Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff tapped a state lawmaker to take the late Commissioner Paul Elizondo’s seat, an appointment that will send ripples through San Antonio politics.
State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, a Democrat, was sworn into the Precinct 2 post on the Commissioners Court on Friday, effectively resigning his seat in the Texas House just four days before the legislative session begins.
The appointment will trigger a special election to fill Rodriguez’s legislative seat and an extra Commissioners Court election, since Rodriguez will not get to serve Elizondo’s full, four-year term.
“He brings a new generation of leadership to the Commissioners Court,” Wolff said of Rodriguez.
Elizondo, 83, died last week after serving as a commissioner for more than three decades. The West Side political icon had won his tenth term in November.
“This is not an opportunity I take lightly,” Rodriguez said. “It’s impossible to fill the shoes of a giant like Paul Elizondo.”
On ExpressNews.com: Community mourns Bexar County’s political lion
Wolff said he was looking for someone who had the trust of voters in Precinct 2, which covers parts of the West Side and downtown. He said he was also seeking a candidate who could improve relationships with the city, had extensive legislative experience, fiscal expertise and a knack for talent development.
“Justin Rodriguez has certainly exemplified that in a very important way,” Wolff said.
Rodriguez’s resume mirrors those criteria. He has represented the West Side in the Texas House since 2012, where he served on the powerful appropriations committee that controls the budget. Prior to that, he was a two-term city councilman and key ally of then-Mayor Julián Castro. He began his political career on the San Antonio Independent School District’s board in 2004.
“He’s worked for this,” said state Rep. Ina Minjarez, a Democrat who represents a neighboring West Side district. “I’m very proud of him and very happy with the pick.”
Rodriguez’s departure from the Texas House leaves the Bexar County delegation and Democratic Party down a man in the chamber just as the legislative session is set to begin. Republicans now outnumber Democrats 83-66 in the House.
Trey Martinez Fischer, a North West Side representative and the dean of the county’s delegation, said it will hurt to lose Rodriguez’s expertise and seniority in the chamber, but it’s also a chance to improve government.
“You have someone who was on the lawmaking side, and now he’s sitting on the local level,” Martinez Fischer said. “I think there’s a good opportunity for both of us to learn from each other so we can further achieve” the county’s goals.
The decision to accept the nod weighed on Rodriguez after gearing up for the state’s legislative session. He said it took a lot of prayer and deliberation with his family, but it was ultimately the right move.
“The last week or so has turned my life upside down,” he said.
Rodriguez’s vacancy will trigger an expedited special election under state law, according to Keith Ingram, the state’s election director, though it’s not yet clear when that will take place.
The governor has 20 days to call the election, which would then occur between 21 and 45 days after the order, according to Ingram. If a candidate doesn’t garner a majority of the vote, it would go to a runoff election and further delay filling the seat.
Rodriguez and Martinez Fischer said Friday there isn’t a clear front-runner for the seat.
“I would imagine that will ramp up here now that the seat is vacated,” Rodriguez said.
The appointment will also prompt another commissioners court election because Rodriguez does not get to serve Elizondo’s full term. Instead, he’ll sit for election in 2020 and then again in 2022.
Queta Rodriguez, who came within a few hundred votes of defeating Elizondo in a primary election last year and was hoping to get the appointment, said Friday she is interested in running for the seat in 2020 (she is not related to Justin Rodriguez).
The former county veterans officer said in November she was pushed out of her job for challenging the longtime commissioner.
Last year, after Elizondo’s hard-fought and contentious primary victory, the commissioner personally mentioned Justin Rodriguez as a potential successor.
“If somebody had stepped in here, the status of a (state Rep.) Justin Rodriguez or (former state Sen.) Leticia Van de Putte or (City Councilwoman) Shirley Gonzales, any of the members of the delegation, I’d really have reconsidered running this time,” Elizondo told the Express-News then.
Judge Wolff said he never spoke with Elizondo about who might be his successor if anything happened, but Elizondo spoke favorably of Rodriguez and that wasn’t lost on the new commissioner.
“You certainly take it to heart,” he said. “We’ve already mentioned you can’t fill his shoes, but if I can do just a little bit to even have a fraction of the impact that he had, I would be happy with that.”
The new commissioner will now look to help lead some of the projects Elizondo started. That includes the redevelopment of the San Pedro Creek, which Elizondo highlighted as a priority for his new term. The county has spent nearly $200 million to build a culture park on the creek in the western portion of downtown.
Rodriguez outlined some other priorities as well, including restorative justice and modernizing the county’s elections systems.
An all-male court
Some criticized Rodriguez’s appointment for its lack of gender diversity. Only two women have served as commissioners, and none have joined the court since Cyndi Taylor Krier retired as county judge in 2001.
Queta Rodriguez was one of those critics. She wrote a letter to Judge Wolff on Thursday faulting his decision for a number of reasons; she wrote that it was “insulting” that the all-male court didn’t choose one of numerous “capable and competent” female candidates.
“In a governing body whose decisions affect nearly 2 million people and a precinct of nearly half a million… there is undoubtedly at least one woman who meets the requirements to serve as a county commissioner,” Rodriguez wrote.
The judge said the county government as a whole has done well in hiring women to leadership positions. Many of its executive directors — the people who lead county departments — are women, he said, and the last appointment he made was a woman. That was Helen Petry Stowe, a candidate for a county-court-at-law bench, who was appointed when the sitting judge abruptly resigned.
“We have a good record with women, but … Justin stood out far above anyone else,” Wolff said, referring to the commissioner post.
Rodriguez said she thought she was qualified for the appointment because nearly half of voters in the precinct cast ballots for her last March.
When asked at Friday’s news conference whether Queta Rodriguez was considered, Wolff’s reply was succinct: “As you know, she ran for that office and lost that office.”
Dylan McGuinness covers local politics and the Bexar County government for the Express-News. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @DylMcGuinness