Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina shared details about their respective mayoral campaigns Friday morning during a panel discussion in front of retired senior citizens at Morningside Ministries at The Meadows.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, who is running for re-election, could not stay for the panel but made a brief appearance at the venue to greet the more than 50 residents at the senior living community. This particular panel discussion was relatively tame compared to the heated exchanges of last election cycle and those likely to come.
“You count [and] your vote is important,” outgoing President and CEO of Morningside Ministries Alvin Loewenberg said. “Older adults vote at a much greater percentage than other groups of people so it’s very important that you realize you do make a difference.”
87-year-old Meadows resident Betty Lynn Allen took the initiative to organize the Friday event and contacted all the Mayoral candidates to emphasize the message that “seniors are not too old to get involved.”
Highlighting his religious faith and his experience as a businessman, Medina introduced himself to the audience and also did not hide his political background. He considers himself a strong Democrat.
“Candidates get their contributions, special interests get favors and tax payers get stuck with the bill,” Medina said, which has become a kind of mantra of his campaign. “Our mayor today lacked political courage for rail and public transportation.”
Taylor helped back the city out of a streetcar proposal soon after she was first elected mayor by voters in 2014.
Medina placed great emphasis on high poverty rates in San Antonio, which he said contribute to an increase in crime citywide and are the root of most of the city’s problems.
“Thirty-one of 68 zip codes live in concentrated poverty, and we are reaching a critical point when level of poverty starts affecting everything,” Medina said.
He promised to continue the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage and work with companies to stay in, and come to, San Antonio.
Nirenberg agreed with Medina on poverty, adding that about 25% of children in Bexar County live in poverty. Reacting to Medina’s constant claim that nothing gets done in the City and that decisions are based on special interests, Nirenberg told the audience that he has been heavily involved with ethics reform, demanding a higher standard of integrity at City Council.
A popular topic among residents in the senior living community was transportation and many questions revolved around how each candidate plans to strengthen the San Antonio-Austin corridor to reduce traffic on I-35 and boost connectivity between both cities.
“I pride myself as a champion of smart growth,” Nirenberg said, adding that he is part of a caucus made up of local council members from Comal County, Austin, and New Braunfels. “[We are working] on the Hill Country Plan, coordinating among communities to protect environmental assets [and work on] transportation solutions.”
Nirenberg said that an Austin-San Antonio rail connection won’t happen until it becomes a priority for the Texas governor.
“We’re working with the governor’s office to make it a priority,” he said. ” [Regarding the] Lonestar Rail District, we have disbanded because it was politically and financially ineffectual.”
Medina said that if he is chosen as mayor of San Antonio, he will assume a leadership role with the Lonestar Rail District and commit to building rail from San Antonio to Austin one way or another. He added that he will fight to build a rail connection between with San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico.
“We’ve been hoodwinked when it comes to the airport and jobs [that have gone to places like] Sequin and Shertz,” Medina added. “Yes, [we must] collaborate with Austin but we need to look out for San Antonio first. People go to Austin to take direct flights because they are less expensive and we don’t have enough direct flights.”
Responding to a question concerning the Vista Ridge project, Nirenberg said that project stanards have been lowered and that there has been accelerated approval for the building of the pipe.
Water rates are historically low in San Antonio, Nirenberg added, but they are increasing because capital infrastructure has not been taken care of for decades.
“I’m an advocate for long term water security,” Nirenberg said, “but if we have a pipe [with Vista Ridge] that doesn’t deliver water the precise moment we need it, that’s not what we ask for.”
Medina believes that the contract for Vista Ridge was “fast-tracked through City Hall,” and said San Antonio will have some of the most expensive water in America.
He cited increased water rates as his main reason for opposing the 142-mile water pipeline project slated to deliver 50,000 acre-feet of water for 30 years to San Antonio starting in 2020.
“I would have voted against it,” Medina said, “We need to continue to invest in desalination plants.”
San Antonio Water System customer rates increased by 6.8% at the beginning of 2017 and are expected to rise by another 6.2% in 2018. Some environmental groups have estimated that Vista Ridge water will cost about 20% more per acre-foot than other sources once the water begins to flow to SAWS customers in 2020.
Nirenberg has clashed with the mayor on what he called “transparency” issues with the Vista Ridge contract last year.
“During my years as mayor, we’ve been focused on ensuring that we have an affordable, great water supply for the city to accommodate the growth we’ve been experiencing,” Taylor told the crowd, leaving the event early to attend the grand opening of the SAWS desalination plant in Elmendorf, Texas. “I’ve been focused on the basics, ensuring that we have those basic services that we take for granted.”
Taylor added that under her leadership, there has been and will be an emphasis on basic infrastructure, work force development, and “planning for the future.”