Chip Haass was busy studying for mid-terms when electoral politics came crashing through his door.
Haass, 31, had enrolled at St. Mary’s University Law School last fall, shortly after completing his second term as a District 10 councilmember. Three months into his first semester, Haass learned that veteran Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson would give up his post in 2008 to challenge Ciro Rodriguez for a congressional seat. While the announcement piqued his interest, Haass says he did not immediately envision himself as a candidate for Larson’s spot on the Commissioners Court.
“In fact, I was more shocked, because Lyle’s been back-and-forth on this idea of leaving the Court for about a decade now,” Haass says. “I just didn’t think it was ever going to happen.
“When it actually did, it forced me to do some serious soul-searching. Do I go ahead and spend three years in law school as planned, earn the degree and start a practice, and maybe someday, many years from now, come back into politics? Or do I take a leave of absence for a semester and really give some consideration to running?”
The biggest concern for Haass involved the opponent he’d be facing: Kevin Wolff. Son of former mayor and current County Judge Nelson Wolff, Kevin was in the middle of his second term as a District 9 councilmember, and the power of his family’s name, not to mention his conservative, tax-cutting bona fides in a precinct that has been dominated by Republicans for 30 years, gave him the aura of political inevitability.
But Haass has some experience bucking conventional wisdom. In 2003, as an earnest, 25-year-old history and government teacher at Saint Mary’s Hall, he launched a high-energy, civics-project of a campaign in District 10 against the establishment favorite, Zoning Commissioner John Clamp. Though he’s a progressive Democrat at heart, Haass projected himself that year as a post-partisan reformer eager to clean up a City Hall mired in a bribery scandal involving councilmembers Enrique “Kike” Martin and John Sanders. He drafted a voluntary ethics pledge which limited him to campaign contributions of no more than $500 (he later helped codify that idea as a member of the council) and refused money from lobbyists or members of the development community. Tirelessly blockwalking across the neighborhoods of a conservative district packed with military retirees, he seemed so guileless and earnest, he frequently disarmed voters so thoroughly they’d end up inviting him to spend several hours in their house.
Haass won that election, and over the course of his four years on the council he pushed hard for campaign-finance reform, increased funding for city parks, and restrictions on Northside topless bars. While he still talks about campaigning as “a blast,” Haass is clearly a much more pragmatic, practiced politician than he was in 2003.
He’s boiled his campaign down to one simple idea that has nothing to do with ideology: That it’s detrimental for Bexar County to have two members of the Wolff family on a five-member board, very nearly exerting majority control. He rarely misses an opportunity to refer to the “Wolff machine.”
Kevin Wolff, who declined to speak to the Current for this article, has turned that argument on its head by suggesting that his election is necessary to counterbalance Democratic control (the rest of the commissioners, including his father, belong to the Democratic Party).
Haass predictably dismisses the notion that the Wolffs would act independently on the court. “I don’t agree with most of what my dad thinks or says, much the way Kevin says he and his dad are,” Haass says. “But I’ve got to tell you: If my back’s ever against the wall, my dad’s going to be there for me, and vice versa. There’s a reason why almost every Fortune 500 company in the country does not allow nepotism on its board of directors. I don’t think it’s in our best interest as a community to elect that sort of scenario.”
Haass’s concern about Wolff’s family clout is echoed by write-in candidate Rhett Smith, a perennial fly in the ointment when it comes to local politics, who says of the potential father-son team: “It would be different if we were some little hick town and we couldn’t find anybody else, but we’ve got other choices here.”
With a well-funded campaign and superior name recognition, the 43-year-old Wolff is pitching himself as a seasoned, fiscally prudent public servant. His campaign slogan — “Experienced. Proven. Conservative.” — tells most of the story, and he fills in the few remaining details in his new 30-second TV spot. The normally boisterous Wolff appears positively somber in the ad as he looks into the camera and touts his eight years of service in the Navy, his “real-world business experience” (the lone, implicit shot at Haass, who has spent his entire adult life in academics and politics), and his council record of advocating for lower property taxes.
That dedication to strict budgetary restraint has kept Larson in Precinct 3 for 11 years, and it makes Wolff particularly appealing in areas such as the rapidly growing, upscale Stone Oak community.
Steve Heinrich, Bexar County GOP communications director, half-jokingly says, “We’d like to be able to have Kevin Wolff on the court. We think his father will improve when he’s there.”
In a more serious vein, Heinrich says that all talk of a Wolff hegemony on the court is overblown.
“I don’t think either of them is going to change their vote because of their relationship. I think they’re both grounded,” Heinrich says. “I think Kevin Wolff has proven in his service on the city council that he has a very firm grounding in responsible, conservative governmental principles and he isn’t going to change.”
If Haass has any hope for an upset, it will come from residents like Bob Davidson and Ellen Leonard, who recently hosted a meet-and-greet for Haass at their Rockhill Drive home.
“You’re in a Republican household,” Davidson says. “We don’t show up in any polls. I think what the polls are missing, is there’s a lot of people who are fed up with the way things have been.
“You’ve got somebody who’s trying to create a family dynasty that, in my opinion, sort of thinks that’s their birthright. I don’t like `Wolff’s` public persona. I don’t like the way that he appears on camera or in print, like the whole thing is a joke. I don’t think he takes this seriously. This whole thing of flipping things around and saying, ‘If you elect me, I’ll be the only Republican,’ it’s disingenuous. And you’re hearing that from a Republican.” •