Scott Ball / Rivard Report
As preparations for the Nov. 6 election ramp up, both Bexar County’s Republican and Democratic parties are facing internal unrest. The polarity within each party at the national level has taken hold at the local level, with more traditional centrists at odds with ultra-conservative and liberal wings.
Members of the Bexar County Republican Party have called for their chair to resign after revelations her husband admitted to “indecent liberties with a child.” The scandal led Bexar GOP leadership to change the local party’s bylaws so the party chair’s powers could be reduced.
Meanwhile, a new administration at the Bexar County Democratic Party is grappling with an insurgent faction of the party dubbed “Manuelistas” who are loyal to former party Chair Manuel Medina. Medina and his supporters are trying to undercut newly elected Chair Monica Alcántara’s authority, said John Weissen, a precinct chair.
The friction comes at a time when the county parties should be block-walking for their respective candidates, raising campaign funds, and registering voters. But whether the infighting will affect either party’s candidates remains to be seen. In the modern era of campaigning, many candidates are less reliant on their local and state party apparatuses, said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
“The broad picture is that both local municipal and county political parties in Texas are very porous,” Jillson said. “They tend to have a lot of open precinct chairmanships. A lot of precincts are unlikely organized, if organized at all. They also tend to have relatively modest fundraising.”
Since taking office in June, Alcántara said a “select number” of people who sit on the governing body of the Bexar County Democratic Party, the County Executive Committee, have not fully embraced her administration. In March, she won more than two-thirds of the vote as she unseated Medina, who served as chair for six years but had just come off a failed mayoral campaign the previous spring.
“[Medina’s supporters] are not looking toward the future and betterment of the party and are still looking toward … a personal desire to have the old administration,” Alcántara said.
Medina’s supporters were part of a bloc within the party that voted for a resolution supporting the San Antonio firefighters union’s controversial charter amendments. The measure passed the executive committee 3-1 with heavy support from Medina’s loyalists.
Weissen said the Manuelistas shouted down anyone who opposed the resolution.
“They show up en masse to disrupt what we’re doing,” he said. “They seem to be trying to undermine Monica and prevent any changes from happening.”
Several sources said in addition to the apparent factionalism taking hold, not meeting organizational and financial goals have been among the party’s biggest headaches recently.
“People have been reluctant to donate to the party with all this turmoil going on,” Weissen said.
But Alcántara said a fundraising push at the party’s last executive committee meeting was successful, and a recent surge in attendance at committee meetings should begin to produce more donations.
Medina said factionalism is normal in any political body, and the county Democratic party is no different.
“That we have differences of opinion – that’s nothing new,” he said, adding there are not two factions within the party but “10 to 15.”
The party’s vote in support of the fire union’s charter amendments was not an insurgent coup but an example of the majority rule, Medina said.
Despite some of the growing pains, as Alcántara terms them, the party is optimistic about its chances at winning its races and supporting the hoped-for “blue wave” in Bexar County and across the state.
On Monday, the Texas Democratic Party said it would be working alongside the local party to provide resources, including volunteers and a comprehensive plan of action, to support the state’s Democrats in key races – from U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-El Paso) Senate bid to Gina Ortiz Jones’ battle against U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) in the 23rd Congressional District and Joe Gonzales’ race for Bexar County district attorney.
“Personally, I’m excited about November,” Medina said. “We have challenges when it comes to organizing and fundraising – it’s true. But … we’re ready to rally around our party, and you really can’t say the same about Republicans right now. They have a whole other set of issues that go beyond differences of opinion on specific issues.”
Those issues have to do with the personal life of Bexar GOP Chair Cynthia Brehm and what some in the party consider her lack of candor about her husband’s past.
Brehm, who won a runoff for the county chair seat in May, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Calls for her resignation have been consistent among party leadership.
This week, Republican Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) became the first sitting elected official in Bexar County to call for Brehm’s removal from office.
“Our party is more fractured than ever,” Wolff wrote to the Bexar County GOP executive leadership board. “While we advocate our ideals to voters, we are fighting an internal struggle for the soul of our party and for those very values we hold so dear. That internal struggle has culminated with the role of the party chair.
“The role of the chair is to promote the party and be its ‘face.’ Current circumstances prevent the chairwoman from being able to fulfill the role to which she was elected.”
However, few legal avenues for ousting her exist.
At the party’s executive committee meeting on July 24, Precinct Chair Becky Edler was set to introduce a resolution to create an independent committee whose charge would be to investigate “rumors and allegations” about Brehm’s husband, former Army Lt. Col. Norman Brehm. But the meeting ended abruptly when a man who stood up to ask about the party’s office relocation, he told Edler, instead motioned to adjourn the meeting.
Leaders within the local political party said Brehm hid those details from them during her campaign. The scandal came to light in a May newspaper column.
Norman Brehm pleaded guilty in a military court in 1999 to indecent liberties with a child. Cynthia Brehm told the San Antonio Express-News her husband flashed her then-14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
But he was never convicted on that charge. Norman Brehm’s case wasn’t forwarded to the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals until 2006. The court in 2009 dismissed the charge on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired, according to military court records obtained by the newspaper.
Citing U.S. Army court documents, the newspaper reported Norman Brehm confessed to “egregious sexual molestation” with relatives who were children – a 5-year-old girl, 6-year-old boy, and an 8-year-old girl – at the time he began “conditioning” them.
The documents state Norman Brehm exposed himself, showed the 5-year-old girl pornographic magazines, had her masturbate him, and perform oral sex on him, the Express-News reported.
The Rivard Report has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the court documents.
Edler said she knows several people who have seen the 157 pages of court records, but “I personally did not read them. … It was so disgusting, I did not want to read it. Some of the women read excerpts to me, and that was enough for me.”
She and other members of the local GOP are gathering signatures within the party to call for Cynthia Brehm’s removal, but there is no way to force her to resign, she said.
“We can continue to try getting those signatures and present them to the state [GOP] hoping the state [GOP] will come and request her resignation,” Edler said. “But I don’t know of any legal recourse we have to get her to step down. She has to do it voluntarily.”
Texas Republican Party rules dictate that the state GOP may take legal action against a county chair who has “misbehaved in office by failing to perform statutory duties.” Behavior designed to disgrace the Republican Party also falls under the items that could prompt a recommendation by the county executive committee so that officials at the state party can review the complaint. If the committee finds it has merit, it can conduct a hearing and forward its recommendation to the state party chair, who would determine the “appropriate lawful remedy.”
However, the caveat is that the misbehavior must occur during the chair’s time in office, said Lynette Boggs-Perez, the Bexar County Republican Party’s legal counsel.
“I personally do not want to be associated with anyone with that kind of history in any shape, form, or fashion,” Edler said.
Former Bexar County GOP Chair Robert Stovall, who stepped down in late 2017 to run for Congress, said the local Republican Party “is going to suffer or limp along until [something] changes.”
In the meantime, executive committee members and precinct chairs are going to have to pull resources separate from party leadership because of the disarray at the top, he said.
“This is kind of a bump in the road for us,” he said. “We’ll hopefully not make that mistake again, and we’ll get someone to lead our candidates to victory again.”
Will the conflict within the local parties have a bearing on how November’s political races unfold, or will Bexar County Democrats and Republicans successfully mobilize in spite of the deepening chasms?
“A lot of the work in the modern age is really run through the candidates’ campaign than through the party,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “If those expectations [that the party will play a major grassroots role] aren’t there, it may not have a big impact.”