SAN ANTONIO – For the first time in more than 20 years, Bexar County will have a new county judge in January and voters will decide who that will be during the Nov. 8 election.
The county has not elected a Republican as Bexar County Judge since 1998, when Cyndi Taylor Krier clinched her second term in office. Krier resigned in 2001 after she was named to the UT System Board of Regents. Nelson Wolff was appointed in her place and remained in office since then after winning five consecutive terms.
There is no lack of experience between the candidates hoping to step into the role.
On the Democratic ticket, Peter Sakai spent 26 years as a judge, overseeing the court system’s budget and presiding over cases involving drugs, domestic violence and family issues.
Sakai began his career in the District Attorney’s Office and then opened his own law practice.
In 1995, Sakai was appointed judge of the Bexar County Children’s Court, where he touts that adoptions of foster children in Bexar County increased 1,000%.
He was elected to the 225th State District Court in 2014. He left that office last October after Wolff announced his retirement.
Republican Trish DeBerry was a former television journalist who then founded a multimillion-dollar marketing company before turning to politics.
She managed Ed Garza’s mayoral campaign in 2001 and ran for the office in 2009, losing to Julián Castro.
DeBerry was elected as Bexar County Pct. 3 commissioner — her first political office — in 2020, but she stepped down just one year later when he announced her bid for the top county position.
In her 11 months in office, DeBerry has scrutinized the operations at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, often clashing with Sheriff Javier Salazar on his department’s purchasing requests and policies.
The campaign has been fraught with controversy in recent months with DeBerry accusing Sakai of “lying” about a negative ad campaign directed at her. DeBerry claimed that the “dark money” ads were funded by personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry and created by Bob Wills, the head of the PM Group. DeBerry has never provided proof of her claim and Henry, Wills, and Sakai all denied being involved.
The San Antonio chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance demanded that DeBerry issue an apology for making what it deemed a racist remark about Sakai during a debate. DeBerry referred to Sakai as “Dr. No” — who was a villain of Asian descent in the first film of the James Bond movie series. DeBerry said she gave Sakai that moniker not because of his race but because of his political policies.
“I referred to Peter Sakai as Dr. No because he specializes in saying ‘No’ to any idea that moves Bexar County forward,” DeBerry said in a statement.
Squabbling aside, many voters want to focus on the issues and had questions for Sakai and DeBerry about their priorities for the office. We asked KSAT viewers to submit questions that could help them make their decision at the polls.
We received more than a dozen questions and narrowed them down to six that we asked the candidates to answer.
You can see the viewers’ questions and the candidates’ unedited responses below:
Q: If elected, what will be your top three priorities for Bexar County?
DeBerry: “The role of County Judge is never limited to just three top priorities. The role of the Bexar County Judge is equivalent to the CEO of a major corporation, where every issue that rises to leadership is a top priority. That’s why it’s critical to have a County Judge with the business background and leadership history to take the County into the future. The County Judge is a CEO position overseeing a $3 billion budget. Picking three priorities is tough, but I will focus on Public Safety, Reducing Taxation, and Job Creation. Public Safety is job one of any elected official and we will focus on reducing crime, hiring more deputies, and paying them better. We must ensure criminals stay in jail and are held accountable for their crimes. We must also protect families from the Fentanyl epidemic and create a Fentanyl Task Force and declare it a public health crisis. When we Reduce Taxation, we fight to reduce property taxes and help families afford their homes. We must ensure homes are valued properly and taxpayers aren’t priced out of their homes to pay taxes. And finally, we must close the Wage Gap by attracting better paying jobs and helping workers earn more money. We can incentivize businesses to pay more and bring the higher paying jobs to Bexar County.”
Sakai: “My first priority as your next Bexar County Judge is returning to a back-to-basics – or what I am calling the Bexar Necessities – approach to the county budget to ensure we are focusing on public safety, roads and drainage, and our most important infrastructure, children, and families. My second priority is addressing escalating property taxes by advocating at the state level for reform in coordination with the Bexar County State Legislative Delegation, working with County Commissioners to identify opportunities for relief, and appointing a County Commissioner to the Bexar County Appraisal District who will hold it accountable to taxpayers. And, my third priority is improving and expanding resident resources and county services, including economic development initiatives, resources and technical training programs for the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy, and equity strategies to help vulnerable communities access high speed broadband, housing, transportation, and health and wellness services through the University Hospital System and the public health entity. Learn more at https://judgepetersakai.com/.”
Q: What can the county do to help rectify the homeless population and the epidemic of panhandling at intersections?
DeBerry: “We must continue to fight negative perceptions associated with homelessness. Homelessness is often a serious mental health or drug addiction scenario. We must intervene whenever possible with compassion, but accountability for homeless persons. We must revamp the Haven for Hope model and do a complete top-down review of our entire joint County and City homeless response. Furthermore, there is a difference between homelessness and panhandling. Panhandlers must be removed from streets and neighborhoods. They must be ticketed and held accountable. We should always offer options, mental health support, and possible employment. But, at the end of the day, neighborhoods must be a priority and as County Judge, I will stress protecting communities and families first.”
Sakai: “Our community is fortunate to have transformative assets like Haven for Hope, and community partners like the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) and SAMMinistries, among others. But it is clear to our neighbors that these programs and resources are not enough. I will expand our investments in community care by incentivizing affordable housing, promoting a housing-first approach, and offering wrap-around services to help the unhoused get an ID and access programs that focus on recovery, treatment, mental health, and employment. We must also recognize that there are different causes of homelessness, such as family violence, PTSD, mental health, substance abuse, or economic displacement, and we must provide relevant resources to homeless individuals that address these underlying causes. I believe we can help individuals get out of the intersections and into better circumstances by funding relevant resources for the homeless, investing in affordable housing and wrap-around support services, and encouraging neighbors to direct their charitable giving to nonprofits and local partners that can stretch those dollars further to make a bigger difference.”
Q: How will you tackle Bexar County’s mental health crisis where the majority of psychiatrists and counselors do not accept Medicare or Medicaid?
DeBerry: “We must be advocates for expanding options for psychiatrists and counselors’ compensation with Medicare and Medicaid. As County Judge I will seek to examine the goals of expanding Medicare and Medicaid for mental health reimbursement. The University Health System (UHS) is in a position to take the lead on Bexar County’s Mental Health Crisis, and I will task the medical experts at UHS to help Commissioners Court craft policies that expand mental health services.
“Because there is a critical shortage of mental health beds in Bexar County, I also advocated as a County Commissioner for the creation of a short-term mental health facility with start-up costs to be funded with ARPA dollars. I requested that the Center for Healthcare Services and University Health System collaborate on a feasibility study to examine total costs and ongoing maintenance of such a facility. The net positive of more mental health beds is that it keeps those that need intervention and help out of our jail and out of our hospital emergency rooms.”
Sakai: “As your next County Judge, I will use the tools available to expand care for the medically underserved by investing in mental health, substance abuse recovery, and other essential public health programs. And, I will seek to foster public-private partnerships with health partners along with nonprofits and faith-based organizations in the community and work together with the key stakeholders to expand access.”
Q: How will you improve the health care options for the uninsured and underinsured?
DeBerry: “The University Health System is the go-to entity in Bexar County for the uninsured and underinsured. As County Judge, I will create an Advisory Group of medical and financial professionals to craft policies that address insurance gaps for our residents. We must protect taxpayer resources and ensure expansion of federal funding programs where possible. The goal will be to design a plan that addresses insurance shortfalls with smart fiscal programming that includes reducing wasteful spending and revamping UHS procedures and accountability.”
Sakai: “I am committed to utilize the new county public health entity as an avenue to fund and offer services for diabetes and obesity prevention, women’s reproductive healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse. I also will use the bully pulpit of the seat of Bexar County Judge to advocate for the expansion of Medicaid at the state level. Additionally, I will advocate for the passage of Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s pending legislation that would allow local government entities like cities and counties in states that have yet to do so expand Medicaid.”
Q: Do you intend to offer relief to residents who have been dealing with skyrocketing property taxes these past few years?
DeBerry: “Absolutely, we must address rising property taxes as soon as the next Judge takes office. As a County Commissioner in Precinct 3, I led the effort to reduce the property tax rate to the lowest it has been in 25 years, and teed up a homestead exemption that never existed before.
“As the next County Judge, I will direct County staff to begin a twofold plan to continue to reduce wasteful spending and increase the exemptions for homesteads and veterans. It’s not enough to just cut taxes, we must cut wasteful spending as well.
“We must also lead a statewide march on Austin in the next legislative session to focus on reigning in outrageous property valuations. Valuing a home appropriately is the key to stemming the tide of skyrocketing appraisals. And finally, I want to protect homeowners in areas of major developments by creating a Gentrification Exemption and supporting passage of the Legacy Bill in the Texas Legislature. If big development comes to a community, we shouldn’t price families out of home ownership because of skyrocketing taxes.”
Sakai: “Yes, I will prioritize relief programs. Skyrocketing property taxes have an adverse effect on everyone in our community–renters, business owners, and homeowners alike. I am committed to advocating for state legislation regarding property tax reform and legacy homeowner property tax freezes to help ensure people can stay in their homes. Furthermore, as Bexar County faces a dire shortage of housing units, I will lead investments in affordable housing to help neighbors who live near or below the Area Median Income secure a place to live. Additionally, I am open to considering a senior volunteer-for-property-tax reduction program that the state legislature recently authorized and for which the City of San Antonio has begun a pilot program. Lastly, I am committed to appointing a County Commissioner to the Board of our appraisal district who will hold BCAD accountable for taxpayers.”
Q: Will the candidates keep the current harm reduction program allowing for clean syringe exchange funded?
DeBerry: “Clean syringes exchange helps prevent the spread of horrible disease, so yes, I will keep the current program in place, but not without deadlines and accountability. We must re-examine the program to determine root causes of syringe use and how we as a community and County can offer mental health and emergency medical services support to the drug addicted.”
Sakai: “I will support the current harm reduction program which looks to science and best practices in understanding addiction and navigating how to best support those afflicted by it in our community. Science shows that addiction rewires the brain and can compel individuals to persist with harmful practices despite the negative effects on their well-being or that of their loved ones. Clean syringe exchanges are a best practice because they provide a safe alternative to needle sharing, which comes with great risks of transmitting diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Syringes are pennies on the dollar, but the cost of treating hepatitis or HIV/AIDS for the medically underserved through the taxpayer-funded University Health System is exponentially more. Furthermore, these harm reduction programs create an avenue for local government to connect with those who suffer from addiction and to share information and opportunities regarding recovery, education, and workforce programs. Many people with drug dependence who access recovery services go on to thrive and live more fulfilling lives, but those without access or awareness to services may be more likely to overdose, contract disease, or engage in risky behavior that can be fatal.”