The race for San Antonio mayor has always been a nonpartisan affair, even when candidates reflected the traits and beliefs of one political party or the other. The Saturday runoff election between interim Mayor Ivy Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte somehow feels less traditional, a closely fought contest that is establishing new fault lines on the city's political and cultural map.
If Leticia Van de Putte, who narrowly finished first among the four major candidates in the first round of voting on May 9, becomes the next mayor of San Antonio, it will represent a triumph of campaign organization, record fundraising and getting out the inner city vote on Election Day. She needs her Democratic base to show up at the polls, and if it does, Van de Putte will pick up the banner set down last July by her fellow Westside native, former Mayor Julían Castro.
If Ivy Taylor becomes the next mayor of San Antonio, it will show the power of incumbency, even less than one year in office, and for many voters, signal the end of the Decade of Downtown and the Castro era. Taylor is a Yale University-educated planner, and race is a secondary consideration to her political identity, yet if she wins a full term, an African-American will have bested two strong Latino candidates in one of America's most Hispanic cities. To accomplish that feat, Taylor needs a strong Election Day turnout from white conservative Republicans in the suburban reaches of the city who feel more comfortable with her fiscal and social record.
"It's a fascinating race: The balance of power is going to change dramatically in San Antonio, depending on who wins," said Christian Archer, a veteran political consultant who is managing the Van de Putte campaign and has been involved one way or the other in just about every major local election dating back more than a decade.
And yet, most of the city's 691,128 registered voters are expected to sit it out. In a city of more than 1.4 million people, less than 100,000 people voted in the May 9 General Election, a ballot that included multiple municipal and school board contests beyond the City of San Antonio races. Voter participation in local elections remains anemic, in this instance even after more than 60 candidate forums and record campaign spending by the three top candidates, including former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who finished two percentage points behind Taylor in the first round vote.
Van de Putte estimates she will spend $1.1 million in the two-round race, a city record surpassing the nearly $1 million former Mayor Phil Hardberger spent in his first mayoral campaign in 2005. Taylor, who entered the race late just before the February 28 deadline, expects to spend between $400,000 and $500,000. Villarreal, the first to declare his candidacy for mayor last July, spent around $800,000 in the first round.
Early voting continues to slowly grow as a percentage of the total vote. Many of those so-called Northside voters – an inaccurate catch-all phrase – that will support Taylor probably voted early, contributing to a stronger second round early turnout. Still, Bexar County Election Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen doesn't expect the final vote to equal the 18.8% voter turnout in the 2005 runoff that carried Hardberger, then a former appeals court judge, to victory over Castro, a city council member.
"I'm praying for a big turnout Saturday, we have high hopes," Callanen said. "We had 12% turnout for the first round, and we had 8.7% for the second round early vote, so we could see that number go up several percentage points."
It's odd to see 15% as a positive outcome, but that's how most election watchers feel at this point.
"All the studies show a high correlation between high education attainment and voting, so as we push for better education outcomes in this city, hopefully we can change that," Taylor said in an interview this week.
Voter fatigue could be a contributing factor. Voters in City Council District 6, for example, re-elected incumbent Ray Lopez by a comfortable margin, but they also voted twice as did many others in the city to replace Van de Putte in state Senate District 26, and twice again in state House District 126 to replace José Menendez after his election to the Senate, and now twice again in the mayor's election.
For some, it's an argument to move local elections to November to get local, state and national elections in the same cycle so that in odd years voters who turn out for presidential or gubernatorial elections also start to participate in local elections. Van de Putte said legislation she passed in 2013 was intended to make that possible.
The Next Woman Mayor
San Antonio, which has only elected one woman, Lila Cockrell, as mayor, is about to get its second full-term woman mayor. If Taylor holds on to the office she has held on an interim basis, she will be the first full-term African-American mayor, too. If Van de Putte wins, she will be the third woman to actually take the oath.
"I'm going to tell you: this is the toughest race I've ever run, not the meanest, but the toughest, and that's because it's been so competitive," Van de Putte said. "I was on the phone at 11 p.m. the night before the midnight fundraising cutoff, calling high school friends in Florida and asking for contributions."
Archer said the Van de Putte campaign raised $435,000 in 28 days after the May 9 first round of voting, exceeding the campaign's goal of $400,000 and sufficient to finance a strong media and direct mail push in the final weeks of the runoff race.
"We were able to do everything we needed to do and wanted to do," Archer said as he assessed the closing week's plans for the campaign.
In the final week of the runoff, Van de Putte's campaign headquarters at 1800 W. Commerce in the former First National Bank in the heart of the near-Westside was a beehive of campaign workers, volunteers, extended family members and the candidate herself. Walls were covered with poster size sheets meticulously listing supporters, runoff contributions, get-out-the vote Election Day plans. Conference rooms, desks, and even floors were occupied by volunteers ranging in age from high school student to abuela working the phones to contact likely voters. The days of phone banks are long gone; everyone was holding a cell phone and wearing earbuds.
"76 hours to go," one staff member commented upon my arrival, underscoring the every-minute-counts mood there.
The Taylor campaign headquarters? Actually, there really isn't one, at least not in the sense of a traditional campaign headquarters where the candidate and senior staff decamp, where workers come for yard signs, to attend meetings, and to spend nights working the phones for contributions and votes.
"I don't need a campaign headquarters. I'm busy serving as mayor, and a campaign headquarters is not where I put my emphasis," Taylor said. "We've got to run a lean machine. It's more about how I've worked and how I will continue to work as mayor. Actually, there is no machine. A lot of people are turned off by all the money being spent."
I asked Taylor if she regretted not getting in the race sooner.
"I've been in just long enough," she quipped, acknowledging that critical media stories about her family have been a strain on her husband, Rodney, and 11-year-old daughter Morgan. "Actually, I do like certain aspects of campaigning. We were block walking on the Southside last weekend. I enjoy standing on somebody's front porch and just talking with people."
Van de Putte feeds off the campaign process, and at a recent morning appearance at Taco Taco on Hildebrand Avenue I watched as she engaged a customer who said he lives in Converse. That didn't stop her from speaking with him, even though he had no vote to offer.
"I've met her before," the man said to me as she walked away, as if to explain her stop at his table.
Van de Putte is a fifth generation San Antonian and a veteran of more than 20 years of winning campaigns, and she is very natural in just about any campaign setting, comfortable in establishing a personal connection.
"I'm not tired, I'm excited," Van de Putte said earlier this week. "This campaign has been tough, yes, but it's also been fun. People will think it's grueling, but this is San Antonio. I get to sleep in my own bed. This is home."
Both Taylor and Van de Putte say the campaign has changed them and their views on the issues and how they view the city, at least in subtle ways.
"The campaign has led me to understand that we need to have more public, more focused discussions about transportation in the city," Taylor said, adding that she has become more acquainted with the city's growing tech community. "There is a group of people extremely focused on transportation network companies (Uber and Lyft). I'm getting to know a lot more people in the tech community, and I'm glad they're getting involved, I'm glad they've formed Tech bloc, but I'm sot sure everyone feels as intensely as they do about that particular issue."
Taylor spoke while seated in Main Plaza Thursday afternoon, preparing to attend an afternoon press conference announcing the arrival of Cytocentrics, a German biosciences company moving to San Antonio where it will establish a new $15 million headquarters and robotics assembly and research facility, and create 300 high-paying jobs. She sees growing the smart jobs economy as the best avenue for building a better San Antonio for talented young professionals.
Taylor, an adjunct professor at UTSA who teaches year-around even while holding office, said one of her students last semester was from Germany and was very excited about the city's efforts to build closer ties internationally. Taylor said Thursday that if she is elected she plans on attending the UNESCO World Heritage conference in Bonn in late June and early July when delegates will consider the U.S. application for the San Antonio Missions and the Alamo to win World Heritage status.
Van de Putte said the campaign has sensitized her to a general sense of malaise in the city, a feeling that San Antonio has lost momentum since Castro's resignation as mayor and move to Washington to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
"There is a sense of anxiousness, a sense we are slipping," Van de Putte said. "Whether they liked Julían Castro, they liked his youth and his energy, and the was a shared sense the city was moving forward, a sense that we were on our way. When Julían said we were a city on the rise, people believed it."
Van de Putte cited people's unhappiness with the unresolved collective bargaining with the police and firefighter unions, the acrimonious debate over Uber and Lyft that ended with rideshare companies suspending service in the city, and the perception that San Antonio is at the bottom of the list for Google Fiber as contributing to people's general frustration with the city's political leadership.
"That was the real takeaway for me: people are anxious, they're not comfortable with the way things are going at City Hall. I don't think the have the distrust they have of the federal government, of Washington, but they do think we are slipping."
Yet many voters would say they want the Castro era to come to a close and a mayor with a different agenda. An overwhelming majority of voters supported the decision early in the Taylor administration to withdraw financial and political support for the VIA streetcar projects and to require a vote on any future rail projects. And while one segment was angered by Taylor's opposition as a city council member to the non-discrimination ordinance, others in the city find their thinking aligned with the mayor.
Getting to spend time with both candidates inevitably dispels the worst stereotypes held by their respective opponents. Both agree the city needs a mayor who unites the many communities within its sprawling geography, and both see the city as more than inner city versus suburbs that sometimes becomes political shorthand on issues on public policy priorities and spending. Each feels a sense of strength and support in precincts in all 10 City Council districts.
It really comes down to one day: Saturday.
The Early Vote
That is why the release of the early vote at 7 p.m. might not necessarily portend who wins as it almost always does in council races. In fact, if the May 9 General Election were based only on Saturday's vote, Villarreal would be in the runoff.
"I remember in 2005, Phil Hardberger had a 14-point lead when the early vote was released, " said Archer, who served as Hardberger's campaign manager. "Then we watched as the lead went from 14% to 1.5%, and then the last five boxes pushed Phil back to a 3.5% win. Julían Castro's voters came out Election Day. The Van de Putte campaign has a great ground game in this mayor's race, and we are anticipating a huge Election Day turnout, just like Julían Castro had against Phil Hardberger."
Archer is counting on a carefully choreographed push in these closing hours, even getting elected officials who endorsed Van de Putte to actually work the phones to get their supporters to the polls.
The perception among many is that the early vote will go Taylor's way because older, conservative white voters turn out with greater frequency than Hispanics and often vote early. In this round, 80% of the early voters were 50 years old or older, and less than 6% were 35 years old or younger. The remaining 14% were between 35 and 50 years old.
A last-day rush of early voters swelled the eight-day turnout to 60,326 voters, nearly 7,500 more than the 52,859 who voted early in the May 9 General Election. A total of 10,753 people voted Tuesday. That's 8.7% of the city's 697, 128 registered voters compared to 7.5% that turned out for early voting in the May 9 General Election.
"My concern is not only our turnout, it's disengagement," Van de Putte said, discussing the lack of participation by younger citizens. "People 60 and over are voting. Only 6% of the people who voted in the May 9 election were under 35."
There is one wild card to this round's early vote: Nearly 17,000 of those who voted this time did not vote in the first round, which means 5,000 people who did vote early in the first round have not yet voted this time or are not going to vote.
"48% of those 16,939 voters live in my former Senate district and 52.3% of the total are Hispanic and 58% are women," Van de Putte said Wednesday, yet Villarreal's decision not to endorse her could keep some of his supporters on the sidelines.
"I would have loved to have had Mike's support, but a huge number of Mike's supporters and Mike's financial backers came over," Van de Putte said.
Taylor, meanwhile, received the enthusiastic support and endorsement of former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who finished fourth in the race with just under 10% of the race. On the final day of the campaign, Adkisson showed up for an enthusiastic rally of Taylor supporters in her Dignowity Hill neighborhood at Dignowity Meats, a new business in the district. Adkisson worked the crowd, reading from a Rivard Report commentary published one day earlier by Taylor supporter Brian Dillard, a cybersecurity worker who is marrying a former Taylor staffer.
Taylor will gather with supported at thew Wyndham Garden River walk Hotel on the Museum Reach to await the outcome Saturday evening, while van de Putte's Westside headquarters will remain home for her. It's the closest mayoral election in at least a decade, too close to call, decided perhaps by people who decide to go to the polls after all on the last day of the race.
Where to Vote
There were 261 polling sites open on Saturday, May 9. There will be 229 sites open Saturday, June 13, yet all but four of the closed polling sites were open for other municipal and school board elections.
"Our biggest challenge is they've started construction work on some of the schools, so we'll be somewhere else inside the schools," Callanen said, "and in the Northside ISD, for example, they won't have the air conditioning on. They'll provide us with fans. And the Alamo Convocation Center has Saturday graduations going on, so we are sharing that facility and we'll be in a different spot."
Click here for a full listing of polling sites or see the next Rivard Report post, which contains the full list by precinct number.
*Featured/top image: Leticia Van de Putte (left) and Mayor Ivy Taylor (right) at a mayoral forum held at the UTSA Downtown Campus on Thursday, May 28, 2015. Photos by Lea Thompson.