Overachieving couple Nelson and Tracy Wolff bow out
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Hidalgo Foundation founder Tracy Wolff, his wife, are now on the home stretch of long and successful careers in public life and service. They’re not going anywhere, but they’re at the end of a long road and looking to the next one.
On the contrary, the Wolffs will likely find their services in high demand once Nelson leaves public office at the end of this year. The Wolffs, one or the other, will be the wishful thinking of every nonprofit leader. The Wolffs may want to call former City Manager Sheryl Sculley to perfect the art of diplomatically saying, “No, thank you.” Please give us time and space.
After a 50-year career in a long list of elected offices, Nelson, a healthy and active 81, will find himself, like former mayor Phil Hardberger, challenged by new generations of city leaders, individuals hoping to make their own brand, wondering exactly how to turn vision into accomplishment. And how to get elected and re-elected. Longevity is underestimated.
“Nelson got things done,” Brackenridge Park Conservancy president Nicolas Hollis told me Wednesday night as we shared hosting duties at the organization’s gala honoring the Wolffs and their community service. I should have stolen that line. Unfortunately, Hollis said it after I delivered my own remarks recalling the Wolffs’ many contributions to the community.
I had five minutes to talk about Nelson and Tracy, Curatorial Development Manager Lynn Bobbitt told me two days before the event. Writing a Wikipedia entry would have been much easier. How can you sum up the Wolffs and their accomplishments in five minutes? I tried.
When Monika and I returned to Texas in 1989 with our two young sons, Nelson was running a mayoral race against incumbent Lila Cockrell, who had returned to the position after an eight-year hiatus, promising to serve one term. Then she changed her mind and decided to run again. Wolff and another city council member, María Berriozábal, the first Hispanic woman elected to the city council, both challenged Cockrell and both made it a runoff. Wolff won.
During his tenure as mayor, the Alamodome was completed and hosted the American Olympic Festival, and the Central Library was built, the first new downtown developments in many years. President George HW Bush joined Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the historic German-American Schoolhouse at the Plaza San Antonio Hotel to initial the final version of the Free- North American exchange.
It was a heady time.
The two Wolffs will be best remembered, and deservedly, for their work together during Nelson’s long tenure as county judge. Its singular achievement, in my opinion, will be the ten-year, $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvement Project.
Many others deserve their fair share of credit for turning the decrepit, weed-strewn canalized waterway into the city’s showcase linear park. It would never have happened had it not been for Nelson to secure local funding after years of federal indifference to the project.
Tracy, meanwhile, continues to lead the foundation that funded the restoration of the historic Bexar County Courthouse, established the Children’s Court, and brought a new focus to the rights of abused and neglected children.
Together, the two Wolffs launched Bibliotech, the county’s digital library system, years before we began to focus on the city’s dire digital divide, which has contributed to the learning loss of many center students. -city during the pandemic.
Nelson also had his share of defeat. The light rail, launched in the early 1990s, never existed. Decades later, a streetcar planned for Broadway and a downtown east-west streetcar line were killed before they even reached voters.
Despite its successes, more needs to be done to align city and county economic and fiscal programs. The Bexar County Jail needs to be moved and completely redesigned. Wolff’s successor will have his hands full.
Nelson has written six books chronicling his tenure as State Representative (1971-73), State Senator (1973-75), San Antonio District 8 Councilman (1987-91), Mayor of San Antonio (1991-95) and Bexar County Judge (2000-2022).
His latest book will be released in early May, titled The Mayor and the Judge: The Inside Story of the War on COVID (Elm Grove Publishing, San Antonio, 2022). Many might think it’s too early to relive the pandemic, but as I read a preview copy last week, I found myself engrossed in this insider’s account, recalling countless challenges and developments that, otherwise, slipped into distant memory.
How we were all suddenly isolated as schools, businesses and public gathering places closed. How panic set in as people irrationally rushed to hoard toilet paper and other products. How the San Antonio Food Bank saw tens of thousands of new families lining up in long lines of vehicles overnight for emergency food packages. How HEB galvanized its 140,000 partners in hundreds of stores to calm the public, slow hoarding, implement safety protocols and keep people supplied with food and other necessities. How hospital staff valiantly risked their own lives, day after day, to save others, especially the unvaccinated.
How Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg set a national example for other cities with daily press briefings that regularly included medical and scientific experts as the pandemic grew further complicated by political extremists and social media misinformation , and that the coronavirus itself was turning into successive epidemics.
And how the city and county established effective mass testing and vaccination sites, and worked with philanthropist and developer Graham Weston and others at BioBridge Global to launch community labs to elevate testing protocols to allow schools and businesses to reopen.
All long-time public leaders reach their end point. Some do not realize this and the voters drive them out of power. Some leave on their own terms. Wolff is ending his 22-year term as county judge on his own schedule. New leadership will bring new possibilities.
But, as attorney Frank Burney pointed out to me on Wednesday, “There will never be another county judge like Wolff, or another couple like Nelson and Tracy, ever.”