Amidst a competitive race for Bexar County Judge, incumbent Democrat and ardent streetcar proponent Nelson Wolff has been touting the support of various Republicans and Independents in a dubious attempt to portray himself as the bipartisan candidate in his race against conservative former city councilman, Carlton Soules. Occupying the middle ground is a common strategy with status quo politicians, seeking to pander to voters by portraying themselves as “reasonable” and “open to negotiation.” With his repeated, heavy-handed attempts at implementing streetcars against voters’ will, Judge Wolff has certainly discredited any claims of being “reasonable.” And his published list of supporters is no more than an attempt to run to the middle ground right before an election.
Wolff’s extensive history of tax-and-spend policies for different construction initiatives have made him very popular with civil contractors and engineers. Starting off his list is Anne Whittington, the Executive Director and Consultant at the American Council of Engineering Companies-San Antonio. Contradicting his recent political re-posturing in urging the VIA board to withdraw support for the streetcar, Wolff spoke to ACEC October 3rd during an $80 per person strategy summit for Multimodal Transportation. On their website, ACEC praises another Bexar County-funded development initiative – the San Antonio River Improvements Project – of which many more of his listed “republican and independent supporters” are major beneficiaries.
The San Antonio River Improvement Project was a $384.1 million investment by Bexar County that paid multitudes of construction, architecture, and engineering firms to renovate, beautify, and extend the San Antonio Riverwalk. One portion of this project was the Museum Reach, which connected downtown San Antonio to the Witte Museum, and constructed wetlands and lighted hike-and-bike trails near the Witte Museum. Edith McAllister, a supporter who appears in Wolff’s videos, is not only the Chair of Education Council for the San Antonio Museum Association’s Executive Committee, but a member of the Witte Museum’s Board of Trustees.
That’s not the only beneficiary of the SARIP who makes an appearance in Wolff’s videos. Bill Lyons, a fellow Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce member with Wolff, appears in his video claiming to have “worked with Wolff way back.” Mr. Lyons fails to mention that he’s also a member of the San Antonio Tourism Council and Former Chair of the River Walk Capital Improvements Advisory Board. Lyons also owns Casa Rio, a Riverwalk restaurant, Schilo’s Deli—a restaurant located along the “defeated” streetcar’s proposed route on Commerce St—and several other Riverwalk properties.
Zachry Construction Corp. was awarded several portions of the San Antonio River Improvements Project. A TxDOT contractor and recurrent partner with Bexar County, its President and CEO, David S. Zachry appears on Wolff’s list of supporters as well as Wolff’s campaign finance reports. Zachry is also the Vice Chairman of the Board of Centro Partners. Centro, a nonprofit, contracts with the City of San Antonio. Along with VIA’s streetcar system, Centro’s priorities include the provision of services and streetscape improvements within the Public Improvement District—a taxing district that levies a fee on property owners.
Curiously, Centro and Zachry Construction are no stranger to conflicts of interest. In 2012, the Ethics Review Board ruled unanimously that Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni—also the President and CEO of Centro, violated conflict of interest rules when he did not recuse himself from a vote on the selection process for the Convention Center expansion design-build contractor. DiGiovanni served on an eight-person committee that selected Hunt-Zachry partnership for the $325 million project, but had accepted the position of CEO for Centro three weeks prior, of which David S. Zachry is Vice-Chair of the board.
Zachry was also contracted at $115 million to construct the facilities for the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, $100 million of which came from the County’s voter-approved bond election in May 2008. At the request of Nelson Wolff, the remaining $15 million came from the Tobin Endowment fund, of which Bruce J. Bugg is the Chairman and Trustee. Listed as a supporter for Wolff’s campaign, Mr. Bugg is now the Chairman of the Board for the Tobin Center. Mr. Bugg’s donations to Nelson Wolff’s campaigns have significantly increased since his appointment.
Another regular donor and listed supporter of Wolff’s campaign is Brenda Vickrey Johnson, President of Vickrey & Associates, a civil engineering firm and TxDOT contractor. A stated supporter of toll-roads, her company has contracted with Bexar County for several projects, including soccer fields and related facilities in a park named after the aforementioned Edith McAllister’s father-in-law, former Mayor Walter W. McAllister Sr. Vickrey & Associates is a regular contractor with Bexar County and the City, often through money procured in bond elections. Many of the projects listed on her website are funded through the Community Venues Tax. According to her own LinkedIn profile, Brenda was involved in the very campaign to implement the same tax through which her company’s contracts are frequently funded.
Establishment politicians often try to run to the “middle ground”; a strategy they believe makes them more relatable to the average voter. Over time, we see partisan politicians gradually move towards the center, claiming the necessity of “working with the other side to get things done.” A classic career politician, Nelson Wolff is no exception. “In politics, the middle way is none at all,” as John Adams poignantly stated. In Wolff’s entourage of wealthy supporters, we see what the middle way truly is: a transparent justification for continuing the status quo of lofty contracts for the well-connected at the public’s expense.