Saturday night, San Antonio elected a new mayor to lead the city. After yet another rough and tumble race, Ron Nirenberg closed the deal in a runoff election against incumbent Ivy Taylor. Nirenberg followed a pattern of other mayoral runoff elections where the second place finisher in the General Election eclipses the leader to bring home the victory. Of course, there’s a lot to read into that equation. But at the end of the day, the people spoke about who they wanted to lead them for the next two years.
Nirenberg finished the night beating Taylor by a margin of 10 points, or just shy of 9,000 votes. While voter turnout was typical for municipal elections in San Antonio at 13.15%, the voters that did make the effort to show up and vote made their choice clear in the results. In 2015, Taylor bested challenger Leticia Van de Putte by 4 points. The same was true in 2005 when Phil Hardberger beat Julian Castro by 2 points. The last time voters sent this decisive a message electing an non-incumbent was in 2009 when Castro won by a 27 point margin.
Putting aside the insanity of Manuel Medina’s non-stop sidewalk show and schizophrenic political ideology, when Nirenberg and Taylor could match up on issues a clear contrast could be seen regarding their view on San Antonio’s future. Then the runoff came and with it, a new campaign approach with Taylor enlisting the help of one of San Antonio’s dirtiest strategists, Colin Strother.
Strother took Taylor’s campaign to the gutter and started the “Liberal Ron” attacks, including a hacked up website. It signaled what some would have viewed a campaign in distress. That seem to set the stage for what is becoming a normal for San Antonio, the attacks by the first responder unions. It would be easy to paint all members with the gutter image they portray during campaigns. But, in reality it is a small group of activist members who believe the politics of Trump and Patrick are the best approach to “getting the job done.”
But the real heroes of Nirenberg’s campaign were the field workers and volunteers led by Juany Torres and Bert Santibañez. Nirenberg’s name needed to get in front of voters and money could go only so far. So his team knocked on over 70,000 doors and talked to 16, 000 voters by the time the campaign was over. That outreach helped close the gap when the polls closed, both in early voting and on election day. This was a campaign that listened.
Saturday night, San Antonio voters sent a message of a desire to return to progressive politics not only through the mayoral race, but in races of two Northside districts. In a District 8 runoff race to fill NIrenberg’s former seat, attorney Manny Pelaez handily defeated Cynthia Brehm, a social conservative who was called out for anti-refugee comments on Facebook. Pelaez campaigned from a more progressive position in what is considered the most ethnically diverse districts of the city. With a victory margin of 10 points in that race, once again the message was sent about what the voters wanted.
In what may have been the biggest surprise of the night, educator John Courage defeated businessman Marco Barros by 6 points. What makes this such a surprise is that voters of one of the more conservative districts in the city voted for a dedicated Democrat as their councilmember. Courage’s political ideology is no secret, having been on the ballot several times challenging Republicans in state and national positions. While the margin might not be as large, the message of conservative voters choosing a progressive to represent them at the city level can’t be overlooked.
Those progressives join other newcomers and several incumbents and few other newcomers in traditionally progressive districts. While conservatives lost one seat on council with the loss in 9, on the westside in District 6 Greg Brockhouse flipped that district to conservative leadership. Looking at the dynamics of that district, it appears to have become a swing district in the city.
While that may seem to set the stage for a rematch in 2019, the district is also prone to re-electing the incumbent with Ray Lopez winning four terms on council. Unlike partisan swing districts like CD-23, city council elections are not influenced by top of ballot races like governor or president.
When Nirenberg announced his candidacy in December, he outlined several priorities if he were elected. Those included transportation, economic development and growth, and affordable housing. Add to those priorities continued development of green spaces and long-term water security, faulting Taylor for the lack of transparency in the process of establishing the Vista Ridge project. You might recall Nirenberg clashed with Taylor over her removal of Amy Hardberger from the SAWS Capital Advisory Committee.
Most importantly, Nirenberg pledged to continue the process started by Castro with SA 2020. Nirenberg chaired the continuance of the plan through the SA Tomorrow committee which developed a series of growth and development policies. However, when it came time to move the policies forward Taylor dissolved the committee and killed the process. You can expect that to change when Nirenberg takes office later this month.
Even though it’s four years away, one thing that will be facing City Council will be redistricting. San Antonio is a growing city and the neighborhoods are changing. Growth continues to the north and west, while neighborhoods to the south have yet to experience the same explosive growth. Two of the districts are boundary locked (1 and 5) which will force shifting of lines to accommodate balancing. During the last round, District 8 actually gave up ground to allow others to maintain.
However, the elephant in the room will be whether the city adds districts or not. Should it continue the member-district relationship or is it time for a few at-large districts to represent the city as a whole. While it may be putting the cart before the horse, but Nirenberg may be the mayor overseeing this process. It will be a matter of great debate as neighborhoods and special interests jockey for input on the process.
So now Ron takes the wheel of the city after passage of the largest bond issue in its history. His first task will be shepherding the budget process after the July recess. Fortunately, he’s been there before as a member of council and will have the guidance of City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Ben Gorzell to assist. It will take some time for Nirenberg to get his staff in place and deal with the continuance of government.
But after that will come the priorities he outlined. Reviving SA Tomorrow should be top of the list to help guide the growth the city is experiencing now.