SAN ANTONIO — After serving for more than a quarter of a century as a San Antonio-area judge in the traditional courtroom sense, Peter Sakai is now seeking to become a judge of a different sort—as the head of the Bexar County Commissioners Court.
Sakai has worked in the judicial system for 26 years, including his four-term service as the 225th District Court judge, a role he left in October. Now he tells KENS 5 he plans to serve as a trusted bridge for the community should he win the Bexar County judge race this year.
Nelson Wolff has occupied the seat since 2001, but announced last fall in his State of the County address that he wouldn't seek re-election this year.
"We, as a community, need to come together," Sakai said. "It's going to require experienced leadership; people that know how to put things together and how to bring people together."
While serving in the area judicial system, the UT School of Law graduate quickly found his calling: helping children and their families.
A calling soon turned into a new reputation for Sakai, who since 1995 has helped establish the family drug and early childhood courts. Those programs have been recognized across Texas and the country as model systems for helping foster children find their forever homes, or be placed in better ones.
"It's what's kept me going," says Sakai, who has so thoroughly intertwined his life's work with his life that one particularly tough case in the early 2000s forced him to sit and "really figure out if I really wanted to be a judge."
He stuck with it in the end—for nearly two more decades.
"These are innovative programs based on restorative justice," he says of the new courts he's implemented. "Restorative justice wants to focus on the positive things that people bring to the courthouse."
Sakai told KENS 5 that, if chosen to lead the county, he'll continue to bring innovative solutions to improve the court system. Specifically, he's targeting the ripple effects the courts have across jails.
"The justice system is presently disabled because we can't have in-person hearings in a limited way; the court systems are going to have to get back online to move these cases," he said. "We know that the jail – with overcrowding, the morale and issues with the deputies – is a situation that is going to take leadership (to remedy)."
The issues go even further for Sakai, who's running in the upcoming March 1 primary as a Democrat against Ina Minjarez, Gerardo Ponce and Ivalis Meza Gonzalez. He also points to housing scarcity, domestic violence and an improved school-to-workforce pipeline as initiatives he'd like to address.
And when it comes to the economy, Sakai said Bexar County needs to think big when deciding how to use federal funds from the Build Back Better plan.
"Homelessness is still a chronic issue. What we need to do is to create an opportunity so people can have affordable housing," he said. "We need to look at the faith-based communities, the churches, to see what they can provide to help the homeless for the families that have nowhere to go."
Watch Eyewitness News at 10 all week to hear from the other candidates running for Bexar County judge, and click here for more election resources.