Peter Sakai for Bexar County judge – does a candidate who thinks ‘substance beats style’ really stand a chance? – San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — To understand what is arguably the most important political race in Bexar County this November — former county commissioner and public relations dynamo Trish DeBerry vs. former state district judge and Children’s Court pioneer Peter Sakai — consider a tale of two digital personas.

Look at their social media presence, the modern barometer of political campaign savvy and a window into how they want to be perceived by the public.

On Facebook there’s DeBerry — 57, Republican, silver-haired and gym-toned — crafting gooey rolls at the airport Cinnabon, knocking on doors in red “running for office” shorts, glamming as a 1920s Flapper for a Republican gala, hanging with UTSA football fans, hugging Black church-goers on the East Side and sharing the woes of a downtown Chinese restaurant crippled by road construction.

“She is everywhere. It’s exhausting,” joked soon-retiring County Judge Nelson Wolff, a mentor, friend and Democrat who nonetheless will be supporting her opponent for the $180,000 per year position.

Meanwhile, at Sakai’s social media ranch you can almost hear that lonesome whistle blow.

About this story

This is the first of two profiles of the major party candidates for Bexar County judge in the Nov. 8 general election. Next week, the Express-News will profile Republican nominee Trish DeBerry.

The candidate has a calmer approach. Sakai’s homepage shows the 67-year-old judge — he’s been a private attorney, DA appellate attorney or district judge virtually his entire adult life — standing on the steps of the county’s 1897 Romanesque Revival courthouse in a blue jacket with an open-collar white shirt. He could be your accountant.

Sakai’s not dancing, singing, protesting, debating or hugging. His photos with supporters offer a down to earth, understated feel. On his campaign logo, a tiny yellow kite dots the “I” in his name.

“Trish can post all the photos she wants, as often as she wants,” says Sakai, without snark. “The voters know who I am.”

They can click on Sakai testimonials from Marta Peláez, CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, or Annette Rodriguez, CEO of Children’s Center, or hear a heartwarming endorsement from two adoptive parents who went through his much-acclaimed court.

Visit the “issues” tab and you’ll see sober explanations of his support for boosting small business contracts with the county, creating “rocket dockets” to cut the COVID backlog of criminal cases and closing the county’s digital divide with something called a public internet utility.

“He’s good on the issues,” says Wolff, as though endorsing a safe Volvo. “But he’s got to punch it up a bit. I’ve talked to him.”

Democratic political strategist Colin Strother says the roundish, genial judge must get beyond the image of “everyone’s favorite uncle.” Others say he needs to retire his go-to management jargon, such as “societal ROI” (return on investment), silos of bureaucracy, mission statements, stakeholders, metrics, evidence-based outcomes and building (metaphorical) bridges.

“Oh, the bridges, so many bridges,” says a teasing Sakai supporter in the county courthouse. “That’s our Peter.”

“Trish will be a better candidate on the stump,” says GOP strategist Kelton Morgan. “But no Republican has won a contested county-wide election since 2014, and I think those demographics play in Sakai’s favor.”

“He’s my kind of dull,” says Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat who has publicly feuded with DeBerry over staffing, equipment and jail management issues. “I will take that kind of dull over loud, boisterous and disrespectful any day. The judge and I have not always agreed on every issue, but he’s always been fair.”

The Teflon judge

You could hike for days and not find someone who disagrees on the record that Sakai is anything but diligent, fair and compassionate on the bench. In the cutthroat political world of opposition research — finding dirt on your opponent — Sakai’s attackers often come home disappointed.

In the Democratic runoff for county judge, former State Rep. Ina Minjares, trailing in the polls but widely respected within her party, unleashed an attack ad showing an elderly woman in a wheelchair beside the caption: “We paid for Peter Sakai’s paid sick leave benefits. He robbed us of ours! Peter Sakai betrayed working families.”

It landed like a fluffy tortilla.

In late 2019, as district judge, Sakai granted a temporary injunction against a city ordinance that would require private sector employers to provide their 354,000 San Antonio workers the same paid sick leave benefits that city employees receive. His ruling gave the law’s opponents — local firms and business groups — more time to challenge the new law in court. They argued successfully that it violated the state constitution by requiring employers to do more than the state’s minimum-wage law requires.

It flew in the face of Sakai’s personal beliefs. “But that was a rule of law decision,” Sakai explained recently. He said he immediately certified the case, so it could be promptly appealed. The Democrat-controlled Fourth Court of Appeals upheld his ruling, as did the Republican-controlled Texas Supreme Court.

Sakai trounced Minjares, 58 percent to 42 percent, resulting in November’s face-off with DeBerry. Minjares declined to be interviewed for this story.

“There was a fear I would lose to a Hispanic female,” Sakai said earlier this month while home recovering from COVID. “I was the only non-Hispanic male candidate in Bexar County who prevailed against a Hispanic female. That election affirmed my belief that substance beats style any day.”

DeBerry’s toughest accusation against Sakai, so far, has been that he has taken an awkwardly large $100,000 campaign contribution from local philanthropist Kym Rapier Verette.

There are no legal limits for political contributions in Texas, except for judicial posts. But the sheer size of the Verette donation raised eyebrows — and some supporters thought Sakai might be opposed on principle. (If you’re new to Texas politics, the County Judge is the presiding officer of the elected, five-member County Commissioners Court, a sort of CEO, and doesn’t make judicial decisions, concentrating instead on things like public health, the county jail, road construction, parks and running elections. A law degree is not required.)

But DeBerry also was seizing on Verette’s having once been married to Dr. George M. Rapier III, founder of WellMed Medical Management. The Rapier name got unwanted attention recently when a former WellMed executive-level consultant was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly converting for his own use hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations Rapier and his then-wife intended for two nonprofit organizations.

The consultant has since pleaded guilty to two of the indictment’s 10 counts. But before he took a plea, he accused Rapier of hiding his political activity, including get-out-the-vote campaigns for conservative candidates and to stymie the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Kym Verette was not implicated in any of the dark-money intrigue.

“Kym and Dr. Rapier were always involved with children and families, and I have known her since I became a judge,” explained Sakai. “I called her and asked for a donation. She has no business dealings with Bexar County. I’m offended by the baseless attacks on my friend and supporter.”

That line about Verette having no business with the county was a veiled shot at DeBerry’s controversial contracts with public agencies while she was the owner of talkStrategy public relations firm, formerly known as the DeBerry Group. The firm’s contracts with San Antonio Water System, the city-owned Brooks business park and other public entities — raising the possibility of conflicts of interest — came under scrutiny when she was running for Precinct 3 county commissioner in the fall of 2020.

After her election, DeBerry, the company founder, stepped down as CEO and said she reduced her ownership stake and handled only private-sector clients. The company continued working for public agencies, but DeBerry says she never had to recuse herself because of a conflict of interest.

As of early July, after winning the GOP nomination for county judge, she says she has “zero stake or oversight of the agency.”

Sakai contends that DeBerry’s proposal to relocate the Bexar County Jail and “revitalize the West Side” is fueled by her consultations with those who build and operate private prisons. DeBerry denies having such conversations.

“I don’t know of any success stories in privatizing prisons,” says Sakai. “I’ve learned that the privatization of child welfare failed and that the foster care system in Bexar County is in chaos. Plus, building a jail that would cost more than a billion dollars is a budget buster.”

While the race for county judge will touch on other issues such as deputy salaries, overtime for jail guards and how the public health department may be restructured, those are unlikely to convert many partisan voters. But the issue of how Sakai and DeBerry view Donald Trump boils beneath the surface.

A moderate Republican by current standards, DeBerry privately rejects many of Trump’s actions and statements.

She rarely brings up his name, but if pressed, she’ll say she doesn’t want him to run for president in 2024. Yet, she is loathe to disavow Trump publicly for fear of alienating Republican voters who believe, without evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen.

Sakai believes Trump is a relevant topic in virtually any political race in America today. Even Republican strategists concede the same.

“Your opinion of Trump is a sanity and backbone screen for millions of Americans,” says a national campaign consultant who often works in Texas. “Will you speak the truth or are you so scared about your base you lose the courage of your convictions?”

“I’m offended by the lies that are being trafficked about the integrity of our voting system,” says Sakai. “We need to know (of candidates), are you a part of that or not? I will make sure our county elections personnel are protected and that we’re using the best technology available for voting.”

Sakai in private

“Would you like some coffee cake?” asks Raquel (Rachel) Dias-Sakai as she and her husband of 40 years open the front door.

Their vaulted-ceiling home in the guarded, gated and walled community of Oakwell Farms, by Harry Wurzbach Road and inside Loop 410.

They’re both wearing protective masks. He’s in casual blue, from his loafers to his guayabera shirt. Rachel, who was an educator, counselor and administrator in the Harlandale school district for 32 years, is all in black. She handles much of his campaign scheduling and gives advice.

They met and grew up in the Valley. Their first date did not go particularly well. They both lived in San Antonio and she, a lover of classical music, thought his invitation to a concert would mean a symphony hall. Instead, he took her to “The Drum” arena — now called the Moody Center — in Austin to hear Linda Ronstadt.

Known for his outward calm, Sakai admits that when he is alone in his car he will sometimes blast out the ’70s and ’80s hits of Chicago, The Who and the Rolling Stones. He said this, laughing, as though voters might have imagined, say, the Bee Gees.

Haitian art and Mexican Talavera ceramics share wall space with a kitchen microwave that remains a bit too high for their tastes because the previous owner of their home was 6-foot-9 former San Antonio Spur Terry Cummings.

A hallway full of family photos and paintings includes the wedding photos of Peter’s parents and Japanese grandparents. “I don’t play the Asian card very often,” Sakai says, “but they certainly did teach me humility and politeness. It was our culture. We never bragged.”

He and Rachel have two grown children. Elizabeth is a criminal defense lawyer in Houston and George is a project manager with Chevron Phillips Chemical in Lake Jackson.

Beside Judge Sakai’s favorite couch seat is a stack of books, including “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging,” by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. It’s been translated into 18 languages. A blurb says: “These stories ultimately show you who you really are and how large a difference you have already made to the people around you.”

Sakai, who regularly attends a Catholic church with Rachel, says he reads such books because he finds it difficult to remain positive “with all the negativity and toxicity” in his political life and from having observed literally thousands of dysfunctional families in trauma in his courtroom.

One of his largest political donors and a longtime friend is philanthropist Harvey Najim, who turned a tiny data systems company into a $1.8 billion company with 1,800 employees. Retired, he says his foundation has given out about $175 million to “countless organizations” working to solve problems in education, food, shelter, nutrition and mental health, among others.

Najim recalls when Marta Peláez, head of Family Violence Prevention, called to tell him she wanted to name a new building after him, due to his many financial contributions. He declined, saying, “I want it named after Judge Sakai, but let me ask him about it first.”

“Are you sure about this, Harvey?” Sakai said, choking up.

“Yes, judge, I’m sure,” said Najim. “All I’ve done is write a check.”

By now, Sakai’s uncommon American biography is known to many San Antonians. He was born in 1954 in McAllen to Pete Yutaka Sakai and Rosemarie Kawahata Sakai, American-born children to Japanese parents. His father, as a high school kid in California during World War II, was confined with his family in the U.S. Japanese internment camp in Poston, Ariz., built on an Indian reservation in the Yuma desert.

Sakai’s father, who later enlisted with the Army and joined U.S. invasion forces in Japan, was housed in a converted horse stall and attended high school behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards, says Sakai, who years later visited the Poston camp.

“So many people wrongly lost their property, their businesses and their homes because of this abhorrent violation of their civil rights,” Sakai says. “This is one of the lessons from my father I truly appreciated — respect for the law.”

The youngest of four children, Sakai picked onions, lettuce and cabbage on his parents’ farm when he wasn’t an “unfocused” student at McAllen High. As a 155-pound offensive center on the football team, he credits his coaches for instilling his work ethic. He remains a Dallas Cowboys fan.

At the largely Hispanic school, he was picked on and got into fights. “I was very proud and never shied away from who I was,” he recalls. “I put up with the slant-eye gestures and was forever teased about being a cheap Japanese knock-off.” He later married a Hispanic woman and speaks sufficient Spanglish.

As a long-haired opponent of the Vietnam War, Sakai says he had a “tumultuous” relationship with his crew-cut conservative father. “We couldn’t agree on anything,” he says, “but he instilled in me the values of humility and hard work. I am forever indebted to him.”

Sakai says he paid his own way and got some scholarships to attend two years at what was then known as the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg (now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), and then got his bachelor’s (1976) and law degree (1979) from UT-Austin, “when tuition was like $5 a credit hour,” he laughed.

“My parents did the best they could, but we never really had any extras,” he recalls.

After passing the bar, Sakai became an appellate lawyer for the Bexar County District Attorney’s office in1980, when Bill White was prosecutor. Sakai made such an impression that soon he was put in charge of the juvenile prosecution section. He was itching to be a dynamic prosecutor, but the discipline of researching and writing appellate briefs, he says now, made him a far better trial attorney. In 1983, he went into private practice.

For the next 11 years, he handled many court-appointed juvenile cases and developed some expertise with child abuse and neglect investigations. In 1995, he was unanimously appointed by the civil court judges as the Associate Judge of the Children’s Court, where he launched his career as a jurist by creating or nurturing numerous innovative programs such as the family drug court and early childhood court that helped children and struggling families.

His track record in child advocacy is what defines Sakai, both personally and politically. Having a glowing reputation of doing right by the city’s most under-served kids makes political fundraising easier, and it can leave many opponents fumbling with responses like, “Well, of course he’s a fine judge, but…”

Sakai’s supporters run the gamut from grandparents who adopted children, formerly drug-addicted mothers and social workers to major philanthropists, academics and CEOs. He’s also got accordionist Flaco Jimenez, the Tejano-Conjunto superstar, on board.

When Peggy Eighmy, wife of Taylor Eighmy, now in his fifth year as president of the University of Texas at San Antonio, arrived in town in 2017, she wanted to quickly launch herself into a niche social cause she had grown to love — helping kids who have “aged out” of the foster care system navigate and succeed at college.

With just a few phone calls to San Antonio’s do-gooder elite, she learned that one person seemed instrumental in making her dream happen.

“Peter made me feel very welcomed,” said Eighmy. “He cared about me, and we really hit it off. He has a heart for those kids.”

There was one case involving a child, however, that almost made Sakai consider leaving the bench.

In the Nineties, a baby girl named Diamond Alexander Washington had been removed from her home after her mother had tested positive for drugs. After all the parties eventually agreed that Diamond could be returned to her home, Sakai signed off on the order. Shortly after, the child’s mother struck Diamond at least 26 times in a 24-hour period, killing her. Kim Washington was sentenced to life in prison.

“Judge Sakai cried, and I know he gave serious thought to leaving the judiciary,” recalls former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who has known Sakai for some 40 years.

Sakai took many months off following his decision.

“He was so upset, but he didn’t give any excuses,” says Hardberger. “He had to make those kinds of decisions all the time. As a superior judge on the Fourth Circuit, I was always impressed with what a good judge he was. I came of the opinion he was much more than a normal human being.”

bselcraig@express-news.net

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