Scott Ball / Rivard Report
With less than three months remaining before the city election, San Antonio's three major mayoral candidates began defining their positions on a host of local issues, with distinct differences emerging.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, and Bexar County Democratic Chairman Manuel Medina took the stage at the Pearl Stable Tuesday night for a town hall-style forum organized by the Rivard Report.
After the candidates made brief opening statements, Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard invited members of civic groups to ask questions about issues ranging from transportation to police-community relations to support of Pre-K 4SA to how the candidates will work with – or in spite of – the Trump administration.
Several questions dealt with the community's growing frustration over transportation challenges: sprawl and congestion, the lack of light rail, poor pedestrian and cycling options, worsening air quality from vehicle traffic, and limited nonstop flight choices. While Taylor defended her record on planning for the future and touted the comprehensive SA Tomorrow plan, Nirenberg said the plan needs strong action behind it.
"SA Tomorrow clearly outlines [solutions], but this is why we need leadership to provide the vision for San Antonio," he said. "Not to just have a plan on paper, but to actually implement it with vision."
Medina accused SA Tomorrow and his opponents of leaving behind the city's current residents, especially senior citizens, in favor of those estimated 1 million moving here over the next two decades.
"If [SA Tomorrow] was so great, how is it that the person in charge of writing it [Nirenberg] is running against the person that's touting it [Taylor]?" he asked.
Mayor Taylor initiated the planning process in 2014 after she was appointed mayor by City Council. Public engagement, which officially launched in April 2015, formulated much of the plan. Nirenberg was not SA Tomorrow's author, but he was a tri-chair of the committee that produced it.
"Many of our inner-city neighborhoods have been wanting to see new housing and access to jobs and retail amenities that have been lacking for many years, it's just that we have to be sensitive in how we go about it," Taylor said in response to a question about growth and development around the Spanish-colonial Missions.
The most loudly applauded questions came towards the end of the evening from Ashley Smith, an architect, parent, and transgender woman, and from Sakib Shaikh of the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center.
Smith asked the candidates about their view of the State Senate's proposed "bathroom bill," which would make it illegal for transgender people to use restrooms that match their gender identity. The conversation soon turned to the non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) that adds protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to San Antonio's city code. It passed with an 8-3 vote in 2013.
"It is true, the Council member [Nirenberg] voted for the NDO, but we had to twist his arm and almost had to break it off for him to do that," Medina said. "That's a fact."
"That's an alternative fact," someone from the crowd yelled, using a term coined by an advisor to President Donald Trump that has essentially become synonymous with a lie.
Nirenberg has long supported the rights of the LGBTQIA community. Back in 2013, he initially held off on telling media how he would vote on the NDO because he wanted to encourage dialogue between both sides.
"The Council member talks a good game, and at the end of the day, he 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," Medina continued.
The full video of the town hall, sponsored by the Pearl, is available on our Facebook page here and can be viewed below. (We apologize for some technical difficulties in the beginning – skip to 10:30.)
In the wake of President Trump's rapid-fire executive orders, national politics have played a larger-than-usual role in the local, election that is ostensibly nonpartisan. All candidates have committed to keeping partisan politics out of the race, but whether that's possible remains to be seen.
Taylor, who was the District 2 Councilwoman in 2013, voted against the NDO.
"San Antonio certainly is a welcoming, diverse, and compassionate city, and I will do everything in my power ... to maintain that reputation," she said in response to Smith's question. "We embrace every person in San Antonio regardless of their religious, ethnic, or whatever affiliation, and certainly I am not in favor of any actions or policies that would ... discriminate against any particular member of our community."
Taylor did not use the terms "sexual orientation" or "gender identity," something that did not go unnoticed by audience members or those following the discussion on social media.
#satownhall2017 I'm a "whatever" inside. In my heart.
— Bill B (@ProfBillB) February 8, 2017
Taylor said she opposes the Senate Bill 6.
"It's needless," she said. "It would be very difficult to actually implement. I don't believe there's going to be a budget for bathroom monitors or folks checking birth certificates."
She added that she wasn't aware of any data that suggests there is a widespread problem with transgender individuals using the bathroom they feel matches their sexual identity.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," Nirenberg agreed. "The last thing San Antonio needs is another unenforceable dictate coming down from the city of Austin."
In an earlier question, Shaikh asked the candidates their opinions on the Trump administration's efforts to halt immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
"What do you plan to do, if anything, to protect your Muslim-American San Antonians?"
"We are a nation of immigrants. We're also a city of immigrants, and until we recognize that that is the fabric of our community, we're going to continue to spin our wheels on this," Nirenberg said.
Medina told the crowd that his staff is already working on immigration issues, including moves by the state legislature to withhold funding from so-called "sanctuary cities."
"[We are a] city that recognizes that 99.9% of people, immigrants, are good people," he said. "And we need to protect them so that they can maintain and strengthen our local economy and raise their kids here in our city. The .001% of immigrants that are committing crimes, deport them."
Medina took a strong stance against several projects included in the 2017 Municipal Bond, which will also go before voters on May 6. Taylor and Nirenberg touted the $850 million package, which was unanimously approved by City Council, as a good balance between badly needed infrastructure and transformative, citywide projects.
Medina characterized the bond as "maxing out our city's credit card."
The bond will become general obligation bond debt. The City has borrowed approximately 15% of its tax ceiling of $10.5 billion, well within a comfortable range. Taylor cited population and tax growth, the City's strong fiscal management, and its Triple-A bond rating to justify the size of the bond, arguing that San Antonio can afford and complete the bond.
"Our previous bond programs have all been delivered on time and on budget as we expect this one will as well," Taylor said. "And again, it touches, without a property tax rate increase, every single part of our community in a significant way."
Medina has never held an elected government office, which he touts as an advantage. He called his opponents "establishment politicians backed by powerful special interests ... and they both emanate from the corrupt political structure that we have at City Hall today."
"I find it highly ironic that a party boss is talking to us about the establishment," Nirenberg responded.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the City's online campaign finance reporting system showed that Taylor had raised $447,378 for her re-election campaign. Out of 970 total contributions, dozens have come in at the maximum $1,000 level.
Meanwhile, Nirenberg has raised $258,065 from 823 contributions so far. As of Tuesday afternoon.*
Medina's 536 contributions have almost entirely come in below the $15 mark. His wife, Janeth Soto Ayoub, has made the only $1,000 donation to his campaign thus far. Medina told reporters last month that he will be using $250,000 of his own money to fund his campaign.
A total of nine citizens registered as mayoral candidates. The deadline to file is Friday, Feb. 17, at 5 p.m.
Antonio "Tony" Diaz, who listed his occupation as a "self-employed independent contractor" when he filed to be on the May ballot, briefly interrupted the discussion Tuesday night. He is an advocate for indigenous rights. As the election season evolves and unfolds, the Rivard Report will likely reach out to other viable candidates and organize another forum.