Former state District Judge Peter Sakai was sworn into his new role as Bexar County judge on Sunday, marking the county’s first change in leadership in more than two decades.

Roughly 300 family members, friends and colleagues packed both the first and second-floor galleries of the Double Height Courtroom at the Bexar County Courthouse for a ceremony that ended with a performance from traditional Chinese lion dancers to bring luck to the new judge and usher in the new year.

“I’m going to give it my all,” said the 68-year-old Sakai, who will oversee a county of more than 2 million residents and a government with a $2.9 billion budget.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Luis Garcia administered the oath of office using Sakai’s father’s 1952 Bible, which was held by Sakai’s sister, Kathy Sakai.

Sakai replaces Nelson Wolff, a fellow Democrat who used the role to shepherd dozens of development projects and, more recently, make major investments in the county’s heath care infrastructure. Wolff was appointed to the position in 2001 and faced little political opposition during his tenure.

Sakai spent most of his career working on the county’s judicial side — a role that he says gave him insight into the socioeconomic challenges facing Bexar County children and families.

“This all started right down the hall, when [Sakai] started handling the abuse and neglect cases in a room that was smaller than this podium,” said former state District Judge John Specia, Sakai’s predecessor in the 225th District Court and a mentor who also spoke at the ceremony.

Sakai, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Japan and settled in the Rio Grande Valley, took a job in the Bexar County District Attorney’s office after earning his law degree from the University of Texas, and eventually became the county’s juvenile section chief. He later served as an associate judge overseeing cases involving children and families, and in 2006, he was elected to the 225th District Court, where he was reelected three times without opposition.

Despite little campaign experience, he finished first in a three-way Democratic primary last March. He secured his party’s nomination in a May runoff against former state Rep. Ina Minjarez and was elected with 57% of the vote in November over Republican Trish DeBerry.

Bexar County Commissioners and other county officials applaud during the investiture ceremony for newly elected Bexar Peter Sakai Sunday.
Bexar County commissioners and other county officials applaud during the investiture ceremony for new Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai on Sunday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Sakai said Sunday he plans to spend his first several months on the job listening and gathering input from the county’s four commissioners and other community stakeholders before launching new policy initiatives.

“I need to listen to my county commissioners, I’ve got to listen to the elected officials. … We’ve got to then come back and talk to the stakeholders. … And with that, comes the solutions,” Sakai said.

Rising numbers of asylum-seeking migrants and the uncertain future of Title 42 might complicate those plans.

The City of San Antonio recently extended its plans to operate a migrant resource center and is gearing up for an increase the number of migrants it helps move through the city on their way to other destinations.

Sakai declined to specify what role Bexar County might play in helping handle the influx of migrants. The county has provided some services in the past to unaccompanied minors who arrived at the border.

“Obviously, the undocumented immigrants is a federal issue, but we need to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and Bexar County will continue to do that under my leadership,” Sakai told reporters after the ceremony Sunday.

Sakai’s wife, Raquel “Rachel” Dias-Sakai, planned Sunday’s vibrant ceremony, which included two musical ensembles and drew Sakai’s childhood friends from McAllen. Dias-Sakai is a longtime educator who retired from teaching at Providence Catholic School in 2018.

Members of the San Antonio Lion Dance Association perform a traditional Chinese lion dance. New Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai feeds the lion money.
As members of the San Antonio Lion Dance Association perform a traditional Chinese lion dance, new Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai feeds the lion money, a symbolic gesture meant to bring good luck to the giver. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Together they plan to make children and families the focus of Sakai’s new role.

The new first couple was joined at the Bexar County Courthouse Sunday by their two children, Elizabeth Sakai King and George Sakai, as well as their two grandchildren, Grayson King and Jackson Sakai, and Sakai’s brother, Randy Sakai.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, District Attorney Joe Gonzales, members of the commissioners court and Bexar County’s state legislative delegation also attended.

Sakai will oversee a county government that continues to be dominated by Democrats, who swept nearly every countywide office in the November midterm.

Gonzales, Sheriff Javier Salazar and three commissioners — Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1), Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) and Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) — are Democrats. Republican Grant Moody was sworn in to represent Precinct 3 in November.

“I want to reach across the aisle and try to include everybody, including Republicans, and respect their points of view,” Sakai said of the county government’s political makeup.

Sakai will preside over his first commissioners court meeting on Jan. 10.

He recently named Matthew Polanco, who previously served as the director of government relations for Visit San Antonio, as chief of staff. Jim Lefko, a former television journalist, was named communications director, and Cynthia Coss, formerly the director of member engagement at Visit San Antonio, was named director of community affairs.

This article has been updated to correct Bexar County’s annual budget figure.

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Andrea Drusch

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.