Soules, was treated by Wolff like a worthy adversary. The two debated nearly 10 times.

Susan Reed
Susan Reed

Reed has to be feeling the pain of unexpected defeat. She arrived late at her own Election Night party and she left early. The Express-News reported that she did  call and offer congratulations to District Attorney-elect Nicholas “Nico” LaHood the following day. It’s easy to be gracious in victory, but it’s a lost opportunity not to muster the same graciousness in defeat.

Reed may, indeed, have stayed in office too long and grown too distant from supporters and her base, but her long record in office should be remembered for more than one election loss. It’s up to Reed and her team now to make that happen in transition.

It won’t be easy. The county’s business of prosecuting crime and overseeing the civil docket needs to go on, but LaHood deserves to build his own team and govern according to his own platform and philosophy, and that means Reed won’t be the only one packing up her office.

Reed treated her general election opponent with the contempt any prosecutor would show a convicted felon, which Nico LaHood is not and never was, and then she let the voters do the rest. LaHood, who lost by eight points to Reed in the 2010 general election, was not considered a serious threat.

Wolff was surprised when Adkisson, a longtime Commissioners Court ally, decided to try to unseat him. Any anger quickly converted into determination as Wolff, who had not faced a serious challenger since the 1991 mayoral race, dusted off his campaign playbook and hit the ground running. Tracy Wolff was with him, from start to finish, a formidable campaigner in her own right.

Reed should have realized that LaHood presented a far greater threat this second time around after he secured an astonishing $1.2 million river of campaign funds from personal injury lawyer Thomas J. Henry. Instead, she treated LaHood like a crook with dirty money. It’s certainly fair to question the quid pro quo in such circumstances, but it’s also plausible that a Democratic lawyer with a lot of disposable income saw his chance to knock off a powerful Republican and he took it.

It didn’t become an issue put to Reed during the campaign, but wasn’t it the Republican Party that constructed a political and electoral system built more on unlimited money than citizen participation? It’s fair to say Democrats Henry and LaHood used the tactics of the Republican Party to score their stunning upset this Election Day.

On a night when the larger story was how Republicans carried out a textbook destruction of the Democratic Party, one veteran Democrat’s victory and one veteran Republican’s defeat might offer the most lasting political lessons.

*Featured/top image: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and supporters pose for a selfie during the Wolff campaign’s victory on election night. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.