None of the candidates who put their name in for the March primaries could have anticipated the challenges of running a campaign during a pandemic.

“We’ve found opportunities in the challenge,” said Trish DeBerry, a public relations professional who is in a runoff against Tom Rickhoff to be the Republican candidate for the Bexar County Precinct 3 commissioners seat in November.

DeBerry said she has tried to stay visible through volunteer work at nonprofits to assist in the region’s response to the coronavirus – both for her campaign and her own sense of duty.

Rickhoff, a former appeals court and probate judge, has taken a more socially distant approach to interacting with the public, because his wife is particularly susceptible to the respiratory virus.

“I have a huge fear of the virus,” he said. “I cannot afford to bring it home to my wife.”

Both candidates have relied heavily on social media and mail to get their messages out ahead of the start of early voting on June 29. The runoff is July 14.

“We’ve got to rattle cages and let people know there’s an election,” DeBerry said.

Rickhoff criticized DeBerry for going door-to-door and block-walking to reach voters, though she has said she wears a mask and keeps her distance from those she meets. “I just can’t tell you how foolish I think that is,” he said.

The two Republican candidates drew clear political distinctions between each other ahead of the runoff election. The precinct – which includes the more affluent, conservative North Side – is represented by Commissioner Kevin Wolff, the lone Republican on the court, who will retire after 12 years.

Both DeBerry and Rickhoff tout themselves as fiscally conservative. DeBerry’s message leans on her experience as a small business owner who knows how to cut excess spending, while Rickhoff points to his experience within the county’s government structure as an advantage in rooting out waste and corruption.

Bexar County needs a “storm of reform,” said Rickhoff. “They need a storm of reform. They need to have ethics. They need to lower taxes. [And] when I find that they’re doing something wrong, then I’ll be speaking out.”

Rickhoff secured 33 percent of the Super Tuesday primary vote in March, while DeBerry trailed with 28 percent out in a field of eight Republican candidates. The runoff winner will face Democrat Christine Hortick in the November general election.

In the primary, DeBerry raised $240,000 in political contributions, far exceeding the $3,500 Rickhoff reported. With runoff campaigns having taken a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear how much the two candidates have raised recently. Under new Texas Ethics Commission rules, campaign finance reports are not due for the runoff until July 6.

“It’s been 11 years since I ran for [the mayor’s] office,” DeBerry said. “It’s been a very long time since Mr. Rickhoff has found himself in a runoff.”

Despite his focus on wasteful spending, Rickhoff said he supports the County’s recent allocation of federal coronavirus relief funds; he wants the County to save money by stopping construction on the San Pedro Creek renovation and other major nonessential projects during the pandemic.

In May, the Court approved a framework for how to use the nearly $80 million package that included $7.7 million for LiftFund to provide small business loans and grants, $34.9 million to fund workforce retraining and job placement programs, $5.4 million for temporary rental assistance, and $1.1 million to bring internet access to people who need it in Bexar County. 

“We’ve got to do more for small businesses” and close the digital divide, DeBerry said, adding that “working our way back into prosperity is going to be based on bridging that digital divide.”

Workforce development programs are important, too, she said, but she wants to make sure those programs are following best practices.

Questions about conflicts of interest

Rickhoff is a U.S. Army veteran who fought in Vietnam, spent years as a prosecutor in New Orleans, and served as a Bexar County probate judge for 17 years before losing a 2018 bid for Bexar County Judge.

He told the Rivard Report earlier this week that he’s a “real Republican” who seeks to reduce the county’s debt, property tax rate, and spending on “vanity projects” while raising ethical standards when it comes to campaign contributions.

Tom Rickhoff, a longtime Bexar County probate judge, is seeking the Precinct 3 County Commissioner seat being vacated by Kevin Wolff. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

DeBerry, a native San Antonian, is founder and CEO of The DeBerry Group, a public relations firm that has won several high-profile contracts, including those with the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, the San Antonio River Authority/San Pedro Creek, the Alamo Master Plan, and the City’s 2020 Census efforts. The former KENS-TV reporter ran for mayor in 2009, losing to Julián Castro.

If elected, DeBerry said she would aim to reform the property appraisal process, consolidate several County and City of San Antonio functions, and improve the office’s communication with the community and municipalities within the precinct, she told the Rivard Report on Wednesday.

Rickhoff said DeBerry’s company’s work in the public sector should disqualify her for the job. Those contracts were “doled” out to DeBerry by the Democratic-led commissioners court and a progressive City Council, he said, calling the San Pedro Creek project a “cesspool.”

Precinct 3 property owners contribute more than 40 percent of property tax revenue that the County receives, he noted. “Don’t they deserve a strong, conservative voice?”

DeBerry will retain equity in her company if she wins the election, she said, but “I will not pursue public sector work when I get into office, and by the time I get into the office we will not have any public sector work. … A lot of that is winding down as we speak.”

The private contracts, which make up the bulk of her company’s work, don’t involve the County, said DeBerry.

If anything, running a successful small business adds to her Republican credentials, she said.

“I’m an eating, sleeping, breathing example of Republicanism at work: creating jobs for people all of my life, contributing to the economy all my life, being a fiscal conservative,” she said. “That’s the basis for the Republican party: pulling yourself up from your boot straps and making things happen. That is who I am.”

Rickhoff’s brother Gerry won the Republican nomination for Bexar County sheriff in March, presenting a possible conflict of interest if they both win because the commissioner’s court oversees the sheriff’s office.

If that happens, Rickhoff said he would not be tempted to play favorites. Like most siblings, he said, “Gerry and I have had many disagreements all of our lives. … There is no conflict.”

Property tax rate vs. appraisal reform

Both candidates said they want to ease the property tax burden on county residents, but have different ideas on how to do it.

Decreasing tax bills for residents is simple, according to Rickoff: “Adopt the effective tax rate and reduce the revenue.”

Although the county’s property tax rate has stayed flat, property values continue to increase meaning residents typically pay more every year. Adopting an effective tax rate would keep the County’s revenue flat, Rickhoff said.

“[The County is] awash in money and they go over that by having all these vanity projects” such as the failed Plethora art installation at San Pedro Creek.

DeBerry wants the Bexar County Appraisal District’s board of directors to be elected, rather than appointed.

“I just think there’s more accountability associated with having an elected board,” she said. “Yes, we’ll [have to] guard against politics, but I think it makes that board much more accountable and it makes the chief appraiser more accountable.”

Trish DeBerry is a former mayoral candidate who owns a successful public relations firm. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

That approach, Rickhoff said, will introduce more “chaos” and bureaucracy into the system.

Rickoff said he also wants to campaign contributions to county commissioners. “People don’t give $140,000 because they want good government,” he said.

On that, at least, they agree.

Without term limits or caps to contributions, incumbent commissioners and the judge can “rack up big war chests,” DeBerry said. That’s part of the reason why only two women have ever served on the court, she said.

“[It’s] led to a lot of entrenched county commissioners,” she said. “We need to look at term limits and contributions … so that the county isn’t operating like the Wild West.”

A divide on City-County consolidation

Discussions about consolidating the functions of the City and County have occurred sporadically for decades, but haven’t resulted in changes. Any merger would require legislative action, and there have been concerns that it would weaken minorities’ voices in the voting booth.

Both governments have departments that are essentially performing the same work in technology, economic development, and public works, DeBerry said. And both governments face significant budget shortfalls in the wake of the pandemic.

“The City and the County – because of the pandemic – have been forced to work together more than they ever have before. There’s more incentive and perhaps there would be more cooperation to get it done,” DeBerry said.

Rickhoff dismissed the idea because there are too many entrenched fiefdoms. “Great idea, isn’t going to happen,” he said.

Both candidates said they want to bring a strong conservative voice to the majority-Democrat Commissioners Court.

They praised some of Kevin Wolff’s work during his tenure on the Commissioners Court, but said he too frequently sided with his father, longtime Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

“I think I’ll probably be more hard core when it comes to reining in spending [compared to Kevin],” DeBerry said. “I have to do that every single day as a small business owner.”

“Nobody has ever said that Trish is afraid to espouse an opinion or offer a conflicting view,” she added. “There will be many times that I am not in agreement, and I will make sure that my voice is heard and the constituents of Precinct 3 are represented appropriately. … I’m not a wallflower.”

She also touted her work ethic as compared to Rickhoff’s, citing his long absences from his probate court and refusal to hear mental health cases. “I’m a deep diver, not a seat warmer,” she said.

For his part, Rickhoff pointed out that Democrats already have four votes on the dais, and DeBerry’s previous business dealings with the Commissioners Court makes her “straight out of the wolves’ den,” a quip referring to both Wolffs.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com