In any time of crisis, conspiracy theories go – I apologize – viral. So it’s not surprising that some are challenging the results of the recent Bexar County election. One strong piece of “evidence” in the Republican primary is how well Gerry Rickhoff did. 

Gerry Rickhoff won the Republican nomination for sheriff despite the fact that he has never worked in law enforcement and that his campaign finance reports indicate he did not receive a single campaign contribution. Not one!

He spent a total of $2,190 on his campaign, including a $1,250 filing fee to the Bexar County Republican Party. The piddling amount presumably came from campaign funds left over from his days as county clerk.

His main opponent, Willie Ng, is a licensed peace officer with an extensive background in law enforcement, including stints as a San Antonio Police Department detective and chief investigator in the district attorney’s office. He had the backing of the Republican establishment, raising $170,000 in cash and another $40,000 through in-kind contributions. Ng spent about that much cash on his campaign.

Yet Rickhoff beat Ng 52 percent to 30 percent.  

County Clerk Gerard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff performed the marriage ceremony which were formally performed by Rev. Joe Sullivan. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Gerard C. “Gerry” Rickhoff. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

That is, so far, the primary argument for a conspiracy – or at least malfeasance. Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, a Democrat, and Bexar County Republican Party Chair Cynthia Brehm, cite whispers and a “whistleblower” as saying Ng’s name was missing from some of the ballots. Ng says he’s heard the same thing from several supporters.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I’m skeptical. If I went in to vote for Ng and his name wasn’t on the ballot, I’d stand up and holler. I’d call the election officials over to my voting machine and demand that they show me Ng’s name. If they couldn’t show it to me, I’d insist that they call the county election office and have them come take a look.

But according to veteran elections administrator Jacquelyn Callanen, not a single such call came in, much less anything close to the 17,000-vote differential between Ng and Gerry Rickhoff. Not a single precinct official reported such a problem.

No, the weirdness of this election result has to do with name recognition, and in particular the name Rickhoff. It was made strangely powerful in Bexar County by Gerry’s older brother Tom, starting 42 years ago.

Tom Rickhoff was also on the Republican ballot this election, in the primary for the Precinct 3 county commissioners seat, and had results similar to Gerry’s. Tom received all of seven campaign contributions, including one for $10 for a total of $3,410. Tom was able to spend $37,000 on his campaign, but only because he loaned the campaign about that much.

His opponent, Trish DeBerry, a longtime public relations professional who came in second to Julián Castro in the 2009 mayor’s race, had overwhelming support from the Republican establishment and beyond. She raised nearly $240,000 and spent $180,000, nearly five times as much as Rickhoff. 

And I think it’s safe to say Tom didn’t knock on a lot of doors.

Yet DeBerry trailed Tom Rickhoff, 34 percent to 29 percent.

Why is the Rickhoff name such a ballot asset? The story begins in 1978 when I was editor of SA Magazine and Tom Rickhoff was our lawyer. He wasn’t our libel lawyer, but our business-side lawyer. He seemed pretty good at it. I was in a negotiating session with him once when he countered an offer from the other side with a boyish laugh. It worked.

When Tom filed for district clerk, we didn’t fire him. For one thing it wasn’t a race that merited our coverage. For another, we didn’t think he had a prayer of winning. No Republican had won a countywide race in San Antonio since Reconstruction. What’s more, as has been his practice, Rickhoff didn’t raise any serious money and didn’t mount much of a campaign.

I had the pleasure of calling Rickhoff the morning after the election and saying, “Congratulations, Tom. You’re fired.”

It was his opponent who won the race for him. Old Elton Cude’s sell-by date had clearly expired. He was still running against communism, and there was the little matter of his primary election-night altercation with the cops. He was outraged that they would ticket the cars of his illegally parked supporters.

Having had the good fortune of a bad opponent, Rickhoff had even better fortune when he entered office. He inherited a top aide name Herb Schaefer, who presented him with a dossier demonstrating the outrageous fact that the county’s bail bondsmen were in a no-risk business. 

They received healthy fees for guaranteeing that accused criminals would show up for court dates, but suffered no consequences when they didn’t. Records showed that bonds were almost never forfeited, even when defendants failed to appear. 

Rickhoff enjoyed the novelty of being an investigative district clerk. With Schaefer’s help, he commanded a rich trove of headlines and TV time as the scandal of bail bondsmen’s generosity to judges and other officials came to public attention.

Rickhoff’s political career was golden from then on. Gov. Bill Clements appointed him to preside over the county’s juvenile district court in 1981, and he was elected to that bench the next year with 59 percent of the vote as Clements went down to defeat. Four years later he would retain the seat with 65 percent of the vote, higher than any Republican had ever received in Bexar County. Four years later, nobody bothered to oppose him.

In 1992 he beat a Democratic incumbent for a seat on the the 4th Court of Appeals, after which his school teacher brother Gerry decided to run for county clerk. Despite running a low-key, Rickhoff-style campaign, he narrowly beat Democrat Bob Green, who had held the office for more than 20 years. Gerry would beat Green’s longevity. 

In 2018 the power of the Rickhoff name was such that Gerry didn’t draw a Republican primary opponent despite earlier having announced that if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Texas’s ban on gay marriages unconstitutional he would keep his office open as late as needed to handle the backlog for marriage licenses. He even said he had already made the application forms gender-neutral. The Democratic sweep was so stunning that year, however, that he was beaten in November.

Meanwhile, Tom Rickhoff had caused some controversy. In 2001 he took the unusual step of asking the Commissioners Court to appoint him to a vacancy on the county probate court. He made no bones about the fact that he wanted to start earning retirement benefits from the county pension system because he had maxed out on the state’s system. A prominent district judge at the time privately told me the move was “shameful.” 

Rickhoff had never shown interest in the very specialized area of probate law and quickly earned a reputation of ignoring the law to make awards he thought were more appropriate. Then shortly after winning reelection in 2006, Rickhoff announced that he would no longer take the mental health cases traditionally handled by his court. He said he found them too taxing. Yet Rickhoff would be reelected until 2018, when he ran unsuccessfully against County Judge Nelson Wolff.

That’s one loss for Tom Rickhoff in 30 years of electoral politics, despite the fact that he never ran a fully-funded, energetic campaign. 

I don’t expect him to beat Trish DeBerry in the runoff scheduled for May 26, but I could be just as wrong as I was in 1978.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.