When Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff decided to run for office, both he and his father, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, felt some apprehension about serving together on the commissioners court.
“We didn’t know how it was going to work. I’m happy to say now, having been able to work with my father for the last four years, that it works pretty damn well,” said Kevin, with a laugh. “Do we disagree? Sure we do. Do we end up voting differently? Yes.”
While it’s unusual for a father and son to serve on the same county commissioners court, there are several other instances around the state where serving in county government runs in the family. Some families boast a lineage of several county officials serving a single county for generations. In others, members of the same family serve concurrently in different counties or side by side in the same one, making for interesting (to say the least) work and family dynamics.
Like Father, (Not) Like Son
The father and son have a similar laugh; a guffaw, Kevin calls it. And both can be very direct when stating their opinions —Nelson said he taught his son not to be “a mealy mouth.” But similar family traits aside, the two think differently politically. Nelson Wolff is a Democrat; his son is a Republican.
“I love the fact that he strikes out on his own,” Nelson said. “To me, that is independence and the way he was brought up. He’s not afraid to lead on some issues — transportation, reorganization of county government — which has been positive.”
“When we do disagree, we say our piece, we take our votes accordingly and take the actions we think are right,” Kevin said. “That’s what the job is. We understand that. We don’t let it come between us as father and son. I don’t love him any less and he doesn’t love me any less. We just happen to disagree. You tell me what father and son don’t disagree on some things?”
Such was the case when the two butted heads publicly in 2012 over how to fund a streetcar initiative project for Bexar County’s county seat, San Antonio. Kevin said he wasn’t anti-streetcar, he just didn’t agree with the way his father wanted to finance the project. “I ended up voting against it — twice,” Kevin said, chuckling.
“When there’s a difference of opinion, I respect that position,” Nelson said.
They both seemed amused when recalling the heated conflict. “Some issues have a little higher tension level than others,” Nelson said. “There was a lot of tension over this streetcar thing. It made for some good family arguments.”
The commissioner is relatively new to public service compared to his dad — Kevin’s first elected position was on the San Antonio City Council in 2005, and he joined the commissioners court in 2009. But he’s no stranger to public service and politics. His father began a life of public service in the 1970s as a Texas state representative and state senator. Nelson then joined the San Antonio City Council and became the city’s mayor before being appointed as Bexar County Judge in 2001, a seat he has been re-elected to since.
“I’ve been on the sidelines my entire life,” said Kevin, who spent time in the Navy then worked two decades in the private sector, overseeing 25,000 employees at Citibank before leaving corporate America. Public service wasn’t on his mind until he became frustrated with local political corruption shortly after moving back to San Antonio and decided to run for city council.
“I figured out that maybe it was some latent family disease that manifested itself when I turned 40,” Kevin joked, adding that his new vocation as a public servant meant a pay cut and long hours, but it’s been rewarding. “Being able to have a positive impact on an even greater number of people (500,000 are in his precinct) is one of the things I love most about it. You can really get stuff done at the local level.”
And serving with his dad — differing political philosophies and all — is a treat. “I feel very fortunate that I get to work with my father,” Kevin said. “Not a lot of people get to do that.”
Comal County Clerk Joy Streater (left) and her daughter, Guadalupe County Clerk Teresa Kiel. (Photo courtesy Teresa Kiel.)
A Mother’s Helping Hand
While Guadalupe County Clerk Teresa Kiel doesn’t work alongside her mother, she can credit her mom with steering her toward public service. “She told me I needed to do it,” Kiel recalled.
Kiel’s mother, Joy Streater, knew her daughter had the qualifications to make a good clerk and thought she would appreciate a job that required minimal travel. At the time, Kiel’s work took her all over the United States installing custom software in county clerks’ offices.
Streater spoke from experience. She has served as county clerk in adjacent Comal County, in Central Texas, for 20 years. In 2009, the County and District Clerks’ Association named her County Clerk of the Year.
At first Kiel told her mother she wasn’t interested in entering the political realm, Streater said. “Then I said, ‘You think about it and if it’s something you want to do I’ll help you.’ She came back and said ‘yes.’”
Streater’s coaching helped Kiel face three opponents during her initial campaign debates. It also helped her prepare to take office. “Mom was an amazing help. Where I knew the most about the inner workings of the clerk’s office, she knew the statutes. She could point me to the specific codes,” Kiel said. “Mom’s been heavily into the legislative process since she’s been in office and just her being involved with legislation helped.”
Today the two routinely meet up at county clerks’ continuing education events and enjoy discussing the current issues affecting their jobs. “She’s an analytical type and she can read a law and read things into it that I don’t necessarily see,” Streater said. “We’ve had fun bouncing ideas off each other.”
Kiel said she’s grown closer to her mother because of their shared occupation. “It’s nice when I go to a conference and I can spend time with my mother learning,” Kiel said. “I don’t know anybody else that can do that. It never gets old. It’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Although Kiel now has a decade of experience clerking and will soon be sworn in as president of the Texas County and District Clerks’ Association, she still taps into her mother’s wisdom with a quick phone call. “She is a tremendous asset,” Kiel said.
Rusk County third cousins Judge Joel Hale (left) and Commissioner Bill Hale. (Photo courtesy Joel Hale.)
A Legacy of Ranching and County Service
Another long-time county official, Rusk County Commissioner Bill Hale in East Texas, shared insights gleaned from 17 years on the commissioners court when his third cousin, Joel Hale, decided to run for Rusk County judge in 2010.
“Bill gave me a lot of advice and a lot of direction as far as things I needed to do,” Joel said, adding that his cousin’s reputation helped him in his campaign. “You don’t know how much of a help it was in Precinct 1,” the precinct Bill represents. “It meant a heck of a lot to me as far as getting elected. His name carried some weight because of the job he had done there.”
The two hadn’t been close before serving together, but Bill knew enough to know Joel would do a good job in public office. “I knew Joel’s background and I knew the quality and integrity he would bring to the court so I was very happy to hear he was running,” he said. “I’ve respected him and his family all my life and am getting to know him better by working with him every day.”
The two cousins instituted some rules of conduct to uphold that integrity in the court. “We were advised not to second each other’s motions on the court and we try to abide by that,” Bill said.
When the two find themselves on opposite sides of the issue, they respect each other’s opinion just as they would other members of the court, Joel said.
“He’s accused me of being hard-headed and I take that as a compliment and return it to him,” Bill said, laughing. “We can and do disagree on things without being disagreeable. There are very few absolutes in this world. His opinion is as good as mine, and mine is as good as his.”
County service runs in their family, which has a long history in Rusk County. A distant relative was sheriff in the 1920s and a great uncle served as county clerk in the 1940s and ‘50s. Bill has been a rancher all his life and operates the Hale Family Ranch, founded in 1856 by the two cousins’ great-great grandparents on an original Texas land grant. “We’ve been designated as a Texas Century Ranch by the Texas Department of Agriculture,” Bill said.
The Jeff Davis County Commissioners court (left to right), which includes several relatives: Commissioner Larry Francell, Commissioner Curtis Evans, County Judge George Grubb, Commissioner Kathy Bencomo and Commissioner Albert Miller. (Photo courtesy Larry Francell.)
Cousins on the Court
On the other side of the state, in Far West Texas, several cousins serve side by side in Jeff Davis County government.
“Of the five members of the court, I am cousins with two — Curtis Evans and Albert Miller,” said Commissioner Larry Francell, who joined the court eight years ago. “Now, if you take the fact that my wife, Beth’s, cousin Jim Miller – Albert’s brother – married a relative of County Judge George Grubb, then you have four of the five of us related somehow. And the fact that Sheriff Rick McIvor is a cousin to Beth, Curtis and Albert, then it really becomes confusing!”
An interest in community service might be passed along in families, Francell speculated. “I think that the Jeff Davis County commissioners certainly feel this way, since we receive no pay for our service other than $5 per meeting, and we have to show up to get that,” Francell said. “In my case, I think community service is a high calling.”
Francell said working with relatives has the same ups and downs as those that occur in any family. “But we probably reconcile differences quicker, or maybe just gloss over them, because we are family,” he said. “I think we may try to get along because we are kin and will have numerous instances when we will interact as family away from court.”
Francell, a historian and former director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University, speculated that some counties with smaller populations and ranching legacies may have more instances of multiple members of the same family involved in county government.
“It has certainly been common in Jeff Davis County,” Francell said. “For instance, Herbert L. Kokernot Jr., who may have been the longest serving county commissioner in state history (56 years, 1925-1981), was later followed by his grandson, Chris Lacey and then later by Chris’ wife, Diane Lacey. We have others, such as a former county attorney whose grandfather was sheriff.”
Left: Loving County siblings Commissioner Tom Jones (top left), Judge Skeet Jones and County Clerk Mozelle Carr. (Photo by Liz Carmack.) Below: Loving County Commissioner Harlan Hopper (left) and his uncle, Loving County Sheriff Billy Hopper. (Photo courtesy Harlan Hopper.)
Family Ties (And Feuds)
There’s probably no better example of familial occupation of a county courthouse than in Loving County, also in Far West Texas. The state’s least populous county — the 2010 census counted 82 residents — borders New Mexico.
“There’s not a lot to pick from out here that actually live in the county and lay their heads on pillows at night,” said County Judge Skeet Jones. He served as a county commissioner for 14 years before being elected judge in 2006.
Skeet joined the commissioners court in 1992, the year his father, Elgin, wrapped up 28 years of service as sheriff/tax accessor-collector. A decades-old black and white portrait, hanging on the commissioners courtroom wall, shows Elgin in his sheriff’s uniform and hat. Although it’s not labeled, there’s no mistaking who’s related to whom. Skeet bears a strong resemblance to his father, even down to his long sideburns.
The Jones family county connections don’t end there. “My wife was JP from 1985 to 1992, and my mother was the chief appraiser and she worked as tax accessor/collector,” Skeet said. “The county contracted with her. My dad didn’t hire her; the commissioners court hired her.”
The judge’s brother, Tom Jones, is a commissioner, and their sister, Mozelle Carr, is county and district clerk, a position she won last year. Her office sits across from her brother the judge in the cramped, box-like county courthouse in Mentone, the county’s only town. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the three are related. Skeet teases his sibling and fellow commissioners court member as only a big brother could. And Both Skeet and Carr narrow their eyes in concentration the exact same way when asked a question.
Carr ran for her position because no one else had filed to run upon the death of previous County and District Clerk Elizabeth Jones — Carr’s sister-in-law. “It got to be approximately a week before the last day to file to run for office and no one had stepped up,” Carr said. “Somebody has to step up.”
Because county government is one of the few employers in Loving County, it’s no surprise that so many of the county’s few residents find their way into public service. Sylvia Renteria Villalobos, who collected her family’s history with county government to share with County, wrote that she and several family members have been part of Loving County government over the years, working as groundskeepers, cleaning the courthouse, working in the treasurer’s and sheriff’s/tax assessor-collector’s offices and serving as county officials.
Her brother, Commissioner Ysidro Renteria, was appointed in 2010 to their other brother’s — Commissioner Joe Renteria — seat when he retired. Joe had served as a commissioner since 1991. The siblings’ father, Seledonio, served as county constable from 1931 to the early 1980s.
Sheriff Billy Hopper and his nephew, Commissioner Harlan Hopper, represent another local family with a long legacy in Loving County government. As a testament to the family’s county connections, the sheriff’s offices occupy a rammed-earth building constructed north of the courthouse called the Hopper Annex. Sheriff Hopper’s grandfather was a commissioner in the 1930s. One of his older brothers became a commissioner during the following decade, after which he was county judge and the justice of the peace for two decades. Another brother served some 30 years as both constable and sheriff.
Harlan Hopper also runs Hopper Service Station, the only gas station in a Permian Basin county filled with oil and gas wells. Harlan was appointed to fill his father’s unexpired term in 1991 and has won that seat ever since. He also serves on Mentone’s volunteer fire department and is the licensed operator of the Loving County Water System.
“Everybody has to double up on a lot of things,” said the sheriff, who moved back in 1989 after college, a stint in the Navy and three decades of working around the globe for Halliburton.
Does all the togetherness get a bit much at times? “Everybody works pretty well together,” Sheriff Hopper said. “Harlan is a commissioner and they decide how much money you can spend. I don’t tell him how to vote and he doesn’t get into my business any more than he has to. The same thing with Judge Jones — he does some things we sure don’t like and we do some things he sure doesn’t like but that’s the way it’s going to be. That’s why county government is set up like it is.”
The county has a history punctuated by political infighting. “There’s always been a political faction of people who wanted to be in county government in Loving County,” said Judge Jones. “There was a big feud years ago. There were guns drawn, fists thrown and threats made and lots of lawsuits.” But things have calmed down, he added with a grin.
That doesn’t mean that today all decisions are made without a trace of conflict. Case in point — Judge Jones had been working on a committee seeking to form a groundwater conservation district with neighboring Reeves County. The group went as far as drafting legislation and lobbying the Legislature for formation of the district. But when it came time for the Loving County commissioners to vote on the issue, Tom Jones voted against his brother. Skeet was sorely disappointed. “My feelings are better over it now,” the judge said. “That’s just the way it goes. This is a democracy. That’s good. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” ✯