A hostile silence fell on the room when Mayor Ivy Taylor walked into the police union’s holiday party in 2015. About 500 pairs of eyes followed her as she made a brief statement, wished them a merry Christmas, coaxed a few handshakes, and left.
She was, at the time, embroiled in the City’s bitter contract negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officers Association. The City and the union were about two years into on-again, off-again talks that would ultimately take more than three years to resolve. At the time, there seemed to be no end in sight.
But Taylor’s small gesture of goodwill – completely outside the formal lines of communication – changed the course of the conversation, a source close to the police union told the Rivard Report last week.
“Talks started to take a new tone,” the source said. “It was a much needed, bold move on her part.”
Nine months later, after truces, court-ordered mediation sessions, and Black Lives Matter protests, City Council approved a five-year contract by an 8-2 vote in September 2016. Union leadership credited the mayor with bringing the two sides together.
“It was very important for us to get on the path of having them share in the cost of health care,” Taylor told the Rivard Report in a recent interview.
She counts the police union contract among the crowning achievements of her tenure as mayor – so far – and one she and her political allies will cite often as she makes a bid to retain her job in the May 6 General Election. At time of publication, 10 citizens have put their name in the race; Taylor, Bexar County Democratic Chair Manuel Medina, and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) are the three candidates with substantial political and community backing.
While Taylor, 46, has the general sensibilities of an inner-city Democrat, she is socially conservative, appeals to business interests and developers, as well as to many downtown and Eastside residents.
Despite her political skill, Taylor says she’s not a politician.
“I don’t have any political aspiration – I did not have an aspiration to be mayor at first,” said the New York native who worked in planning and affordable housing after receiving a bachelors degree from Yale University and a masters in city and urban planning from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When Council appointed her mayor in 2014 to replace Julián Castro, Taylor said she would not run for a full term the following year. She changed her mind and entered the race late in February 2015, long after former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and former State Rep. Mike Villarreal had launched their campaigns.
A distinct underdog, Taylor ended up receiving 52% of the 2015 runoff vote against Van de Putte, making her the first elected black mayor of San Antonio and the second woman. Taylor dominated voting bases in the north and east sides of town, despite prominent Eastside leaders pulling for Van de Putte. Municipal elections are technically nonpartisan, but the 2015 election results followed party lines.
“For me, it’s not about being in a political position and it’s not about the title,” she said. “I am an urban planner and a public servant who’s committed to revitalizing neighborhoods, connecting people to opportunity, and making our city a better place.”
She wants to continue the work she started.
Taylor is proud of her work on the Vista Ridge water pipeline, new rideshare regulations, the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan, and gains in workforce development and wants to see these projects through another term. Taylor has also advocated for the $850 million 2017 bond, the city’s biggest yet, which also will be put before voters on May 6.
Even Taylor’s former opponent approves of the job she’s done.
“I hate to admit I was wrong,” Van de Putte told the Rivard Report in a phone interview. She considers Taylor a friend. “When you look at the bottom of line of what got accomplished [under Taylor’s leadership], it’s hard to ignore.”
Van de Putte pointed to other initiatives that Taylor has overseen: the rollout of Google Fiber, movement toward a living wage, maximizing the World Heritage designation, plans for a new federal courthouse, “functional zero” on veteran homelessness, and big steps taken toward completion of the Alamo Plaza master plan and Hemisfair.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty at the national level … and a lot going on in San Antonio,” Van de Putte said. “I believe the city is best suited with continued, consistent leadership of Ivy.”
None of the strides the city has taken during Taylor’s tenure came about without substantial public discourse, and some say she can’t be given credit for projects and initiatives set in motion years ago.
Nirenberg joined Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) in voting against the police union contract, citing budgetary elements of the deal that they said could lead to the City spending more than 66% of its general fund on public safety. They also criticized provisions for police disciplinary procedures that could further strain relations with the community.
Soon after the contract was signed, Taylor formed a council on police-community relations in an attempt to address the concerns of Black Lives Matter protesters and the community at large.
“I hope that continued dialogues on some of those concerns can lead to action here in the future,” Taylor said of the next round of contract negotiations the City will go through in about four years. “It’s all in the interest of increasing confidence in the police.”
Over the years, Nirenberg has also challenged Taylor on the transparency of the Vista Ridge contract, SA Tomorrow’s effectiveness, and ethical concerns – all challenges that he has reiterated during his campaign.
Most of Taylor’s colleagues on City Council gave her a pass on a possible ethics violation in January 2016. Nirenberg and Saldaña voted against the waiver.
Taylor and her husband Rodney received income from Section 8 vouchers at several properties he rents out on the city’s Eastside. Because the mayor is responsible for appointing San Antonio Housing Authority board members, a conflict of interest arose when she took office. No ethics complaint was filed, but City Council approved a waiver that preemptively cleared “any clouds over future SAHA appointments or business with HUD.”
Taylor has since supported restructuring the Ethics Review Board.
Medina, meanwhile, aims some criticism at Taylor, but focuses more on Nirenberg and City government as a whole. Both are, according to Medina, “establishment politicians backed by powerful special interests … and they both emanate from the corrupt political structure that we have at City Hall today.”
If she is re-elected, Taylor wants to report more gains in workforce development, which she sees as one of the keys to breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Also on her to-do list is a contract with the firefighters union, further implementation of SA Tomorrow, and completion of major infrastructure projects as part of the 2017 bond.
“[As a former City employee] I was often frustrated by the lack of strategic vision and plan for the community that’s been experiencing tremendous growth,” Taylor said. SA Tomorrow is a plan she promises will not collect dust on a shelf.
“We’ve not had balanced growth here in San Antonio,” the mayor said as she sat in her tidy living room in the near-Eastside neighborhood of Dignowity Hill, where she lives with her husband and 13-year-old daughter Morgan.
The historically black Eastside is an example of infrastructure and investment inequity across the city which, she said, workforce development, better city planning, and more public-private investment can revitalize.
“For the city to succeed, every part has to succeed,” Taylor said while explaining the importance of the bond’s $20 million Neighborhood Improvements component that would prime blighted property for private or nonprofit affordable housing developers.
“If the market hasn’t generated that on its own, then I think we need to generate plans to figure out how we can spark those investments in the areas of town that have been left behind,” Taylor said.
After several years working as vice president of affordable housing agency Merced Housing Texas, Taylor won the District 2 Council seat in 2009. Ever since, she’s been working on achieving the right balance between work and her family life.
“Rodney and I are a team,” she said, “and I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do without his support.”
Taylor and her family regularly attend services at Greater Corinth Baptist Church, and religion has been a central part of her life. When she was about 9 or 10 years old, her family joined the Pentecostal Church.
“It became the center of our lives,” she said. “Everything revolved around the church. I really chafed against it. I didn’t like it because it was very rule-oriented. In retrospect … I think that it gave me a strong foundation – biblically and morally.”
That foundation may have influenced Taylor’s 2013 Council vote against a non-discrimination ordinance, which 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.
In her living room, I asked Taylor if she would vote against that aspect of the NDO, which was approved 9-3, if it came up before City Council again.
“Do people want to move forward or not?” she said.
“I’m not meaning to be flip, but,” she paused, “I believe I have demonstrated in word and deed and personal interactions with people that I respect all people. I don’t know what more people want than that. I’m opposed to discrimination. We have an ordinance in place in the city. … I’ve been respectful of that ordinance – in fact I have taken steps to actually ensure that we have mechanisms in place to be able to live up to that ordinance.”
Since taking office, she has established an LGBT advisory committee (2014) and the Office of Inclusion (2015). For many in the LGBTQIA community, however, these actions are more tokens of equality than true acceptance.
During a vigil honoring the lives lost during the massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub in 2016, Taylor delivered a prayer but was interrupted with shouts from crowd members who found her effort disingenuous.
“I believe the community still has issues with Mayor Taylor’s decision to vote against the NDO as clearly demonstrated during the vigil,” said Robert Salcido, regional field coordinator for Equality Texas. “I absolutely believe in people’s right to protest and make their voices heard.
“Above all else, San Antonio citizens deserve equal representation regardless of any characteristic including their orientation and/or gender identity/expression,” he added. “An elected official should have the ability to put their personal biases to the side and govern in an equal and fair manner. The LGBTQIA community deserves respect and dignity as humans and not to be viewed as a controversial issue.”
Salcido said the new office and committee are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done, including giving the Office of Inclusion more funding and enforcement mechanisms.
I asked Van de Putte, a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA rights, her thoughts on what kind of relationship Taylor has with the community.
Obviously, there are tensions, she said, “but there are plenty of people in the LGBT community that she works with and is friends with. … She had whatever reasons she did [to vote against the NDO], but I now see that she believes in the dignity of each person.”
During a mayoral forum last week, Taylor stumbled over a question about the State Senate’s proposed “bathroom bill,” leaving out sexual orientation and gender identity as examples of the kind of diversity the city embraces. Still, Taylor said the bill, which would make it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms that match their gender identity, is “needless.”
Taylor acknowledged the economic impact of discriminatory laws, which has been acutely felt in North Carolina now that the NCAA has threatened to pull all events in the state through 2022.
“We would not want to experience that here in SA, and I would do everything in my power to protect our economic standing,” Taylor told the Rivard Report. “We want folks to know that we are a welcoming city.”
Although Taylor has successfully navigated the politics of the mayor’s office, she said she learned during the last campaign against Van de Putte that “things can get pretty ugly.”
The Taylors’ business interests and establishments came under scrutiny during the 2015 runoff when an assailant shot and injured two men outside Rodney Taylor’s bail bonds business. Rodney Taylor declined to press charges, and the assailant was eventually involved in a capital murder case. Van de Putte mentioned the incident during a couple of debates, and Taylor subsequently refused to shake her opponent’s hand during a debate on Texas Public Radio.
“[That] reinforced and underscored for me to stay true to I am. That’s all I can do, is be myself and work hard,” Taylor said. “That’s what I did last time, that’s what I’ve been doing as mayor, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
The City’s online campaign finance reporting system shows that Taylor has raised $447,378 in cash donations for her re-election campaign. Out of 450 total contributions, dozens have come in at the maximum $1,000 level. Those campaign funds put her well ahead in the money race with Nirenberg and Medina. The next campaign finance reports are due 30 days before the election on May 6.
Coming tomorrow and Friday, Councilman Ron Nirenberg and Chairman Manuel Medina will be profiled on the Rivard Report.