For the past two years, the Bexar County Democratic and Republican parties have weathered internal power struggles and tension among members and leadership.

The Bexar County Democratic Party has effectively splintered into two groups, according to office manager Linda Alaniz. Monica Alcantara took over the chair position of the Bexar County Democratic Party in 2018. She unseated former Chair Manuel Medina who had served in that capacity since 2012. Alcantara has faced consistent opposition from people who supported Medina’s administration, Alaniz said. And the current tension is only a chapter in a long history of problems.

“They’ve gone through it, historically,” she said. “They had someone who embezzled $100,000-some dollars … The party has been through a lot.”

Eighty of the county party’s roughly 350 precinct chairs are in contested races, the most the party’s seen in some time, Alaniz said; usually, people who want to serve as their precinct chair simply sign up to do so. Those challenges reflect the dissatisfaction that party members feel with the current leadership. Right now, Alcantara has enough support from party membership to keep things moving, but her critics are actively trying to disrupt that, Alaniz said.

“Before, when someone wanted to be a precinct chair, they pretty much got it. … They’re trying to upset the balance of the vote,” Alaniz said. “They’re trying to make it harder for [Alcantara] to pass anything. It’s this constant battle when we have so many challenges to deal with.”

The other three candidates running for county chair – Norma Jean Witherspoon, Juan Hernandez, and Grace Rose Gonzales – did not respond to requests for comment.

The fracture within the Bexar County Democratic Party has also led to two separate groups, one operating as sanctioned by the state party and the other using the same name but conducting separate meetings and events.

“The Texas Democratic Party and I have had many discussions about this,” current Chair Monica Alcantara said. “We can’t stop them from holding meetings, but it’s unfortunate they’ve chosen the name the Bexar County Democratic Party. That name is already taken. They can create a club, call them whatever they like. But they are not the Bexar County Democratic Party. We are just moving forward. The party is strong.”

Alaniz said that the party was forced to build a new website after people holding onto the passwords of the former website refused to turn them over. She emphasized that the official website can be found at bexardemocrat.org

“We have worked hard in these last several months to educate our precinct chairs to know which one is ours and to unsubscribe to theirs,” she said. 

Alcantara does have the backing of several elected officials. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and the Herrera Law Firm hosted a fundraising event for Alcantara on Tuesday, Feb. 4. San Antonio state Sen. José Menéndez and state Reps. Diego Bernal, Philip Cortez, Ina Minjarez, Roland Gutierrez, and Ray Lopez are also supporting Alcantara’s bid for reelection.

“All they do in the meetings is fight, argue, and talk bad about one another.”

Jacinto “Chinto” Martinez, candidate Republican party chair

The Republican Party of Bexar County also faces internal stressors. Party Chair Cynthia Brehm has had fractured support since taking office in 2018. Republican Party chair candidate Jacinto “Chinto” Martinez said meetings during his time as a member of the party frequently devolved into quibbling.

“I’ve taken people from my side of town down there to try to encourage them to become precinct chairs, [but] they get discouraged because all they do in the meetings is fight, argue, and talk bad about one another,” he said.

Party chair candidate John Austin said the local party has become decreasingly effective under its current leadership. His wife, Daphne Previti Austin, lost her race in 2018 when she ran for reelection as the 289th District Court Judge, and the county party did nothing to help her campaign, Austin said.

“The job of the local parties, Republican or Democratic, is to help the candidates get elected,” he said. “That didn’t happen for us. The party was so unresponsive to the pleas from all the candidates that we had to band together and have our own building so constituents could pick up signs and literature on the candidates.”

Beyond claims her leadership has not fulfilled the party’s purpose, Brehm has been in the middle of conflict in recent months. She resisted signing a joint agreement with the Bexar County Democratic Party and the Elections Department that gave the County authority to run both primaries in March. Brehm gave Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen a list of requests to receive her approval, including discontinuing the use of vote centers. She eventually conceded to the Elections Department.

Brehm also has been at the focus of inner-party turmoil. Early in her tenure, members called for her resignation after her husband’s 1999 guilty plea in military court to “indecent liberties with a child” were made public. And in one recent account, Brehm was accused of physical assault, though no charges were filed.

Party chair candidate Charlotte Williamson Eisenhaur’s campaign sent out a news release on Jan. 29 regarding an alleged assault by Brehm. A December 2019 police report attached to the news release included the responding officer’s summary of the event, which stated that one person claimed to be grabbed by the wrists by Brehm. The officer also wrote that Brehm refused to speak with him.

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“Infighting in the Republican Party of Bexar County has been a near-constant, but physical violence cannot be tolerated,” Eisenhauer said in the news release. “Chair Brehm has a long history of tarnishing our party’s reputation, but this incident is the most extreme example of her inability to perform the duties of the office.”

Brehm did not return requests for comment but did tell the San Antonio Express-News that the accusing party started the altercation.

Eisenhauer said that her campaign had conducted some internal polling that shows strong support for her candidacy but also a large undecided faction. Of the 526 responses, more than half said they had not decided on whom to vote for.

“On polling data, we feel really good about it,” she said. “But we’re not the incumbent. I know there are some built-in advantages of being the incumbent. We feel comfortable and confident we’ll make the runoff.”

Austin claims the support of the four Republican Pary chairs who served before Brehm. In a letter dated last November, those chairs and a few others ask “fellow Republicans” to support Austin’s candidacy.

Meanwhile, Martinez emphasized his desire to unify the party and bring in more non-white, non-male, and younger members – a goal that Eisenhauer shares.

I believe without the Hispanic vote we’re not going to win as Republicans,” Martinez said. “We’re not going to win in our city back. And the only way we’re going to do that is that we get a Hispanic in there – someone that relates to them on their same level and attracts them to build a stronger and better Republican Party.”

Voters can cast ballots in the primary election for the party chairs. Early voting begins Feb. 18 and runs through Feb. 28. Election day is March 3.

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Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.

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