Scott Ball and Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
After more than 30 years on the Bexar County Commissioners Court, Paul Elizondo didn't expect to find himself in a runoff to vie for a 10th term. But a determined challenge from a political newcomer campaigning to bring new priorities and perspectives to the court has Elizondo defending his tenure and even his military service record.
Bexar County Veterans Service Officer Queta Rodriguez forced a runoff in the March Democratic primary by grabbing almost 30 percent of the vote in a three-way race, while Elizondo took just under 46 percent. Now a May 22 runoff will determine whether Elizondo can extend his tenure on the Commissioners Court.
"In a split race where he couldn't put it away, the one remaining challenger could take advantage of that and try to make the argument successfully that it's time for new blood," said David Crockett, chair of Trinity University's political science department.
Rodriguez's slogan "It's time!" – an apparent dig at the 82-year-old Elizondo's long tenure – highlights that attempt.
Elizondo has played a key role in decades worth of County projects, including the recently opened San Pedro Creek Culture Park, the planned restoration of the Alameda Theater, and the expansion of medical services through the county-owned University Health System.
Rodriguez has been the county's Veterans Service Officer for more than four years. After more than 20 years of serving in the Marine Corps, Rodriguez returned in 2012 to her home community on the Westside near downtown. In several of her campaign speeches, the 47-year-old Rodriguez has said many of the same problems related to generational poverty that she saw when she left remain a part of the precinct despite Elizondo's long tenure.
Precinct 2 stretches from just west and north of downtown northwest to the county line, including the municipality of Leon Valley and continuing towards Helotes. According to the 2010 census profile, about 437,000 people live in the precinct, 73 percent of whom are Hispanic.
"He definitely has experience, but that experience hasn't necessarily translated to addressing the issues that have plagued Precinct 2 for decades," Rodriguez told the Rivard Report. "I want to have the same level of investment in Precinct 2 that we have in many other areas of Bexar County."
Rodriguez has said she wants to see more of the residents in the precinct have equal opportunities for success and assistance in meeting basic needs. She wants the County to pursue more economic development initiatives that would aim to remedy problems such as affordable housing. County incentives for residential developments should include stipulations that require affordable housing components, she said. She also voiced support for Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert's efforts to bring more attention to County-based solutions for affordable housing issues.
Although she has not held public office, Rodriguez said being a political novice and a woman gives her a fresh perspective. There hasn't been female representation on the five-member Commissioners Court since Cyndi Krier stepped down as Bexar County judge in 2001.
Elizondo said that simply because Rodriguez leads the County office responsible for directing veterans to their benefits does not mean she's prepared for the work of a commissioner.
"I bring more to the table than my opponent does, much more." Elizondo told the Rivard Report in a Monday. "It's easy to talk about what you can do and all that, but I have definite plans."
Elizondo said he wants to see the completion of projects like the $390 million Women and Children's Tower at University Hospital and the widening of Loop 1604. He said that he understands the intricacies of completing projects by cooperating with groups like the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
He said the problems caused by systemic poverty that Rodriguez pins to his tenure are impossible for any one person, or commissioner, to solve. Instead, he points to examples of his work such as improving community health outcomes through bringing facilities such as the Texas Diabetes Institute into the precinct.
In addition to completing projects, Elizondo said he'd like to explore finding a way to pay for a new mass transit system currently being discussed by City and County leaders. He also would like to see more sheriff's deputies hired, something he said his constituents have requested.
Yet State-mandated line items make up 85 percent to 90 percent of the County's annual budget, Elizondo said, making expansion of such public safety services a challenge.
"There's very little other money left that you can direct," Elizondo said.
Rodriguez, however, criticized Elizondo and his fellow Commissioners for a lack of discipline in funding "pop up" requests such as $350,00 to maintain the San Antonio Symphony or promising another $350,000 to match private donations for a monument for the Canary Islanders who settled in San Antonio.
She said she would like to see the Commissioners Court create a "long-range, comprehensive plan on determining what our [tax-funded] priorities should be."
She made those remarks during a County Commissioners candidate forum hosted by the Texas Organizing Project. Elizondo did not attend that May 1 forum or another hosted by the Bexar County Democratic Party on May 8, telling the Rivard Report this week that he did not need to attend the forums because he had participated in recorded debates with Rodriguez before and after the first round of voting.
"I think that its really important for us to refocus our priorities in our taxpayer dollars, our resources, to ensure that we're meeting people's basic needs," Rodriguez said at the May 1 forum. "I want to move away from us being project-driven to us being outcome-driven."
Elizondo said that Rodriguez's vision didn't align with the duties of a commissioner. As an extension of state government, he said, there are strict guidelines for what the County can and cannot do.
"My opponent thinks she's running for City Council," Elizondo said. "'Why don't you do something for the neighborhood?' Well, that's the City's job. Her neighborhood is the City's job. To me, Precinct 2 is part of Bexar County and our mission is totally different."
Rodriguez responded: "Just because something is not clearly defined does not mean that you cannot address it. We cannot sit by and say, 'That's a City Council issue.'"
While his opponents may attack him for so-called legacy or special projects, he said "a legacy is a very good thing.
"If you leave something in place that serves the community for a long time, that's great," Elizondo said. "There are projects I've been working on for years, and I want to go to the end of that. ... If I felt in any way that opponents could match that, I would have gotten out of the way."
Henry Flores, professor of political science at St. Mary's University, said that although Elizondo's incumbency remains "very powerful," political trends have changed amongst the constituents and voters want more political transparency.
"His style doesn't really fit with today's era of what the public expects as far as governmental transparency is concerned," Flores said.
Additionally, an article recently published by the San Antonio Express-News outlined how Elizondo may have exaggerated his military service record by referring to himself as a "Vietnam-era veteran" during a January debate with Rodriguez and Mario Bravo, the other primary candidate. Service records obtained by the Rivard Report show that Elizondo served as an active-duty Marine Corps bandsman from July 23, 1957, to October 31, 1959. Part of that time he served in Iwakuni, Japan.
Congress has defined a "Vietnam-era" veteran as one who served on active duty in Vietnam from Feb. 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975.
"I did my time in the Marine Corps and am proud to have served my country," Elizondo said when asked about his military service record in March.
The winner of the May runoff will go on to face Republican nominee Theresa Connolly. Early voting begins on May 14 and runs through May 18.