Early voting for the March 4 federal, state and local primary elections – a crowded ballot sure to confuse voters as they struggle with judicial contests -- begins Feb. 18 at 8 a.m. at 32 polling sites and runs through Feb. 28. If Monday's packed-room audience of students in the Southwest Room of the Durango Building at the UTSA Downtown Campus is any indicator, turnout might be more robust than expected.
Click here for a sample Democratic Part Ballot. Click here for a sample Republican Party ballot. Click here for early voting sites and hours in Bexar County. Don't forget: Texas now has a valid Photo Voter ID law.
"We've debated in front of an audience you can count on one hand," County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson told the students. "I really appreciate your presence and your participation."
The UTSA College of Public Policy and the League of Women Voters of San Antonio sponsored the one-hour question and answer period that featured four candidates, two Democrats and two Republicans, for the office of Bexar County Judge, the county's chief administrative executive. It wasn't a debate. The candidates did not respond directly to one another, and instead fielded the same questions in a round robin panel format. There were no fireworks, but the differences among the candidates was clear.
This is the third or fourth event at the Southwest Room at UTSA's Downtown Campus I've attended in recent months and all have drawn standing room-only audiences. Student engagement also explains one other question put to candidates Monday night: Do you support early voting sites on the UTSA campus?
All four candidates said yes, but Judge Wolff added, "I'll go further than that: I support early voting sites on all our college campuses, but the schools have to locate the polls in prominent, accessible places and provide public parking for non-students."
The four candidate panel seemed an odd assemblage given that the headline event this primary election is Adkisson's long-shot challenge of incumbent Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Republican Carlton Soules, a Northside businessman and former District 10 city councilman who resigned his seat to run for country judge, faces Republican Gerard Ponce, a former county worker and perennial also-ran on local ballots. Ponce has lost elections as both a Republican and a Democrat. All four enjoyed equal time Monday.
When asked to cite the most important responsibility of the Commissioners Court, the four candidates provided four different answers. Ponce cited the county budget.
Soules said it's preparing for growth. "Infrastructure: The reality is we are going to be a metropolis a lot like the Metroplex by 2040 and we need to prepare for it," he said.
"Health and justice are the two main things for the county," Adkisson said several times, repeatedly returning to the problem of recidivism among the 3,400 county jail inmates.
"60-80% of those inmates have been in the county jail five, 10, 15 times," Adkisson said, calling for more re-entry and intervention programs.
Wolff said "health care" should be the county's number one focus. After listing some of the country's major programs and investments he added, "This state is making a horrible mistake not expanding Medicaid."
The real difference among the incumbent and the challengers surfaced in a question that combined streetcars and light rail.
"I'm against streetcars, the money can be used for other purposes," Ponce said.
Soules said VIA and project supporters was not giving a full accounting of the project's cost, saying that it is spiraling to "something upwards of $450 million," a figure that encompasses a fully-built out system and the anticipated federal funding that would cover a significant portion of the costs.
Adkisson acknowledged his own change of heart on the project.
"When the issue first came up I thought it might be a good idea and I supported it," he said. "Now I say let's put it to a popular vote and be done with it."
Wolff argued the merits of the project as an integral piece of a multimodal transportation system that would reduce bus and vehicle congestion in the urban core and spur economic development along the routes.
"I support the streetcar system, it's about connectivity and inter-connectivity," he said.
The audience of 200 students and UTSA faculty and administrators and members of the public energized the candidates, but it's obvious they will relish a close to the campaign. Wolff and Adkisson, once political allies, shook hands and smiled at the start and finish of the event, but both had come 45 minutes earlier from another event hosted by Texas Public Radio.
"Two more weeks," Adkisson quipped to Wolff, who just chuckled.