Mayor Ivy Taylor had been in office as interim mayor less than one week when she presided over her first executive session of City Council and her first major policy decision, one that reversed course set by the Council under her predecessor, former Mayor Julián Castro. The decision to cancel the City's participation in VIA Metropolitan Transit's modern street project received the support of one of the project's strongest proponents, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and thus effectively killed the project. It also signaled Mayor Taylor's willingness to chart her own course as mayor and not shy away from difficult decisions. This Rivard Report interview began before Monday's streetcar decision and was completed Tuesday morning.
Rivard Report: Congratulations, Mayor Taylor. Are you getting used to people calling you Mayor? How does it feel so far?
Ivy Taylor: Thank you. It feels strange hearing people address me by that title. I had a few folks who said they are going to call me “Mayor Ivy.” I liked the sound of that.
RR: Unlike Julián Castro, who began preparing for public service since high school, you come to the mayor’s job almost accidentally. One day you are serving as District 2 Councilwoman. Then suddenly, the Council is voting to elect one of its own and you find yourself taking the oath of office. Are you comfortable representing the entire city now and leading a City Council that will have two new faces?
Mayor Ivy: The experiences that I’ve had have prepared me for this opportunity. I am excited about serving as team leader for the City Council and as the “face” of San Antonio.
RR: How did you come to public service? People outside your district don’t know you yet. Could you give us your bio in brief: where you are from, where you went to school, what you studied, your professional work, and how you came to run for City Council five years ago?
Mayor Ivy: I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens by parents who moved to New York from Wilmington, North Carolina. My parents did not attend college but supported my academic success which led to my matriculation at Yale University.
After obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in American Studies, I returned home and struggled through a few corporate jobs before recognizing that I needed to go back to school to focus on a career path.
I chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning. My focus area was housing and community development.
I came to San Antonio for a summer job while in grad school and met my husband, Rodney, who is a native San Antonian. After graduate school, I moved here and we got married and I started my professional career at the City of San Antonio in the Neighborhood Action Department.
After working for COSA for six years, I moved over to Merced Housing Texas, an affordable housing agency. While at Merced, I served on the City Planning Commission, the Urban Renewal Agency (San Antonio Development Agency) board and the Haven for Hope board. Two community members (Willie Mitchell and Frank Dunn) approached me in 2007 about running for City Council. I first ran for District 2 Councilmember in 2009 and won by 54 votes in a run-off.
RR: Tell us about your family and how your husband feels about waking up and realizing he’s married to the mayor of San Antonio.
Mayor Ivy: Rodney and I have a 10-year-old daughter named Morgan. Rodney has always been extremely supportive of my professional efforts. I couldn’t do what I do without him. He is very excited about the recent turn of events.
RR: Mayor, we don’t see you as a public figure defined by your race or gender, but you are making history. You are San Antonio’s first African-American mayor and second woman mayor. That’s something people are talking about here, and as you become better known, will become a topic of national conversation. That also makes you a role model and an inspirational figure for many young people of color and many young women. How do you fit that into who you are and how it defines you as a public figure?
Mayor Ivy: I am grateful for the opportunity to be an inspiration for young people. For many young people, especially those who grow up in disadvantaged communities, it makes all the difference in the world to see someone to whom they can relate serving in this type of position.
RR: Mayor Castro is now former Mayor Castro and on his way to Washington. Have you had any time to visit one on one with him or other former mayors to seek their advice and counsel? If so, what were the takeaways?
Mayor Ivy: I talked to Mayor Castro over the weekend. I briefly spoke to Howard Peak and to Phil Hardberger. Mayor Hardberger and I talked about how to build consensus and that was very helpful. I spoke with Mayor Lila Cockrell and Mayor Henry Cisneros, too. They have all said that I can call them at any time to seek advice.
RR: Mayor Taylor, you told the Rivard Report in the days before your election that you would not shy away from tough decisions. That was certainly evident with the decision to withdraw City support from VIA's streetcar project. Was the deciding factor for you public discontent with no vote on the issue, or was it the actual project itself,which you have called a "piecemeal approach" to solving the city's transportation challenges?
Mayor Ivy: Both of those factors were key in our decision-making process. It was obvious that public support for the project was very limited, but even those who were in favor of the general concept did not seem satisfied with the plan that was on the table. It makes sense to rethink the overall plan.
RR: Was the Council's executive session a contentious one, or did you find your colleagues open to a new direction on streetcars and a comprehensive transportation solution?
Mayor Ivy: We had an excellent discussion in the executive session and my colleagues are definitely open to exploring directions that would allow us to provide a solution within the framework of the City’s Master Plan update and the Comprehensive Transportation plan.
RR: You've identified a new collective bargaining agreement as one of the other major issues you've inherited as Mayor. Are you confident the City and the police and fire unions can avert further confrontation and find a way forward to reopen collective bargaining talks?
Mayor Ivy: I am optimistic about successful continuation of the negotiations. We had an encouraging meeting last week between the health care representatives on both sides. I think we will be able to achieve something good for the public safety workers and our citizens.
RR: You’ve had to pivot in 24 hours from being a Council member to being mayor. How are you approaching the job? When you spoke about yourself as a candidate for the position, you described yourself as even-tempered, a person who values collaboration and teamwork, a consensus builder, yet someone unafraid to make tough decisions. Can you give readers a sense of what kind of mayor you will be?
Mayor Ivy: I will draw on those strengths that I have outlined in order to be effective in addressing the major issues facing our city. While interviewing potential staffers, I mentioned to one person that I don’t need people around to tell me I am great, I need someone to tell me when “my slip is hanging.” I want to engage the community to the fullest extent possible in dialogue on key issues. I will be open to hearing all sides on an issue but will definitely be firm when necessary.
RR: All of us have our own list of the most important issues facing the city. Please give us your list of the biggest challenges you and the Council face when you come back to work in August.
Mayor Ivy: Here they are:
- Balancing the budget and including as many of the priorities that council members outlined at our planning session as possible.
- Working with SAWS on plans for ensuring abundant and affordable water supply
- Police and Fire contract negotiations
- Jump starting a meaningful comprehensive planning process.
- Developing a comprehensive transportation plan in the wake of the streetcar decision.
- Improving our city’s infrastructure, both human and physical, to better support economic development
RR: Let’s start with the collective bargaining talks, which could be restarted with the city’s new proposal to the police union. Do you support city staff and the mayor’s task force and their findings that health care costs had to be reined in and that uniform personnel need to start paying premiums and shoulder some of their family’s health care costs?
Mayor Ivy: YES!
RR: What about the firefighters union? They have not come to the bargaining table, and many believe their petition campaign to stop city participation in VIA’s modern streetcar project was a tactic to pressure City Council and city staff. What’s your position on the other union that faces an expiring contract in September?
Mayor Ivy: We need them to get to the table. The streetcar project had nothing to do with their contract negotiations.
RR: You have been representing one of the fastest changing districts in the urban core. Neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill, Government Hill, Denver Heights are attracting new residents and investors, the Alamo Brewery next to the Hays Street Bridge is under construction, many of the light industrial buildings are being repurposed. Yet some object to what is commonly called gentrification amid concerns about the welfare of longtime residents in these neighborhoods. How do you balance growth, eliminating blight, and taking care of the needs of long-term residents who often live on much smaller incomes than the newcomers?
Mayor Ivy: One of then Mayor, now Secretary Castro’s final acts was to create a committee to focus on addressing this issue. I am eager for that group to get to work and to start looking at best practices. I read with interest Dr. Gambitta’s article in this weekend’s Express News on this topic. The bottom line is that change will happen, but we can control what types of changes occur through our public policies. From a broader perspective, there are many San Antonians who don’t earn enough income to afford safe, decent housing and changing that scenario has to be part of the conversation.
RR: How would describe the Eastside Promise and other urban renewal projects under way in your district to people outside your district that might hold stereotypical views of the Eastside and be unaware of the public and private investment coming into the district?
Mayor Ivy: I was also excited to finally see comprehensive coverage of the East Side efforts in Sunday’s Express News. We have tremendous momentum on those projects, but we can’t turn around 40 years of disinvestment overnight. It will take time to accomplish those goals but the potential is definitely there for the Eastside neighborhoods to thrive. To those who are still pessimistic, I would say that San Antonio as a whole can’t be a great city if we leave certain parts of town to whither.
I also believe that everyone has a role to play in comprehensive community development like that occurring on the East Side. From the United Way, to the City of San Antonio, to the local churches and neighborhood association leaders, small businesses and schools, there is something for everyone to contribute.
RR: You are the interim mayor for one year. In the past, you talked about serving that year and stepping out of city politics. Are you still sure of that path or would you consider running for a full two-year term if your interim year goes well?
Mayor Ivy: I remain focused on the key issues facing the City and keeping political drama on the Council to a minimum. I don’t see how that would allow time for campaigning.
Mayor Ivy: I would be interested in using Pre K 4 SA as a springboard to expand school readiness efforts. Downtown development is important for us, though we have to also stay focused on strong neighborhoods. I have some ideas on new opportunities related to SA2020 which could leverage other investments.
RR: Can we ask you some personal questions? What do you and your husband do to get away from work? Do you go out? Any favorite restaurants or cultural destinations?
Mayor Ivy: I hate to say we are boring, but we don’t have any exotic hobbies. My husband is addicted to construction projects and usually has something going at one of our properties. We are house junkies and are on our fourth house in 15 years of marriage (two new constructions and two major renovations). I enjoy interior design and one of my favorite things to do with my daughter is going on the various neighborhood home tours that are offered throughout the year.
I LOVE to read, but in recent years am often too sleepy to read as much as I would like. At the end of the school year, Morgan bought me a copy of “12 Years a Slave” at her school book fair. I thought that was so sweet and promised to read it when I finished teaching summer school and I just finished it this weekend.
As far as places to eat, Morgan and I are a little more adventurous than Rodney. We frequent a neighborhood diner on Nolan Street that’s been open for a few years. It's called Panchos and Gringos but the owner worked in New York restaurants for many years, so it reminds me of the kinds of places I went in New York.
RR: How about exercise and recreation? Do you guys own bikes or hit the gym or go for long walks? You look fit. How do you stay healthy?
Mayor Ivy: Growing up I was always a couch potato and physical activities were discouraged in our household, partly because my parents attended a Pentecostal Holiness church and did not want me to wear shorts! While in my 20s, my stomach rebelled against greasy foods, so I generally eat healthier fare. I took Mayor Castro’s “Million Pound Challenge” seriously and since the spring, I have lost about 12 pounds, mainly through eliminating any eating after 7 p.m. and hitting the treadmill. I haven’t been on a bike since I was 10, but would love to try that out again!
RR: We are going to work on that first bike ride for you. Good luck in your new post, Mayor. Thank you for agreeing to speak with the Rivard Report.
Mayor Ivy: Thanks for the opportunity to share a little about myself with your readers.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor stands with her husband Rodney Taylor and daughter Morgan moments after Ivy was sworn in as mayor. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
This article was originally published on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.