Precinct 3 County Commissioner Kevin Wolff’s decision not to seek reelection presents a rare opportunity for change on a body with no term limits that has seen only two female members in its history. Wolff’s father, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, took over for the last woman to serve on the court in 2001.
Commissioners Court seats in precincts 1 and 2 also are on the ballot, with Precinct 2 Commissioner Justin Rodrigez seeking to win election to the seat he was appointed to last year and Precinct 1 Commissioner Chico Rodriguez seeking reelection to a fourth term.
Wolff, who has served three terms, hasn’t endorsed a successor but has met with all of the Republican candidates and “at least one” of the Democratic candidates.
“The good news – there’s quite a few good people running for Precinct 3,” he said.
Trish DeBerry is the most recognizable name in a field of eight candidates in the GOP primary. She boasts the biggest fundraising haul, with $57,834 raised between Jan. 1 and Jan. 23 and $67,084 cash on hand.
With strong ties to the business community, DeBerry has owned a public relations company, the DeBerry Group, since 2011. She also mounted an unsuccessful mayoral race in 2009, losing to Julián Castro.
She said politics has always been a part of her DNA, even though she hasn’t sought another public office since that time.
“This opportunity came up, and sometimes politics takes gut instinct,” she said. “I was born and raised in the precinct and understand the challenges and priorities.”
DeBerry’s PR firm may be a familiar brand to Bexar County voters, as it has worked with both the City and Bexar County before – helping with social media strategy for Hemisfair and doing communications for San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Before starting a career in PR, DeBerry worked as a reporter and anchor for KENS-TV. She sees her candidacy as one to show that women can make their way into an all-male domain.
“It’s been more than 20 years since we’ve had a female on the court and I think that diversity and perspective a female brings to the equation is critically important,” DeBerry said.
In addition to DeBerry, three other women are seeking Wolff’s seat. Attorney Celeste Brown, a former judge for County Court-at-Law 8, said she wanted to push back against the “bullies” of Commissioners Court.
The court has not had a woman on the dais for two decades. Helen Dutmer was the first woman to serve on the court, retiring in 1997. Cyndi Taylor Krier left the county judge position in 2001.
“We need to stop that good old boys system and that fraternity,” said Brown, who raised $10,305 in January and has $6,764 cash on hand. “It’s been a fraternity for years.”
Candidate Ellen Pfeiffer is making her first run for public office. The home care services marketing coordinator, who reported $200 in political contributions collected between Jan. 1 and Jan. 23 with $456 cash on hand, said she is not worried about the fundraising gap between her and DeBerry. She said she had been planning to run for the seat for years, ever since the City of San Antonio and Bexar County paid $18 million for a soccer stadium to house a team that ultimately did not come to the city.
“I got fed up,” Pfeiffer said. “These are our property tax dollars, and sure enough, the soccer team went to Austin.”
Fellow Republican candidates Kenny Vallespin, John Casares, Weston Martinez, Tom Rickhoff, and Judy Stuller all had similar criticisms of spending by the Commissioners Court and pledged to scrutinize the County budget more closely for superfluous spending.
“I feel we can have a better balance of budget and need someone who is willing to be accountable and transparent with the budget and be a good steward of your and the taxpayers’ money,” bank executive Vallespin said.
Rickhoff, the former Bexar County probate judge who waged a long-shot campaign for Bexar County judge in 2018 and lost to Nelson Wolff by 20 points, castigated county commissioners for their spending habits on large-scale projects such as the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Commissioners approved nearly $60 million last December for the next segment of the park’s construction. Phase 1 and 2 of the four-phase construction plan cost around $260 million, Kerry Averyt, the San Antonio River Authority’s senior engineer, said in December.
“They’re committed to visionary projects that have nothing to do with county government and ignoring fundamental obligations of county government – our safety, our roads, and running the courthouse,” Rickhoff said.
All candidates agreed that the next leader of Precinct 3 needed to keep property taxes from rising and focus on infrastructure needs within the district.
“I will not sign a county budget that does not provide real tax relief and forces the county to provide basic services in a more efficient manner,” telecommunications businessman Weston Martinez said. Martinez markets himself as a “true conservative” and has been endorsed by conservative groups such as Texas Values Action and officials such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.
In the Democratic primary, attorney Christine Hortick faces businessman Ismael Reyes and private investigator Alfonso Perez. Hortick has won endorsements from the North East Bexar County Democrats, Stonewall Democrats, and the San Antonio AFL-CIO. She said she knows the precinct is heavily Republican but believes she is the candidate to flip the district.
“I don’t think there’s been a viable Democrat to challenge [a Precinct 3 commissioner] in a very long time,” Hortick said. “Local Democrats are very fed up with national politics and I think that’ll draw a lot of people to the polls. We might be able to capitalize on that sentiment along with having a viable candidate.”
Precinct 3 has been represented by a Republican commissioner since 1965.
Both Hortick and Reyes said they want to improve transportation and infrastructure in Precinct 3. Reyes, who owns a small communications company and a consulting business, said though he felt Kevin Wolff had been a good leader, the precinct was ready for change.
‘I’ve been doing a lot of block-walking, and I’ll say I’m a Democrat and people will say, ‘Great! We need a Democrat.’” Reyes said.
Longtime incumbent Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez (Pct. 1) has two primary challengers but is unlikely to lose his seat. He was first elected in 2004.
Democratic candidate Rebeca Clay-Flores, a special projects manager at the City of San Antonio’s health department, said she wanted to use her skills and education to bring positive change to her community; Flores holds a masters degree in education.
“Even though county commissioners court [doesn’t preside] over education, I think we need to use our platform and voice as elected officials to work with school districts,” she said.
“I want to be a voice for the community and bring resources to my precinct. I came back to San Antonio to build my community up, and that’s what I’m doing. I want my community to hold me accountable. I believe in practicing what I preach. If we elect officials and they’re not doing their job, we shouldn’t let them stay in their position.”
Democratic candidate Fred “Freddy” Mendoza, a deputy at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department, said a recurring concern that Precinct 1 residents share is a lack of communication from their current commissioner.
“We’re going to be more visible, more accessible to the community,” said Mendoza, who added that addressing substance abuse and mental health issues in the county would be at the top of his priority list.
Incumbent Rodriguez said he hopes to continue the effort to bring economic development and growth to his precinct. He pointed to companies like Toyota and Navistar putting their manufacturing plants to the South Side as products of his relationship-building with key people to improve the area.
“They support me because they see what I’ve done, these housing people and developers, to bring development and housing to the South Side,” Rodriguez said.
Gabriel Lara, a retired paramedic, is unopposed on the Republican Precinct 1 ballot.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appointed Justin Rodriguez to the Precinct 2 seat in January 2019 following the death of Commissioner Paul Elizondo. State law requires Rodriguez, a former state representative, to run for his seat in the next general election in order to finish the term of his predecessor; this term would end in 2022. His only challenger in the Democratic primary is Queta Rodriguez, who forced Elizondo into a runoff in 2018.
Queta Rodriguez has criticized Wolff for not getting community input on Elizondo’s successor.
“That’s not how democracy works,” she said. “In a democracy, people having a voice is extremely important. We need change and leadership in the county. We are putting a ton of resources toward projects that don’t benefit the everyday people … and I don’t see a change in that trajectory because the opponent is really more of the same.”
Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 23, she raised $3,519 and spent $5,478, with $2,863 cash on hand. Justin Rodriguez raised $6,900 and spent $48,518 in the same time frame, with $348,406 cash on hand. He is avoiding complacency as the current incumbent, he said.
“We’ve been through a few of these [elections] and feel like we’re doing what we need to do: calling, text, mailing, not taking anything for granted,” he said. “I feel good about the feedback we’re getting from folks in the community.”
Justin Rodriguez said he wants to continue focusing on transparency and accountability, as well as efforts to boost mental health support in the county. He and University Health System CEO George Hernandez announced a $7.1 million addition in funding to address issues such as homelessness, domestic violence, and children with special needs.
“It’s our first year of a $7 million a year commitment,” he said. “My hope is we continue that over the next few years and i’d like to see that through and how that improves people’s lives.”
Beyond addressing property tax concerns and spending on large county projects like San Pedro Creek, Queta Rodriguez said she also plans to improve the budgeting process and make sure county residents understand how it was put together.
“I know the City does an index and they prioritize based on deterioration or types of infrastructure,” she said. “… A lot of what the county does, it’s ‘public’ but not very transparent. But [we would] begin with prioritizing where the highest needs are and worst conditions are and working backward from that point.”
There are no Republican candidates for Precinct 2 county commissioner.
Early voting begins Tuesday, Feb. 18, for the March 3 primaries.