Peter Sakai spent his career running a family court that handles cases so disheartening that few in the legal field last more than several years.
Rather than winding down, as Sakai himself jokes he ought to do, the 67-year-old says the systemic problems he’s witnessed are the very ones fueling his bid to take on a considerably larger role in county government.
At 8:45 a.m. on a Saturday this month, Sakai’s campaign consultant Jo McCall is taking him around to shake hands at a prayer breakfast at the Davis-Scott Family YMCA on San Antonio’s East Side. By 9:15 he’s on the road to meet with retired workers from the Amalgamated Transit Union, while his wife, Raquel “Rachel” Dias-Sakai, continues mingling at the YMCA.
“I understand y’all are at the point where you can get to enjoy grandkids,” Sakai said to the retired transit workers. “I’ve got grandkids too, and I could have easily said I want to come over to the retiree chapter every day. Get some tacos and coffee, and that would be it.”
Sakai is instead engaging in the biggest campaign of his career, trying to replace retiring Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Sakai faces a May 24 Democratic primary runoff against 47-year-old Ina Minjarez, who has served in the state Legislature since 2015. He was the leading vote-getter in the four-candidate March 1 primary, pulling in nearly 41% of the vote to 30.6% for Minjarez. The winner of the runoff will face Republican Trish DeBerry, the former Precinct 3 county commissioner, in November.
Following the meeting with the retired transit workers, Sakai and his wife greeted voters in the city bond election at the Lions Field Adult and Senior Center and the Tobin Library. That afternoon they mingled with supporters at a meet-and-greet before heading to a birthday party for evangelist Shirley Morris at Tried Stone Baptist Church.
As he tries to woo voters, Sakai says he is clear-eyed about the county government and its workings after 26 years on the bench.
“We’ve got a lot of challenges … and we’ve got to find solutions for our children and families,” Sakai said of his decision to seek the county judge role. “I think that’s how we build our community … through economic development, we build it through infrastructure, we build it through education.”
An early focus on children
Sakai grew up in McAllen, where he played high school football. He graduated from the University of Texas law school in 1979 and was appointed chief of the juvenile section at the Bexar County district attorney’s office in 1981.
After a stint running his own law practice, he was appointed the Juvenile Master/Referee of the 289th State District Court in 1989, where he worked before the late Judge Andy Mireles encouraged him to take an appointed role as an associate judge at the 225th District Court in 1995.
“At first I was like, ‘How much does it pay?’” Sakai joked at a meet-and-greet hosted by Mireles’ widow, Margaret Mireles, this month.
Attorneys who’ve worked in the court say pay is just the beginning of the sacrifices one makes while deciding the future of the county’s abused and neglected children.
“It’s tireless work,” said Christine Hortick, president of the Children’s Court Attorneys Association in San Antonio. “We take care of one [case] and another one pops up.”
Cases of child maltreatment are exceptionally high in Bexar County — so much so that UTSA and the local children’s advocacy center launched a study to dive into potential root causes in 2021.
In recognition of Bexar County’s persistent problems with child welfare, then-225th District Court Judge John Specia had the court’s role expanded and codified by the state Legislature. Though the courts were primarily run by Republicans at the time, Sakai says he’d always been a Democrat and decided to identify that way when he ran successfully to take Specia’s place at the head of that court in 2006.
During his time on the bench as administrative judge, Sakai was involved in creating eight of the 10 specialty courts that involve children. He describes reuniting children with parents as his most rewarding judicial work.
“I had a case in front of him and all I remember walking away with was what a sound-reasoning individual is hearing this case, what a compassionate individual is hearing this case,” said Sylvia Reyna, a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates who is supporting Sakai’s campaign.
After nearly 26 years in the Children’s Court, Sakai acknowledges in his campaign speech that the job could sometimes be draining. In 2004 he took a leave of absence after sending a 14-month old girl back to live with a mother, who later killed her.
As county judge, Sakai says he hopes to address some of the problems — educational, economic and health-related — that led children and families to his courtroom in the first place.
“I want to support our children, which I’ve always done as a district court judge, from cradle to career,” Sakai told the gathering of retired transit workers. ”Let’s make sure that they’re in a pre-K program, make sure that we have a viable public health system.”
Judicial vs. executive role
Sakai’s opponents question whether his experience in the courtroom is enough to step into a role that also includes overseeing transportation, county elections, economic development and a budget of $2.79 billion for fiscal year 2022.
“Even though the title is Bexar County judge, it’s not a judge per se,” said Minjarez, who practiced law and had cases over which Sakai presided early in her career before going on to serve in the Legislature.
Though she said she respects the work Sakai has done in the Children’s Courts, Minjarez said of her opponent, “He does not know what it’s going to take to run the county.”
At a meet-and-greet with Democrats earlier this month, Sakai took questions showcasing some of his ideas for parts of the job less closely related to the court.
Asked how he would approach rising property tax bills, he said would seek to work with Bexar County’s legislative delegation to overhaul the county property appraisal process.
To a question about how he would deal with a rise in mental illness in the community, Sakai responded that he would focus on “restorative justice” and efforts to make sure the justice system doesn’t “lock up our indigent people.”
“That’s why we have so many problems with our jail,” he added. “We use our jails to basically house [and] marginalize the homeless.”
At a candidate forum at Mount Zion First Baptist Church on Thursday night, Sakai ducked when asked what experience he’d had “bringing a budget from zero to completion.”
After running through his work experience on the court, Sakai concluded, “Basically, I’ve always been a leader. I’m ready to lead, and I’m ready to be your next county judge.”
A dinner with the Wolffs
Sakai’s career spent working in county government has offered plenty of other advantages in his race for county judge.
He met Rachel Dias for the first time on the way to the Fiesta Oyster Bake with a mutual friend in 1979. They had both moved to San Antonio, he from Austin for a job at the district attorney’s office and she from Laredo to pursue a graduate degree at UTSA. They got engaged on Peter’s birthday in 1981, married the following spring break and eventually had two children.
While Sakai fostered relationships within the county’s legal community, Dias-Sakai, who retired after almost 10 years at Providence Catholic School in 2018, became involved in the nonprofit world. She’s currently on the boards of TEAMability, which helps children with disabilities, and Merced Housing Texas, which seeks to provide affordable housing to low-income people.
Over dinner with Nelson and Tracy Wolff last summer, Dias-Sakai said, her husband asked the county judge whether he was planning to retire at the end of his term, because Sakai was interested in running for the seat.
“[Nelson Wolff] turned to me and said, ‘Are you square with this idea? Do you know what it’s going to take?’” Dias-Sakai recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Wolff has not endorsed a candidate to replace him. Tracy Wolff runs the nonprofit Hidalgo Foundation, which raises money for causes that have included restoring the Bexar County Courthouse and helping establish the Children’s Court.
“I said, ‘I would be willing to work with you. I work with other nonprofits. I fundraise,’” Dias-Sakai said of her conversation with Tracy Wolff.
In early September, Sakai announced plans to step down from the 225th District Court effective Oct. 31. Wolff told attendees at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s “State of the County” event on Oct. 6 that he would not seek reelection. Sakai announced his bid for county judge Nov. 11.
Sakai is now leaning on his relationships within the Democratic Party to help him through a race against Minjarez, who has rallied support from liberal groups focused on registering new voters.
“He knows all the ins and outs of working with all these county offices,” said Mireles, who hosted the event for him at her home. “He’s well-known in the community, well-respected, works hard. And that’s why I think he’s the man for the job.”
Speaking to the gathering of retired transit workers, longtime Democratic campaign strategist Laura Barberena laid out plans for the Sakai campaign’s final stretch, including phone banking and block walking with the Communications Workers of America.
Barberena got to know Dias-Sakai while working together on a fundraising gala for the Madonna Center and is now helping Sakai, who hasn’t had to run a serious campaign since he was first elected to the bench in 2006.
Sakai won his primary with 57% of the vote that year, then defeated Republican Marialyn Barnard with 59% of the vote in the general election. Barnard had the backing of Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in that race and now represents Precinct 3 on the Commissioners Court. Sakai was unopposed in 2010 and 2014.
The county judge race is major undertaking.
Dias-Sakai said her husband solidified his plans to run over the summer and told their adult children.
“Our son said, ‘Dad, you can go make a lot more money,’ and Peter said, ‘It’s not about the money, it’s not about winding down, it’s about giving back,” said Dias-Sakai. She added that her husband told their children both parents still had a desire to continue serving the community, noting “I still have gas in the tank.”
Disclosure: Ina Minjarez’s husband, Leo Gomez, is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of directors.