It was an old-fashioned San Antonio political rally in Mi Tierra's Mural Room as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff kicked off his 2014 Democratic primary campaign against longtime ally Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.
Allies no more. Maybe not friends, either, come the day after. Adkisson turned challenger last month in what may be the strangest, ill-advised political quest I've witnessed in 25 years in San Antonio. It's a campaign founded mostly on a desire to wrest the job from a guy who still has big projects on the boards and shows no sign of slowing down.
In the age of PACs, bundled money, television ad buys, and robocalls, Saturday's event was a San Antonio pachanga, a political fiesta and celebration that signaled Wolff is not taking the challenge lightly and also knows a restless tea party is agitating for its own November showdown.
If young voters and newcomers to the city want to know what is at stake in this election, you should know Wolff is rightly seen as joined at the hip with Major Julián Castro on the Decade of Downtown initiatives, a progressive agenda that is transforming the urban core even as it attracts growing opposition from suburban conservatives who oppose Pre-K for SA, the non-discrimination ordinance, and the VIA streetcars project. There is plenty of reason to get out and vote if you live and work in the central city.
The iconic George Cortez mural of San Antonio's Latino civil rights and community leaders served as the perfect backdrop, yet the audience was notable for the number of supporters who came from other parts of town to grab a bumper sticker or yard sign.
"We are ready to be tested. We are ready to fight the good fight. We are ready to march to victory," Wolff declared, his wife, Tracy Wolff and Mayor Julián Castro sharing the stage. County Commissioners Paul Elizondo and Chico Rodriguez both spoke and then stood behind Wolff, a telling commissioners court majority vote for the incumbent and a cold shoulder for the challenger.
"I made the motion (in 2002) to nominate Nelson as county judge and I'll tell you why I did it," Elizondo told the crowd. "He gets things done."
I could be wrong, but Elizondo and every speaker who followed him managed to address the crowded room without ever mentioning Adkisson by name, just "the other guy." It's a strange dissolution of the Commissioners Court's four-vote Democratic family.
A Who's Who of San Antonio's Democratic Party faithful showed up on a sunny weekend morning to #jointheWolffPack. Campaign staff shared the Twitter hashtag with everyone flashing a smart phone, but more than a few, "I can't do Twitter yet" pleas were heard. Plenty of cell phone photos were taken and quickly found their way on to Facebook by mid-day, suggesting the grass-roots strategy will embrace social media in addition to door knocking.
"Take a look around this room," Mayor Castro said. "A lot of us have known each other and worked together for a long time, and there are some new faces here, too. People from all sides of the city have turned out to support one of the most effective, hard-working public servants Bexar County has ever known.
"It's not just about what he's done in the past or is doing now," Castro said. "It's about the future and what he'll do in the years ahead."
Castro then referenced Forbes magazine's recent article naming San Antonio as the nation's number two city in terms of economic momentum going in to 2014.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, on her way to a Panhandle campaign appearance in the lieutenant governor's primary battle praised Wolff's record. ("It's 25 degrees out there. Better her then me," quipped master of ceremonies Elizondo.)
"Nelson has been a friend to all of you in this room over many years," Van de Putte said. "We were very lucky: When we elected Nelson we got a two-fer. We got Tracy."
The comment drew cheers. That may underscore Wolff's greatest strength beyond incumbency and a long list of accomplishments. People like him and they like Tracy, who boasts her own record of community achievements. It will be hard for Adkisson in May, or Wolff's Republic opponent in November, to find good reason to ask voters for his ouster.
Cong. Joaquín Castro, a new father, stood a few feet away. State Reps. Mike Villarreal, Jose Menendez, and Philip Cortez were there, too. City Council members Ray Lopez, Rey Saldaña and Ron Nirenberg were on hand. I'm surely leaving out other elected officials present, but the point is Wolff seems to have every endorsement out there worth pursuing. Former Mayor Howard Peak attended, and Wolff announced endorsements from former Mayors Phil Hardberger and Ed Garza as well.
As chants of "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson," echoed off the walls, it was for the moment as if the political clock had been turned back a few decades when such political fiestas at Mi Tierra were a must-do ritual as well as a reliable political barometer for candidates.
"Mi Tierra, the Mural Room, it's a historic political venue," said Christian Archer, Wolff's campaign manager. "This event is an old-school rally, one that sends out a lot of messages. We're going to win this election the old-fashioned way, door-to-door. We're not taking anything for granted."
The Rivard Report will be on hand for Commissioner Adkisson's first rally in the New Year if one is scheduled and we are invited, but this Saturday morning his challenge of Wolff felt like Don Quixote tilting against windmills, riding Rocinante this time without even Sancho Panza at his side.