Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) is San Antonio's new mayor, unseating Mayor Ivy Taylor with a stunning, 9-point victory on Saturday night. Taylor conceded just after 9 p.m.
"I first want to thank Ivy Taylor, our mayor, for her years of service," Nirenberg said in his victory speech. "It's not easy to do the work that we do, as any family member can attest. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, and I want to thank our mayor for the service to our city."
With 100% of precincts reporting, Nirenberg received a resounding 54.59% of the vote to Taylor's 45.41% Exactly 5,266 votes separated the two in the early voting results. That margin grew to more than 9,091.
"There are many issues obviously that differentiate my vision from Mayor Taylor's – on transportation issues, on diversity issues, on public safety issues – and I think that the voters have made some clear choices about the direction that they want to take the city," Nirenberg said earlier in the evening. "This is a brand new Council so we want to get everyone together and start working on a unified direction for the city."
It's been a fierce runoff over the past month with negative mailers and television ads coming from both sides. An incumbent upset is not unheard of, but relatively rare in San Antonio.
“I am at peace," Taylor told reporters and supporters as she conceded. "I am so thankful for each and every person in this room for your prayers, for being here for me and Morgan and Rodney. I’m so grateful to all the campaign volunteers who spent many hours out in the hot sun and called many folks day after day."
Election day polls closed at 7 p.m., and both candidates watched vote tallies from the city's 565 precincts trickle in throughout the night.
See our coverage of Council runoff elections, in which the District 2 incumbent Alan Warrick was unseated by William "Cruz" Shaw, here.
"In terms of specific issues, the things I've been talking about are getting modern transportation strategy put on paper so we can start developing it," Nirenberg said. "Part of that will be voter approval of a mass transit system for San Antonio."
Campaign manager Kelton Morgan pointed to Nirenberg drawing 150 more votes than Taylor on May 6. Over the years, more and more people have decided to take advantage of early voting.
Taylor's campaign manager Colin Strother said he was surprised at early election results and admitted that the spread was "a pretty high hurdle to get over."
Too high, apparently.
“Both sides had a game plan and a strategy and a message and the other side executed those better than we did," he said. "That’s on me, and I take full responsibility for it. I’m terribly sorry that we couldn’t get her across the finish line. In terms of issues, the data we had based on our polling wasn’t much different than the issues that Councilman Nirenberg was talking about in terms of voters that needed to turn out.
"Our priority list was different than his. [Ours was] was public safety, voting consensus, it was focusing on getting the job done, and that’s where we focused our messaging."
Early voting and mail-in ballots represented 9% of the 753,736 registered voters in San Antonio. Between 5%-15% turnout is typical for mayoral and council elections in the country's major cities nationwide. The May 6 general election attracted 11.32% of registered voters, but it was countywide and had more at stake: the City's $850 million bond package, school district board trustees, and an Alamo Community College District bond.
About 14.5% of registered voters turned out for the mayoral and District 7 runoff election in 2015, but this runoff also featured candidates in districts 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, and 10. Historically, most votes have come from those that live on the city’s more affluent Northside.
A number of recent controversies and headlines allowed the mayoral candidates to draw clear lines between their policy goals and positions. Taylor and Nirenberg are on opposite sides of who should have received the 10-year, $100 million river barge contract, the decision to join a lawsuit challenging the "sanctuary cities" law, signing an official statement in support of the Paris climate accord, the police union contract, and partisan campaign tactics, to name a few.
"Tonight the voters got it right on a lot of things," Nirenberg said. "Tonight the voters rejected the politics of division and false choices and they said 'yes' to a bigger and brighter vision of inclusion, of diversity, of respecting each other, of fairness, of respecting each and every person in San Antonio no matter if you live on the Northside, the Southside the Eastside or the Westside or any place in between. Tonight the voters said 'yes' to a mayor for all of San Antonio."
To read more, check out the Rivard Report‘s 2017 election archive here.
Nirenberg and Taylor were separated by 4,904 votes May 6, with Taylor taking 42% of the vote and Nirenberg 37%. Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Manuel Medina ran an uproarious campaign, but received only 15% of the vote. Both remaining candidates have attempted to sway Medina's 15,049 supporters – and others who voted for 11 other candidates – to their side. Medina did not endorse either candidate in the runoff.
Taylor received criticism for referring to "broken people ... people not being in a relationship with their Creator" as one of the main causes of poverty. Her words were taken out of context, she said, but they resonated poorly with some faith and non-faith leaders. However, the incident may have reinforced her support from other religious groups.
Taylor's religious views also factor into her stance on LGBTQIA issues. In 2013, as the District 2 Council member, she voted against a non-discrimination ordinance that added sexual and gender identity to the list of the city’s protected citizens. She said she voted according to her constituency’s desire and her conscience. Nirenberg, who has always been considered an ally, easily won the endorsement of LGBTQIA groups across the city.
When asked if he thought a surge of that community's support affected the election, Strother said it wasn't any single issue that decided the outcome.
“When you have a margin this wide, it’s more of a mood rather than an issue type of election, and I definitely think that there was a mood in San Antonio. My friend John Courage ran exceptionally well in District 9. If I told you six months ago that an old school liberal would win that district, you are drunk or crazy or both. But that’s what happened," he said.
"There’s definitely a mood out there and it wasn’t something that we picked up in our polling and therefore we weren’t prepared for [it]. The other side was clearly more prepared for shifting sand beneath that and they performed better as a result. I congratulate the mayor-elect and I think that he has the best of intentions, and I wish him luck and hope that he does a great job for the city.”
Throughout the election season, Taylor's campaign repeatedly highlighted Nirenberg's minority votes on several key issues. He and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) cast the only two votes against the police union contract. At the time, Nirenberg said the contract "ignored the goals we established for the health of this city – from fiscal responsibility to procedural police reform."
However, Taylor and other members of Council praised the deal and said it reached compromises on the City and union sides, and for the first time, police officers are contributing a portion of their families' ballooning health care expenses.
"My goal regardless of benefits and salaries [for uniformed officers] is to make sure that we have contracts that are structurally balanced so we that we can grow those departments as the city grows," Nirenberg said on Saturday.
Nirenberg was the only Council member to oppose awarding the river barge operation contract to a team that included two prominent local businesswomen and Houston-based Landry's Inc. He sided instead with City staff and a citizen committee that chose Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises based on experience and quality of proposal. The Landry's team was awarded the contract based on a scoring process that includes preference points for local ownership. VIA Metropolitan Transit Chair Hope Andrade and local restaurateur Lisa Wong own 51% of the operation.
While Taylor's campaign used these examples to demonstrate Nirenberg's inability to build a coalition on Council, the mayor recently found herself in the minority when she said it was "premature" for the City to join the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in a lawsuit seeking to stop the “sanctuary cities” law set to go into effect on Sept. 1.
“In this case, the prudent course would be to wait until a decision has been made on whether a special session will be called,” Taylor said in a statement June 1. "…We should be certain that litigation is the measure of last resort and that the City is bearing its fair share of any legal burden.”
Only two of her colleagues, outgoing Northside Council members Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10), agreed. Gov. Greg Abbott has since called a special session, but revisiting "sanctuary cities" law is not on his list of priorities. Bexar County, the City of Austin, the City of Dallas, and others have since joined the MALDEF lawsuit.
"I think that her stance on the sanctuary cities lawsuit cost her a lot of votes. It was a very contentious and controversial topic," said Taylor supporter Gloria Anderson, who attended the mayor's election night watch party Saturday night with her husband Mike.
He thinks the police union contract negotiation also influenced the vote.
"I also think a lot of people weren't satisfied with the police contract," Mike said. "It's an improvement but it wasn't much of an improvement."
As to Taylor’s future plans, she said she’ll continue the work that she’s done to connect people to opportunity.
"I believe that no matter where people live in our city they should have a bright future and that every child no matter what zip code they live in will have opportunities and be connected to opportunities for prosperity in San Antonio,” Taylor said, repeating language she used throughout her campaign.
After her speech, she proceeded directly to the dance floor.
“I think that’s it. Y’all know me, I’m ready to dance," Taylor said. "I need the DJ to get it started with the 'Wobble' or something like that. Thank you everybody God bless you.”
Rivard Report assistant editors Rocío Guenther and Camille Garcia greatly contributed to this article.