Rickhoff spending little in race with Wolff
Challenger touts his reputation as jurist; incumbent his record
Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff is continuing to wage an essentially unfunded campaign to defeat Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff next month, campaign finance reports show.
Rickhoff, a Republican, hasn’t reported a single contribution since announcing his candidacy in December. He has spent only about $8,000 on the race — mostly to create a website — and his campaign had roughly $400 on hand as of Sept. 27, according to the most recent report. Wolff ’s report shows he has spent $223,000 this year on the race and has a war chest of about $467,000.
Wolff, a staple of San Antonio politics, has been county judge since he was appointed to the seat in 2001. A former state senator and San Antonio mayor, Wolff is seeking re-election for a fifth time.
Rickhoff, like Wolff, has been on the Bexar County ballot — and won — since the 1970s, when he was first elected district clerk. He has since served as a judge on district, appellate and probate courts, and he said he is banking on that reputation in November.
“I’ve been around the courthouse for a long time, hearing cases by the tens of thousands, and many people have come to know me,” Rickhoff said. “Doing your job well is the best politics.”
The Wolff campaign said its spending, which includes more than $50,000 on media and advertising and $40,000 in opposition research and polling, doesn’t imply any concern about the race.
“You should never be overconfident,” said Wolff, a Democrat. “You can’t take it for granted any time you have an opponent.”
Christian Archer, Wolff ’s strategist, said the campaign has been trying to ensure people know that Wolff is on the ballot this year.
“We’re going to continue to spend money,” Archer said. “People have to be aware that there’s a campaign going on.”
Walter Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Wolff likely will win because of his record, the relationships he has developed with business and development leaders, and the intrinsic advantages Democrats enjoy in Bexar County.
“If I were in the business community, I’d say that Judge Wolff is a proven
commodity,” Wilson said. “He’s someone I know, and someone I know I can work with.”
It’s precisely those relationships — and the donations that result from them — that Rickhoff says prompted him to run in the first place. The Republican’s campaign has mostly consisted of lambasting the county judge and the Commissioners Court in general for what he calls a “pay to play” system.
Rickhoff says he wants to “restore ethics” on the court — he previously said he would drop out if Wolff enacted certain changes — and renew focus on central obligations in the county.
Rickhoff posts a neardaily series called “Questions for Nelson,” identifying instances of what he calls greedy misconduct.
One such target is a county contract with law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, which handles delinquent tax collection for the county. Wolff ’s daughter-in-law Sandi Wolff (Commissioner Kevin Wolff ’s wife), started working there shortly after the contract was renewed this year. Months later, the firm donated $5,000 to the judge’s campaign.
Both Wolffs and the firm have denied any improper dealings involving the contract or hiring. Kevin Wolff said the firm didn’t gain anything with the county by hiring his wife, especially because he and his father will recuse themselves from future votes involving the firm.
And TJ Mayes, the judge’s chief of staff, said the firm has had the county contract for at least 25 years, well before Wolff became county judge.
“There’s nothing new to say. It’s a silly argument,” Archer said. “When you look at the number of steps for anybody to get a contract, it’s not like the judge makes that decision.”
While Rickhoff primarily touts ethics reform, he also has said he wants to rein in wasteful spending and restructure the county’s debt.
Wolff said he’s confident that his record will lift him over Rickhoff for a fifth term, even as he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the contest.
“I’m concentrating on my job,” he said. “I’ll leave the politics to Mr. Rickhoff.”
Wolff pointed to criminal justice reform, workforce development and continuing projects along San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River as his greatest priorities moving forward if he is re-elected.
Early voting begins Monday and will run through Nov. 2. Election Day is Nov. 6.
Tom Rickhoff, left, is battling County Judge Nelson Wolff.