Savvy San Antonio political operator Trish DeBerry may have become her own worst enemy

While long perceived as a moderate and a disciplined political operator, DeBerry has emerged as a wild card in the campaign for Bexar County judge.

click to enlarge Trish DeBerry is running for Bexar County judge after spending less than a year representing Precinct 3 on Commissioners Court. - Facebook / Trish DeBerry for Bexar County Judge
Facebook / Trish DeBerry for Bexar County Judge
Trish DeBerry is running for Bexar County judge after spending less than a year representing Precinct 3 on Commissioners Court.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from political consultant Colin Strother clarifying his relationship with DeBerry.

It didn't take long for Republican Trish DeBerry's campaign for Bexar County judge to veer from her typically measured approach to politics.

Over the summer, the public relations veteran unleashed a flurry of news releases accusing her Democratic opponent Peter Sakai of all manner of shenanigans, suggesting, for example, that he might be "compromised" by a hefty $100,000 donation from philanthropist Kym Rapier Verette.

Then came the early October press conference at which DeBerry, without proof, accused personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry and ad agency head Bob Wills of targeting her with $259,000 in dark money ads. Both deny the claim, and Henry staged his own presser to slap down DeBerry's claim that he'd gone after her because of her gender.

Later that same month, DeBerry drew condemnation from Asian American and Pacific Islander groups for referring to Sakai, a Japanese American former district judge, as "Dr. No" twice during a confrontational candidate forum.

DeBerry's campaign said the slam was meant to show her opponent's unwillingness to fund bold county projects. However, local AAPI groups labeled it "racist" and "deplorable." Dr. No, the half-Chinese villain in the first James Bond movie, is widely perceived by contemporary critics as a racist caricature, they noted.

"No matter what you think of Trish DeBerry politically, she has been professional, methodical and disciplined throughout her career — words which do not seem to describe the course of her current campaign," San Antonio-based Republican political consultant Kelton Morgan said.

In the past, DeBerry — who resigned from her seat representing Precinct 3 on Bexar County Commissioners Court to mount her run — has been perceived as a forceful yet savvy political hand. This time around, she's emerged as a wild card, lobbing accusations, grabbing for attention and staking out what critics call markedly contradictory positions.

DeBerry's conduct makes headlines and adheres to the current GOP playbook. However, local political observers say it increasingly reeks of desperation. They also warn it's obscuring her stand on campaign issues and may cause her long-term damage, both politically and professionally.

"I think sometimes on these campaigns, you end up in an echo chamber of advisors, and as the campaign moves, you get down these paths that are hard to come back from," said one observer close to DeBerry.

DeBerry was unavailable for comment on this story. However, her campaign advisor — former councilman and two-time mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse — fired back at claims that his client has taken her run into negative territory or veered from the issues.

"She's driven an idea-focused campaign, and then it went negative — not at Trish DeBerry's hands, but through supporters, friends and the team of Peter Sakai," he said. "They took this negative on Sept. 19."

Sept. 19 was the date the dark money ads began airing on local TV.

Whose dark money?

Indeed, the most significant sign of DeBerry's shift in strategy came during the blustery Oct. 3 press conference where she accused Wills and Henry of funding the attack ads against her.

With supporters holding signs reading "Pete in your pocket" and "Who wants to buy Peter Sakai," DeBerry struck a combative tone. She accused Henry of preying on the poor to build his wealth and of preying on women through his alleged funding of the ads against her. She also suggested not only that Sakai knew who the funders were but that his campaign was conspiring with them.

"This is a dark money corporation, the likes of which we've never seen playing in politics here before that hides behind the curtain," DeBerry said. "So, I'm pulling back the curtain, and I'm exposing the folks that are responsible for this."

DeBerry brought up her credentials as a former TV journalist, saying "multiple sources" in business, journalism and the political sphere had identified Henry and Wills as the players behind the ads — a charge they'd soon vociferously deny. When pressed by reporters to identify her sources, she would not, only saying that she would file collusion and corruption charges with the district attorney's office and with the Texas attorney general.

"There are cowards at play here today, folks," she said.

Even though DeBerry was unwilling to name names, Brockhouse told the Current that one of her sources was Express-News Publisher Mark Medici, who allegedly told her that Wills wanted to purchase attack ads against her in the daily.

In a Sept. 28 tweet, Medici announced that he'd met DeBerry that day at an editorial board meeting and that the he was "proud" the paper had rejected dark money ads against her.

Contacted by the Current, Medici denied Brockhouse's claim that he'd outed the people behind the ads to DeBerry, however.

"That is categorically false," he said. "One-hundred percent false."

Critics say other actions by the DeBerry campaign appear to fly in the face of her eagerness to cry foul over the influx of dark money.

Less than a month after her press event denouncing TV spots funded by the group Friends of Bexar LLC, DeBerry unleashed attack ads of her own — albeit with their funding out in the open. Launched last week, the ad buy accuses Sakai of making a bad call from the bench that left a 2-year-old child dead.

The 18-year-old case she resurrected involved a young mother who lost custody of her infant daughter after testing positive for drugs. On the recommendation of caseworkers and others, Sakai — a long-serving and respected family court judge — ordered the pair reunited. The mother reportedly beat the girl, who later died.

After the incident, Sakai took a soul-searching leave of absence. Even so, a court-ordered probe blamed the tragic outcome on systemic problems, including Texas' lack of support for Child Protective Services, the Express-News reports.

Beyond those new attack ads, media investigations from earlier this year suggest DeBerry, for all her vitriol about the evils of dark money, has surrounded herself with people willing to use it.

Documents list both Brockhouse and Colin Strother, another veteran political consultant whom observers said offered advice to DeBerry, as board members of dark money group the Voter Education Foundation. Earlier this year, that group funded attack ads against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar's Democratic primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros.

Public records also show Tom Marks, DeBerry's chief of staff when she was on Commissioners Court, served as one of the Voter Education Foundation's officers.

Brockhouse denied that the Voter Education Foundation was secretive about its participants, pointing to the names listed in filings.

Further, he said the DeBerry campaign's ads against Sakai aren't intended to be personal smears. Instead, they question whether he's the right person to be making CEO-level decisions for the county.

"I think people are uncomfortable, you know, [they say], 'Peter's a nice guy,'" Brockhouse said. "Nobody's disputing that Peter's a nice guy. What we are disputing is his preparedness to be the Bexar County judge."

DeBerry campaign advisor Greg Brockhouse poses with fans during his first unsuccessful run for mayor. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
DeBerry campaign advisor Greg Brockhouse poses with fans during his first unsuccessful run for mayor.

Underdog campaign

Although a longtime operative and one-time mayoral candidate, DeBerry has painted herself in her present campaign as a political outsider. At appearances, she's touted her experience as a small business CEO, saying it's prepped her to make tough calls about the county's $2.8 billion budget.

This summer, DeBerry reportedly sold her entire stake in the PR firm she led, talkStrategy, after critics questioned whether its high-profile client list amounted to a conflict of interest. Among others, the firm worked for H-E-B, the San Antonio Water System and Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

From the start, it was clear that DeBerry's run for county judge would be a longshot.

She represented Precinct 3 — the only dependably Republican district of the four served by the Bexar County Commissioners Court — while the top slot has long been considered a reliably blue seat. The spot is being vacated by Democrat Nelson Wolff, who's retiring after holding it for 21 years. He hasn't faced a viable GOP challenge since 2006.

Observers said it was apparent early on that Brockhouse — himself a scrappy political underdog — was playing a prominent role in DeBerry's campaign. The former councilman was reportedly present when she filed to run.

"He's the best retail politician I've ever come across," DeBerry said of Brockhouse in a 2021 Express-News profile tied to his second mayoral campaign.

People familiar with the campaign said close associates tried to talk DeBerry out of running, warning that she was giving up a seat she could continue to hold for years in exchange for a political pipedream. But Brockhouse and Strother both encouraged her to pursue the job, those observers added.

"I do not work for her," Strother said in a text to the Current. "I get dozens of calls a year from different friends running for different offices, and if they ask for my advice, I give it to them. I don't consider that to be a role on anyone's campaign."

Brockhouse vehemently denied that he pushed DeBerry into running, saying that people who suggest otherwise are taking part in a sexist whisper campaign against the candidate.

"That's the epitome of misogyny and sexism in politics," he said. "These people are saying the only way an accomplished woman who's been highly successful for 25 years could run for Bexar County judge is if a man made her."

Just the same, DeBerry paid for polling prior to announcing her run that suggested she was up against long odds in the race.

In a phone survey conducted last November, likely Bexar County voters broke 53% to 40% in favor of giving the position to a Democrat, according to a copy of the poll obtained by the Current. Further, the report showed DeBerry's favorable name recognition lagging five of the seven other people then considered potential contenders in the race.

DeBerry also threw her hat into the ring after completing less than a year on Commissioners Court — hardly the amount of time needed to improve her name recognition or amass a substantial record, political observers maintain.

"When pretty much everyone in the political world tried to tell her this was a suicide mission, she let Greg Brockhouse and Colin Strother convince her that the move was in her best interest," GOP consultant Morgan said.

Again, Brockouse disputes that narrative, saying the polling numbers showed that DeBerry had a path to victory. He also said some people close to DeBerry who now say she shouldn't have run initially encouraged her to pursue the seat.

"Trish is a very analytical person," he said. "She's a numbers- and data-driven consultant herself. We knew when we delivered our message and our polling that we would win the Bexar County judge's race, running away, because Peter doesn't have the skill set or knowledge to do the job."

The Brockhouse factor

And then there's the matter of Brockhouse himself, a tireless campaigner whose Trumpian populism and grievance-filled approach to local politics seems at odds with DeBerry's background as a methodical insider and image of a political moderate.

Further confounding observers are allegations of domestic abuse that have dogged Brockhouse.

During his first mayoral run, the Express-News reported that Brockhouse had twice been accused of domestic violence. One of those calls came from his third and current wife, who called the police in 2009, while a 2006 incident stemmed from a call during his second marriage.

Brockhouse maintains that he was the complainant in the 2006 incident. He also said the second was later retracted and expunged.

DeBerry's recent finance reports show that her campaign has paid tens of thousands of dollars to Brockhouse and his company Everest Marketing. Her expenses during that time also include a single $200 donation to Family Violence Prevention.

Brockhouse's presence feels like odd baggage for DeBerry to lug given her image while on Commissioners Court as a crusader for women's rights. She weathered a barrage of misogynistic online attacks this spring after she resisted the Bexar County Sheriff's Office request to fund the purchase of a new boat.

Ultimately, Wolff rallied to her support, issuing a letter to Sheriff Javier Salazar urging him to publicly push back at "one of the ugliest and most blatant displays of sexism and personal attacks."

Earlier this month, DeBerry also leveled accusations of sexist reporting and bias against Express-News reporter Bruce Selcraig, which he said were largely based on two questions he asked while working on a profile of her. One was whether she planned to marry again, Selcraig said, and the other was about her relationship with Brockhouse.

DeBerry met with Express-News higher ups before the story ever ran, prompting the daily to kill the veteran journo's profile and hand off the story to other staffers, Selcraig alleges. He lost his job days later, after declining to meet with publisher Medici over the matter.

"The women I've worked with and respected would have seen through Trish DeBerry's tactics. It's a shame Mark Medici could not," Selcraig said.

Brockhouse defends the campaign's decision to go to the mat over Selcraig's reporting, alleging that his questions were inappropriate and sexist in nature.

Big ideas lost

Tess Coody, who was a partner with DeBerry in Guerra DeBerry Coody, a PR firm that amicably split in 2012, said the two haven't discussed the campaign. However, she said today's divisive political climate and the latent sexism built into politics have clearly presented challenges for DeBerry.

"Oftentimes, that creates a situation where the candidate is flattened, and we're looking at them through a narrow lens," Coody said.

Critics are less forgiving. One longtime political observer familiar with the campaign said the longshot nature of DeBerry's run may have given her no choice but to ally with Brockhouse. Just the same, his unsuccessful track record chasing the mayor's office should have been a warning sign.

While Brockhouse forced a runoff against Mayor Ron Nirenberg in 2019, he ended his 2021 rematch with just 31.5% of the vote to the incumbent's 61.9%. A onetime consultant to San Antonio's police union, Brockhouse has since been replaced in that role, and many in local political circles view his reputation as toxic.

"It's starting to look like if Greg Brockhouse is involved with your campaign, that's the touch of death," one political observer said.

Other wonks say Brockhouse's divisive reputation may be rubbing off on DeBerry. They said she should worry about its lasting effect on her political ambitions and her ability to get back into the public relations business, assuming she chooses to do so.

Brockhouse disagrees, again saying that forces within the Alamo City's tight-knit political community are holding DeBerry to campaigning standards they wouldn't expect of male candidates. He disputes that the campaign has taken what he called a "turn for the worse."

"We're putting up our thoughts on what Peter's record is, and Trish is talking about his decision making and his judgment — or lack thereof," he added. "It's all fair game in the realm of political policy and decision making when you're asking to be the Bexar County judge."

Despite Brockhouse's assurances, people close to DeBerry said the brawling and name-calling draw attention away from the fact that she's a serious and thoughtful candidate who brings real ideas to the race.

"If the result of all this is that all of her good ideas aren't allowed to bubble up and come to voters' attention, then that's a shame," one longtime DeBerry associate said. "Particularly given that she's running against a very thoughtful and well-regarded opponent."

And to be sure, real issues face Bexar County.

DeBerry and Sakai, for example, are split on whether to move the county jail out of a West Side zip code that's one of the city's most destitute, potentially opening new economic development opportunities. DeBerry champions the idea, while Sakai argues it would leave county taxpayers on the hook for billions.

There are also lingering questions about how Bexar County should spend its federal pandemic relief dollars, how it funds public safety as its populace continues to grow and whether there should be additional city-county collaboration on big-ticket projects.

And with time ticking down on the election and so much of the season squandered on personal attacks, political intrigue and bare-knuckle brawls, Bexar County voters may never know what DeBerry might bring to the role.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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