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Goodbye, Julián. Please forgive my informality, which I mean as no sign of disrespect. This city has been on a first name basis with you and your twin brother Joaquín since your days at Jefferson High School. With Rosie, too, your mother. I’ve heard you tell the story about leaving home for the first time to attend Stanford, and how you cried on the flight from San Antonio to the West Coast.
I still remember you guys calling the Express-News from Harvard Law School in my early days as editor to lobby for free access to the newspaper’s subscriber-only website. You were pinching pennies to get by and couldn’t afford the monthly fee, but you also told me you couldn’t afford to go a single day without monitoring the news from back home.
We are coming back to San Antonio someday, you reminded me that day. Must have been about 1997 or 98. It wasn’t that long ago when your dream was to become mayor of the only city you ever called home.
You fell short the first time you ran for that office in 2005, but that turned out for the best. You gained a few years to mature politically, and by the time you did win election and took the oath as mayor in 2009, you inherited a much stronger city and you gained the advantage of being able stay in office for eight years.
Your predecessor, Mayor Phil Hardberger, who was limited to four years, made that possible with four strong years in office and by pushing through an important charter reform. I know you guys aren’t close, but before you pack up your office at City Hall this summer and depart for Washington D.C. and your new job as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, give him a call and say thanks.
Turns out you aren’t staying through 2017, and while your decision to leave early has drawn criticism from me and others, we also understand that the timing was not of your choosing. If you are going to be a national leader some day, the opportunity is now and you’ve decided to take it. I hope you are right. I heard a National Public Radio pundit today suggest you are an “All Star joining a losing team” as a lame duck Obama administration wrestles with a Veterans Administration scandal. I hope time proves you made a good decision.
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Here we are in 2014, three years before your mayoral term would have expired, and you are leaving San Antonio for a second time. We will miss you, Mr. Mayor, and I am sure I am right when I say you will miss San Antonio. We are a city on the rise, and you deserve a helluva lot of credit. The next three years could have been very good ones for you: an easy re-election to a fourth and final term in 2015, further gains in education reform, building a better downtown and urban core, pushing the city to get healthier and smarter, watching as San Antonio showed up on more and more of those Top 10 lists. You’ve led a city that is shedding its Brain Drain past and embracing a Brain Gain future.
The city’s 300th birthday party in 2018 would have given us the best chance since 1968 to invite the world to come visit. It was your party to plan and throw.
All to say you are sacrificing a lot by leaving now. You’re missing the chance to build on your past successes, and you will miss the chance to someday take a victory lap. You’re putting at risk some of your own initiatives, depending on who succeeds you. Your colleagues on the City Council, meanwhile, are discovering yet again how a 19th century city charter serves as a drag on a 21st century city. Do we really expect 10 people to go into a room and pick one of themselves to serve as interim mayor? Even the Cardinals at the Vatican get to cast secret ballots.
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You can leave a stronger City Council, a stronger interim mayor and a stronger San Antonio if you spend the last two months here as an activist mayor. This might go against your natural inclination, the advice from some to play it safe in your last days in office, but you have nothing to lose and much to gain. You have the political capital to spend. Readers might have their own ideas, but here is my short wish list:
- I’ve already written about the importance of achieving a new collective bargaining agreement with the police and fire unions. (Read more: A New Union Contract: How Castro Exits Strong). City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff deserve your strong backing on this issue, and the interim mayor and Council will function more effectively if they are not being pressured to allow the unions to keep their current health care plan and other special pay parks, such as the legal slush fund.
- Put charter reform and the issue of Council pay on the November ballot. You won’t be here to lead the campaign, so recruit a blue ribbon committee of former mayors, council members, and civic leaders to lead the effort. It’s time for San Antonio to stop being the largest city in the nation that forces its public servants to work in servitude. At least you’ll get a professional salary as a member of the Obama administration and cabinet. We have Council members who have lived with parents, who can’t buy homes in their own districts, who can’t afford to get married and start families. Isn’t it time for San Antonio conduct itself like a real city? Others on the Council might grab headlines by targeting the pay and bonuses of the CPS Energy and SAWS CEOs, and the subject of bonuses for public servants is certainly a legitimate topic of debate. A much more pressing issue, however, is the need to compensate elected public servants. It might not play as well in the media, but it’s far more important. It would take courage to address this issue now. I have no doubt you would have addressed it in a fourth term, but it’s now or never. We might not have another mayor of your stature for a while.
That’s why we will miss you so, Julián. You’ve had a great run – arguably an historic run – as mayor of San Antonio.
Speaking for many in the city, we weren’t ready for you to bring the show to a close. We wish you great success in Washington. We hope the next occupant of the White House appreciates you as much or more as President Obama and thus justifies your decision to leave now. We wish ourselves well, too. We hope San Antonio will look back in a few years and say we did okay without you, that we sustained the momentum and continued forward as a city on the rise.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd gathered at La Fonda on Main to hear election night results. The Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.