Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has built a 50-year record of public service thanks in no small part to his keen political instincts and singular ability to shepherd big projects from vision to completion.
No one, however, is infallible. Wolff and the Bexar County citizens he represents would be better served if he would reconsider his decision to “hold over” Precinct 3 Commissioner Trish BeBerry, now a Republican candidate for county judge, in office through February.
State law requires DeBerry to resign from commissioners court to run for another county office. Wolff has 60 days to name a replacement, but the time to replace DeBerry’s interim successor is now, while voters decide in November who should serve out the remainder of her four-year term. There is no overriding reason to justify keeping an actively campaigning candidate in office.
Leaving DeBerry in office, despite the law, creates the perception, if not the reality, that Wolff is putting his thumb on the scales and giving DeBerry greater weight in what promises to be a competitive and hard-fought race as voters prepare to select a new county judge on Nov. 6.
The individual Wolff appoints will serve as an interim county commissioner until the winner of the Nov. 6 race for the Precinct 3 seat is sworn into office in January 2023. In the latest twist to this political drama, the Texas secretary of state’s office issued a new ruling Friday clearing the way for the county chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties to hand-pick candidates for the November ballot. A Wednesday announcement inviting candidates to file by Monday for the March 1 primary is now off the table.
The primary campaigns for the county judge seat Wolff will vacate at the end of his fifth term are already underway. DeBerry is likely to have an easy time leading up to the Republican primary on March 1. Why not enjoy two more months in office while worrying little about her underfunded, largely unknown opponent, Nate Buchanan, who ran unsuccessfully for Precinct 3 Constable in 2016 and 2020?
There are three credible candidates in the Democratic primary. Those candidates deserve to be on an equal footing with DeBerry. That’s why state law forces county-level officeholders seeking higher office to resign. A 2010 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott clearly states that an official candidate announcement by a county commissioner triggers an immediate resignation.
DeBerry has been in office for a scant 11 months, which makes her bid for the county judge seat now seem premature and even grasping. The immediate political cost to her should be losing the right to represent the voters who put her in office.
The “resign to run” law does not apply to state officeholders, so Democratic state Rep. Ina Minjarez is allowed to continue to serve in the Texas House, which is not in session. Prior to his candidacy, Judge Peter Sakai ended his long and distinguished career as a state district court judge and pioneer in the realm of protecting vulnerable children and families. Ivalis Meza Gonzalez, who is seeking elected office for the first time, stepped down as Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s chief of staff after making her announcement to run.
DeBerry should make the moment easier for Wolff by announcing she has reconsidered and will vacate her office immediately.
Wolff’s argument that keeping DeBerry on the court for an extended period is necessary to see through key initiatives rings hollow. The vetting process to appoint a caretaker for the vacant Precinct 3 seat can be handled in a way that assures the chosen individual understands his or her obligation to respect projects already underway or nearing completion.
The interim commissioner does not have to rubber-stamp every agenda item, but sound judgment should be a prerequisite for the appointment. Wolff would be wise to assemble a distinguished panel to vet the qualified candidates and not exercise his unilateral power to hand-pick DeBerry’s successor.
For voters to make an informed decision, there is one other important step DeBerry can take. She should provide the media and the public with a full list of her public relations and marketing agency’s clients, and disclose any contracts they have with Bexar County. She should document her assertion that she no longer has a controlling interest in the agency or its management.
One effective way for candidates to demonstrate complete transparency with voters is to release recent income tax returns. There might not be a precedent for such a measure locally, but Wolff leaves this important administrative and leadership position after 20 years. Bexar County has grown enormously in that time, and with that growth has come a significant increase in tax collections and the power of county judge.
The best start to the campaign to replace Wolff would be a Deberry resignation now and the appointment of a credible interim commissioner, preferably a Republican, to represent the people and interests of Precinct 3 until the November special election leads to the seating of a new county commissioner on the first day of 2023.