Scott Ball / Rivard Report
San Antonio wasn't always at the top of Ron Nirenberg's list of places he'd like to live. As a college-bound teenager living in Austin in the mid-1990s, he envisioned himself returning to the Northeast for school, somewhere near his Boston birthplace.
It took some convincing from his father, Ken, for Nirenberg to check out Trinity University. As he fell in love with Trinity, he also fell in love with San Antonio, a city that – back then – was often overshadowed by the rapid growth of other Texas cities.
But San Antonio was slowly coming into its own, and Nirenberg was witnessing it firsthand.
"It was transforming from a sleepy little town into a modern American city," said Nirenberg, who graduated from Trinity in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in communications, in a recent interview. "I was taken by that."
Nirenberg saw San Antonio's promise before the city developed into what it is today: Downtown is experiencing a resurgence, the population is growing, and more collaborative efforts are in place to make the city a better place for all people to live, work, and play.
Keeping that momentum going is something Nirenberg, 39, has made one of his top priorities as a 2017 mayoral candidate. He is one of nine contenders running to unseat incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in the May 6 General Election. As District 8 Councilman, he is a viable contender in the race, along with Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina.
"If you look at the arc of history in San Antonio, people will see these next few years as being critical in its growth and development," Nirenberg said. "If we're going to be a great city we’ve got to be proactive and be forward-thinking and bolder in our decision-making and leadership."
Nirenberg's campaign focuses on improving broadband access, creating jobs and economic growth, enhancing public safety efforts, embracing the city's cultural heritage, and maintaining sound ethics and accountability in local government. He has placed a strong emphasis on improving transportation infrastructure, both as a councilman and a candidate.
Over the last few years, leadership in local government has stagnated, he said, slowed by a lack of innovative and progressive ideas. He voiced that concern last week at a mayoral town hall hosted by the Rivard Report, where he, Taylor, and Medina fielded questions on topics such as education, transportation, development, and social issues.
"I've been visiting now with business leaders, civic leaders, and neighborhood leaders for the past year and a half, and they've been telling me that they're concerned, that we've lost our momentum," Nirenberg said at the forum. "They're saying that we've been doing just okay. Being just okay isn't good enough for the city of San Antonio."
He cited citizens' concerns with water security, the rising crime rate, and the City's contract with the police union, which he deemed "not fiscally responsible."
Former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who ran against Taylor in the 2015 mayoral race, has an "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" attitude and believes Taylor has done well as mayor.
"Whether it’s solar energy or measures involving housing of our homeless or poorly housed community, [Taylor] has a good handle on it. The fundamentals are in place and she’s done well with them," he said. "I don’t see anything out there that tells me, 'boy are we in trouble.'"
On the Council, Nirenberg has found himself at odds with Taylor on a number of issues, most notably regarding regulatory strength of the SA Tomorrow plan, ethics concerns, and the transparency of the contract for the Vista Ridge water pipeline project, the 142-mile pipeline that could deliver up to 16.3 million gallons of water per year to SAWS customers starting in 2020.
A number of amendments were made to the contract with Garney Construction, the builder of the Vista Ridge project, without Council approval. Such approval wasn't required since those amendments did not alter the amount or price of water to be delivered. Nirenberg said that those changes and all others regarding the water security project should always go before Council to ensure that the effort is sound and transparent.
"If we do it the way it's been done, which is the mayor essentially saying, 'There's nothing to see here, don't worry about it,' that's a breach of public trust and that's not going to move us further," he said.
Taylor has countered Nirenberg's accusations by citing the regular meetings she has held with City Council to update them on the project and the SAWS Board meetings, which are streamed online.
Nirenberg also was a tri-chair of the city's SA Tomorrow planning committee, an effort that he is "extremely proud of" despite some controversy surrounding the plan's language on certain environmental regulations. Nirenberg argued unsuccessfully for stronger language regarding impervious cover, protection of the Edwards Aquifer, and protection of the Tree Preservation Ordinance.
"I’m not necessarily seeking new regulation," he said. "We should enforce regulations we have now in a more consistent way."
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have joined Nirenberg in criticizing the softening of the language, saying it makes the plan more developer-friendly.
"Balancing development through regulation is critical to our water supply and also critical to address what I think is one of the original problems of San Antonio, which is sprawl," he said.
After City Council approved SA Tomorrow, Taylor dissolved a separate Council committee formed to oversee the plan, causing further tension between her and Nirenberg.
While he has advocated for environmental protections and curbs on unbridled development, he's not anti-development or growth, said Julissa Carielo, president of local construction firm Tejas Premier Contractor Inc. Rather, it means he's taking a critical look at how local real estate and development projects will affect the surrounding neighborhoods and city as a whole, including transportation and the environment.
"He encourages growth," Carielo said, "especially in areas of town that are underutilized, and [he's] promoting programs that are actually in place to help encourage that to happen."
Medina has criticized both Nirenberg and Taylor for focusing too much on future growth when they should be focusing more on current residents' needs.
Although Nirenberg has had a strong record of leadership and civic engagement throughout his college years and beyond, running for public office wasn't always his plan.
He initially wanted to become a sports journalist and worked at the Trinity newspaper, The Trinitonian, as a sports writer, then sports editor, and eventually editor-in-chief.
"My passion was print journalism," he said, but additional work at the university's television and radio outlets deepened his desire to communicate with the broader San Antonio population. After college, he studied civic engagement at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, where he later worked as a program director.
Nirenberg eventually returned to his alma mater to teach in the communications department. He also ran the university's radio station, KRTU-FM 91.7, renewing the love for music he had as a college student, when he hosted a classic rock show at the station from midnight to 2 a.m.
Along with raising the station's profile, one of Nirenberg's main projects as general manager was planning the station's 10-year anniversary of its jazz format. The result was The Year of Jazz, a robust lineup of musical events throughout 2011 that featured a variety of musicians and a collaboration among KRTU and various cultural and nonprofit organizations.
Nirenberg even commissioned local composer and pianist Aaron Prado to compose a piece called "The San Antonio Jazz Suite" for the celebration. Carmen Tafolla, former San Antonio poet laureate, narrated the suite's eight movements, which told the history of the city through music.
"The opportunity at the radio station provided me the chance to get further integrated in the city," Nirenberg said.
J.J. Lopez, KRTU's current general manager who was hired by Nirenberg years ago as a producer, said Nirenberg had a passion for music and running the station, but "doing community work through the station is what really resonated with Ron.
"His bigger love was serving the community," Lopez said. "In his work here he took those strengths in building relationships and really took KRTU to the next level by embedding us into the community as an important media entity that supports the nonprofit sector, musicians and artists, and small businesses."
With his passion, organizational skills, and creative approaches for establishing partnerships in the community, Lopez said, it's no wonder Nirenberg ended up in public office after working with his marketing and market research consulting group ColectivaMente Consulting, LLC.
For Nirenberg, one of his biggest achievements as councilman was assembling a public-private coalition to save the Bracken Cave, home to the world’s largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. The site, which was threatened by the construction of a 4,500-unit housing development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in the mammals' direct flight path, is now protected land.
Nirenberg also points with pride to his successful effort to bring the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System back to the municipal ballot for voter approval in 2015.
He lives in a Northwestside neighborhood near Hardberger Park with his wife Erika and 8-year-old son Jonah in a district that is one of the most diverse areas of the city.
His own family has a unique immigration story. His father's parents, who were Russian and Polish Jews, emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States through Ellis Island prior to World War II. His mother, Charlotte, was born in Malaysia and has cultural roots in the melting pot of Southeast Asia.
For that reason, Nirenberg considers himself "a new American." He criticized President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigrants and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which currently is under a temporary restraining order issued by a federal court.
"This is not a country that should ever be governed from fear," Nirenberg said. "I believe very strongly this is a nation of immigrants. We all have an immigrant story, and we need to embrace that, because it makes us all the more appreciative of what America stands for."
In 2013, Nirenberg voted in favor of the city's non-discrimination ordinance (NDO), which adds protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's code. Taylor, who was then District 2's councilwoman, voted against it.
At the town hall forum, Medina took aim at Nirenberg for his position on the matter, implying that Council and community members had to "twist his arm and almost had to break it off for him to do that. That’s a fact.”
Some audience members shouted "No!" and "That's an alternative fact!" in response.
In fact, Nirenberg has been a longtime supporter of LGBTQIA rights.
Defeating an incumbent mayor will be no easy task for Nirenberg, although he has a solid support base. As of Wednesday, he had raised $330,530 for his campaign.
One of his supporters, local artist and retired advertising and marketing executive Lionel Sosa, has worked on the campaigns of many officials running for public office. He said what sets Nirenberg apart from others is that "he does his homework."
"He makes sure that he is totally aware of the issues – the ups and downs, and their effects for the long and short term," said Sosa, who first met Nirenberg through the councilman's wife, who worked at his marketing firm.
Erika Prosper Nirenberg is now the director of customer insights at H-E-B and the incoming chairwoman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Nirenberg and his wife met while at the University of Pennsylvania and decided to move to San Antonio because it was inclusive and diverse, and because they felt like the city's "best days were still in front of us," he said. He wants people, including his son, to feel the same way about their city.
"My son asks me every day if I have made the world better," he said. "It's a great performance evaluation for the work that I do."
Nirenberg credits his parents with fostering his independence, sharpening his intellect, and for teaching him to do what he's passionate about and knows is right.
Although he decided to run for mayor after just two terms as a council member, Nirenberg doesn't necessarily aspire to a higher office beyond that, he said. Rather, his focus is to represent the best interests of the 1.4 million people currently in San Antonio now, and the 1 million more who will eventually make the city their home.
"My goal is very simple," Nirenberg said at the forum. "It's not about turning Texas blue or San Antonio blue or red. It's about creating the city you deserve, a city that is ethical, a city that has a strong economy, a city that creates jobs, a city that no matter where you live you can be proud of."
Tomorrow, the Rivard Report will profile Chairman Manuel Medina. Read Mayor Ivy Taylor's profile here.