Bexar County voters are heading to the polls to choose between Gov. Greg Abbott and Lupe Valdez, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), and a host of other candidates. And while national Democrats are hoping to ride a “blue wave” to victory, San Antonio Republicans are hoping to build on their 2014 victory to place a Republican in the county’s highest office.
Their hope lies in Judge Tom Rickhoff, who currently sits on the bench for Bexar County Probate Court 2, who is challenging 17-year incumbent Democrat County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Rickhoff has been campaigning on a simple platform of fiscal responsibility and ethics reform items that, according to Rickhoff, Wolff has abandoned during his 17 years in office.
Rickhoff’s claims aren’t without merit. Bexar County is currently high on the list of Texas counties with the most debt at roughly $3.7 billion after interest, a problem taxpayers can attribute directly to Wolff’s lavish spending habits. Rickhoff points out that Bexar County had historically carried little debt until Wolff began pushing to issue more and more Certificates of Obligation (COs).
“COs differ from bonds only because they are non-voter approved debt,” said Rickhoff. “[It was] originally created solely for emergency public works, not arts and vision projects. Bexar, of all Texas counties and cities, is the most CO indebted and by far the most abusive user of COs.”
Rickhoff also attributed a large part of Bexar County’s rising debt to the decisions of the Commissioners Court, citing their own competing project visions that prioritize funding to the arts and historical buildings rather than to fundamental needs like a reliable 911 phone system.
“All five county commissioners have competing desires,” Rickhoff says. “$5 million for Briscoe Art Museum, $12 million for Alameda Theater to build a studio and offices for the local National Public Radio station, a new river walk for San Pedro Creek, and more statues for the front lawn of the [county] courthouse—just to name a few.”
Among Rickhoff’s list of Wolff’s spending abuses, which include the Toyota Stadium gaffe, one incident that may stand out to the citizens of Bexar County the most would be the case of the “Plethora Artist.”
In late 2016, Wolff, with the help of DNC national finance chairman Henry Muñoz III, unveiled plans to place a massive six-story statue of a face titled “Plethora” in San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek area. The plan was originally estimated to cost around $735,000 of taxpayers’ money, but the artist disappeared to Spain after he received $130,000 to start the project.
To make matters worse, the county decided the project would cost around $1.5 million—nearly double the original estimated cost. Eventually, Wolff and the Bexar County Commissioners gave up on the “Plethora Artist,” costing the taxpayers over $300,000 since they had to pave over the $200,000 base for the statue, further adding on to Bexar County’s growing debt.
Rickhoff also went after Wolff’s ethics, alleging that he takes money from the Hidalgo Foundation—of which his wife is the founder and president—in order to pay his bills and that he is involved in pay-to-play decisions.
“[Wolff] is the only elected official I’ve known to secure a job with the Linebarger law firm for his daughter-in-law, Commissioner Kevin Wolff’s wife, just weeks after Nelson and Kevin Wolff voted for the Linebarger back tax collection and then the software contract. Once before, a Bexar County judge did this and he and his wife were federally indicted. And Oliver Heard, who founded Linebarger, was named a co-conspirator,” Rickhoff explained.
Despite issuing strong allegations against his opponent, Rickhoff hasn’t reported receiving any contributions for his campaign. Meanwhile, Wolff is sitting on over a $600,000 campaign fund.
Loose spending is reflected in Judge Wolff’s campaign expenditures; including $500 meals, a number of contracts, and $10,000 monthly credit card payments. Voters will decide between Rickhoff and Wolff on their general election ballot.