Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Manuel Medina likes to say that he was born on the Southside, but just “a little further south than most.” Originally from Torreón, Mexico, Medina was 3 when he and his mother embarked on the arduous journey north in search of the American Dream.
“My mother and I crossed la frontera into McAllen, passed through San Antonio, El Paso, and ended up in Los Angeles, where I grew up,” Medina told the Rivard Report during a recent interview at the Pico de Gallo restaurant.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California and a master’s in the same field from UT Austin, Medina went on to become a successful political consultant, steering the campaigns of local, state, and federal candidates as well as some in Latin America. Now the Bexar County Democratic chairman who led a successful showing for local Democrats in the November election is a candidate himself – for mayor of San Antonio.
Medina, 47, who has never held an elected government office, launched his campaign in early January, aiming to oust incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor. Medina also faces District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and seven other candidates. The only mayor in San Antonio since the 1950s elected without having first served on City Council was Phil Hardberger, who won in 2005.
The long odds aren’t daunting to Medina.
“Year after year we see the same thing,” he told the Rivard Report in Spanish. “The poverty on the Westside, the violence on the Eastside, the disorganized growth on the Northside, and economic inequality. … We need a mayor to identify parameters, decide what to do to improve those parameters and measure progress over time with the goal of solving them over time. It’s not what we have today.”
Medina said the city needs a mayor who will stand firm against President Donald Trump and demand to be involved when it comes to policies on immigration and trade.
“We don’t have a voice when it comes to immigration policies,” Medina said. “We are the biggest and closest city to the border. We know about the bilateral relationship with Mexico. We will surely work with the president when it comes to job creation, protecting the American worker, and building infrastructure … but at the same time, we need to demand respect for our values here in the city of San Antonio.”
Medina has worked on campaigns in Ecuador, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, but he has had a permanent home in San Antonio for almost 20 years. His success at helping local, state, and federal candidates get elected led him to form his own political consulting and public relations firm in 2007, Professional Campaign Services. In addition, Medina founded a local 500-station call-center business in 2006 and has invested in rental properties throughout San Antonio since 2011.
Medina has consulted for political figures such as former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and Juan Carlos Navarro, an avid environmentalist who became mayor of Panama City and has remained a prominent figure in Panama.
“For the last five years I’ve helped elect two presidents: Ricardo Martinelli in Panama and Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic,” Medina said. “So I became well-known and very successful over time, and then it was time to decide. ‘You know what, I’m financially secure … maybe it’s time that I look at running myself.'”
“He’s coming out from a political party structure, being the [Bexar County Democratic Party] chair and so forth … and most mayoral candidates don’t take that route, so it’s a unique occurrence,” Flores said. “His experience and knowledge is more oriented around issues that would be dealt with in county-level politics or the state level.”
Sylvia Ruiz Mendelsohn hired Medina in 1997 when she ran for state representative in District 118. The first woman to run for that position, Mendelsohn lost in a runoff against Carlos Uresti, now the State Senator for District 19.
“Even though I didn’t win … we ran a terrific, clean campaign, and I’m still proud of how we handled it,” Mendelsohn told the Rivard Report. “Manuel is as transparent as you can get – what he’s for and what he’s done – but now it’s for the entire city and not just one party.”
Medina has said he will use $250,000 of his own money for his mayoral campaign. According to the City’s online campaign finance reporting system, the chairman has received 536 contributions so far, which includes a $1,000 donation from his wife, Janet Soto Ayoub. At time of publication, Medina has raised $255,451.48.
“There’s a genuine enthusiasm behind our campaign,” Medina said. “It took me five days to take 500 contributions. My average contribution was $9.06 and we went out and asked people to contribute $5.06 each to represent the May 6 election. A lot of people that contributed had not contributed to a political campaign before … that’s how we will win.”
Medina, his wife, and their daughters Michelle Marie and Sara Sophia live in the Dominion, an exclusive gated community on the Northside.
“I’m a family man, a business man, and a man of faith,” Medina said. “My wife, she’s very engaged and involved in the Asociación de Mujeres Empresarias y Profesionales [The Association of Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals]. She supports me 100%.”
While touting his financial independence, Medina also refers to himself as politically independent, yet frequently brings up his role as Democratic Party chairman, which has proven controversial in a mayoral race that is ostensibly nonpartisan. He has countered by saying that the election is already partisan, labeling Taylor, who is a registered Democrat, a Republican and calling Nirenberg a “centrist.”
“Any coalition begins with your base, and my base begins with Democrats,” he said. “We’ve been meeting with Republican leaders on the Northside and independents across town – this is going to be a coalition that stands in support of taxpayers in San Antonio.”
Medina, who was first elected party chairman in 2011, said that the positive results for local Democrats in the November election – victories included three legislative seats, a handful of County posts, and the sheriff’s office – helped persuade him that it was the right moment to throw his hat into the ring.
His leadership of the party, however, has not come without controversy. During the 2014 midterm election, Medina released ads on Univision that characterized Republicans as “radical terrorists.” At a straw-poll fundraiser in 2013, the Express-News reported that Medina required Democratic primary candidates to pay $250 to speak at the event and have a promotional booth. In 2014, Medina was criticized for being a paid consultant for David Alameel in his race for U.S. Senate, including during Alameel’s primary against four other Democrats. Medina received more than $452,000 from Alameel in the unsuccessful statewide bid.
Mendelsohn, however, said Medina has been able to unite local Democrats like no one before him.
“I think that Manuel has a very superb way of bringing people together and uniting the causes of the constituents and taxpayers’ needs,” she said. “He was able to do that with all the precinct chairs, and that’s why [the November] race was so successful, because of his talent to organize and get things done.”
After he was chosen to lead the Democratic party, Medina said he promised supporters he would be “an advocate for the people, not an administrator” – something he hopes to continue if he is elected mayor.
“What we have today is a mayor’s office that constructs highways, sidewalks, and bridges without the human factor,” Medina said. “The human factor is something that [I will bring] as mayor.”
He added that it’s not just about winning elections, but about advancing a “progressive agenda.”
On Feb. 9, the Bexar County Young Democrats (BCYD) held a candidate endorsement forum, where all mayoral and City Council candidates were given a chance to speak and make their case for their respective campaigns. More than 130 people attended the forum and cast their ballots and paid new membership fees, with Medina getting the most votes, said BCYD President Gabrien Gregory, who also is working for Medina’s campaign.
“We have made a decision to endorse the candidates that are most progressive,” Gregory told the Rivard Report. “We are ready as a group, and we will 100% support Manuel Medina for mayor.
“It’s not that we don’t support Nirenberg, we just did not endorse him for the mayoral election, and the majority of membership voted in favor of Manuel,” Gregory said. “While we respect the nonpartisan race, I think most of the members agree that we can tell what candidates line up with what issues, which would typically be the party alignment for those issues … especially after the 2016 election, [members] are ready for a change.”
Often categorized as a City politics outsider, Medina has used this label to his advantage by calling his opponents “establishment politicians.” During recent mayoral forums, he has taken a more combative tone than either Nirenberg or Taylor.
Several political observers have noted similarities between Medina’s campaign style and that of the ultimate political outsider who now occupies the Oval Office. Like Trump, Medina has shown no reluctance to level strong accusations against his opponents, has embraced the outsider label, and has stressed his financial independence from special interests.
“Style and substance are two different issues,” Medina said when asked about his stylistic similarities to the president. “Anyone going up that tree is going in the wrong direction.
“… When you get beyond [Nirenberg and Taylor’s] rhetoric, where is their substance? Where are their proposals? At the end of the day, I’m the only one bringing people together in the best interest of a government accountable to taxpayers. Ron and Ivy have pretty much conceded and ignored the South and Westside. Ron doesn’t bother to go to the Eastside, and I’m campaigning city-wide. I’m uniting Republicans and Democrats”
During the Rivard Report’s Mayoral Town Hall earlier this month at the Pearl, Medina questioned Taylor and Nirenberg’s voting record, sometimes using strong rhetoric. During a heated moment regarding the non-discrimination ordinance, Medina said that Nirenberg “might vote with us, but we’re going to have to twist his arm, and sometimes we’re going to have to break it off.”
In fact, no arm-twisting or breaking was necessary.
Medina has said that a “pay-to-play culture” exists at City Hall, where decisions are made in accordance with special interests.
“Candidates get their contributions, special interests get their special favors, and taxpayers get stuck with the bill,” has become one of Medina’s go-to phrases in his campaign appearances.
Flores said that for Medina to be a successful candidate, he needs to start talking about issues more pertinent to city voters, such as potholes, street lights, and the “day-to-day basics” of delivering services to the community.
“He’s speaking to the wrong issues for a mayoral election,” Flores said. “The city residents associate the mayor with good garbage pickup, whether there is police on the street, if crime is under control – the nitty gritty of your city and municipal service issues. Solving poverty is a national, structural problem. He can pass a few ordinances to help here and there, but the city government doesn’t really have control over that.”
In Medina’s view, Taylor is overlooking the city’s current residents by focusing instead on the estimated 1 million people projected to move to San Antonio over the next two decades. Taylor, on the other hand, suggested that Medina – by living in the Dominion – is out of touch with the majority of San Antonians, while she has remained at her home on the Eastside.
Medina has set himself apart from his opponents by taking a strong stance against the $850 million Municipal Bond, criticizing the price of the package and several projects within it. Medina claims the bond would “[max] out the city’s credit card,” while Nirenberg and Taylor support the package as fiscally responsible and containing a good balance of citywide projects. The bond, which was unanimously approved by City Council, will go before voters on May 6.
As a native of Mexico, Medina has emphasized San Antonio’s close relationship with its southern neighbor and the importance of bilateral trade and cultural ties. When asked about the topic of transportation, Medina has said that – if he is elected mayor – he will not only push to fund mass transit between Austin and San Antonio but also help fund rail between San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico.
“I’m going to be the transportation mayor,” Medina told the Rivard Report. “We’re going to start on day one, and we will have the courage to say that we will start funding mass transit from San Antonio to Austin. Once we take care of that, we’re gonna look at San Antonio to Monterrey. It makes sense in the long term. We want more people to come and spend their money here – it makes sense economically.”
Medina strongly opposes the Vista Ridge water pipeline project, which could deliver up to 16.3 million gallons of water per year to San Antonio Water System (SAWS) customers and expand the city’s water supply by 20% starting in 2020.
“The way this council has done it has lacked transparency and puts taxpayers at risk,” he said.
“We’re gonna get the most expensive water in America with this Vista Ridge project. Six months after that contract was signed, the company that was financing the whole operation went bankrupt,” Medina said. “It’s a major concern of mine. We have to talk more about water conservation and utilize our desalination plant that we invested millions of dollars in.”
Spanish firm Abengoa had originally been enlisted to build the pipeline but filed for bankruptcy last year. In May, the SAWS board unanimously approved a takeover of the project by a Kansas City-based construction company. Medina worries that the Vista Ridge project will damage local water supplies and put the Edwards Aquifer at risk.
“The Edwards Aquifer is protected because it’s our sole source of water,” he said. “But when Vista Ridge comes, will it be considered a second source of water? Will this open the door for more construction over the aquifer and development in sensitive recharge zones?”
Other priority issues for Medina involve more community policing and sanctuary policies, which he said are needed so that local law enforcement officers won’t have to enforce federal immigration law. He also wants to continue la lucha – the fight for increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which has been an ongoing topic of discussion among city leaders.
Whether he wins his first shot at elected office or not, Medina is pursuing a path that began in 1996, when he met Victor Morales. Morales was a school teacher who drove his pickup truck around the state in an effort to rally support for his U.S. Senate bid against Republican incumbent Phil Gramm. Morales won the primary to become the first minority Texan to become a U.S. Senate nominee.
“His message was ¿y por qué no? [why not?],” Medina said. “Why can’t a school teacher, why can’t a construction worker, why can’t your average Joe run for United States Senate? He won the nomination and lost in the general election, but how did he do that? He got a bunch of college kids working with him, and one of them was Manuel Medina.”