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If the first debate between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) provides any indication for the tone of the election season ahead, it’s going to be impassioned, contentious – and personal.
The two traded calculated blows and quick jabs Friday morning during their first live debate, at radio station KTSA’s studio. They touched on the firefighters’ labor contract, affordable housing, job creation, Chick-fil-A, the climate action plan, and a recent San Antonio Express-News article about Brockhouse’s alleged history of domestic violence. He was not arrested or charged in either incident cited in the article.
Voters will face a clear choice between the first-term mayor and the first-term council member. Their messages to voters reveal their divergent views of life and progress in San Antonio.
Nirenberg paints an optimistic future of the city based on planning efforts and policies set in motion under his first term, while Brockhouse, often the contrarian voice on City Council, sees economic disparities and a City Hall machine that needs fixing.
KTSA’s Trey Ware, the debate moderator, asked Brockhouse to address the newspaper article, which described two police reports, one in 2009 involving his current wife and one in 2006 concerning an ex-wife, detailing police visits to Brockhouse’s residence.
“I 100 percent refute what [Express-News reporter Brian] Chasnoff wrote,” Brockhouse said. “Domestic violence is nothing to use as a political scorecard or try to obtain votes with, nor am I going to sit here and impugn my ex-wife, who’s an honorable woman who’s raising my son on the East Coast. … People’s paths drive them up and down different roads – peaks and valleys and things change – and you learn from everything.
“I’m willing to have those conversations. If I’m going to be your mayor, you’ve gotta believe in me. … I’m okay with that. I’m okay with standing with my faith and standing tall with my wife and answering the tough questions.”
Brockhouse accused Nirenberg’s campaign of sending police documents about the alleged incidents to the newspaper in order to write a “hit piece.” Kelton Morgan, Nirenberg’s campaign manager, told the Rivard Report that the campaign’s own open-records request was still pending as of Friday morning.
“[The article]raised serious questions about your fitness to serve in this office or any other office – especially in a city that struggles with an epidemic of domestic violence,” Nirenberg said.
Brockhouse said he does not remember the 2009 incident and that his wife Annalisa will refute the article. In 2006, he was involved in an incident with a then-boyfriend of his previous wife that he was in the process of divorcing, he said.
“I filed the report,” Brockhouse said. “I did it because I was attacked in my own home.”
Nirenberg started to change the subject.
“I’d rather talk about the half million dollars you took from the fire union, frankly,” Nirenberg said.
A verbal tussle ensued as Brockhouse tried to parlay that into a commitment from Nirenberg to not bring up the police reports again, but both were silenced by Ware as he regained control of the discussion.
Nirenberg was referring to the roughly $478,000 that he says Brockhouse – through his consulting business – has received from public safety unions for marketing and political work Brockhouse performed for them before he was elected to City Council in 2017.
“That is the special-interest group we gotta watch out for,” Nirenberg said. “$478,000 in his pocket so he would be in theirs.”
Brockhouse told the Rivard Report that number might be his total business income, but would not account for his expenses. He said he is proud of the work he has done for the unions and “I take that to the bank 100 percent.”
The firefighters union, in labor contract negotiations with the City after a years-long stalemate, has officially endorsed Brockhouse. He was the only City Council member to support all three of the union’s recent ballot propositions that targeted City Hall, the then-city manager, and union negotiations.
Ware pointed out that some have called him a “shill” for the union, and asked him to respond.
“My special interest is neighborhoods,” Brockhouse replied. “I’d rather be loyal to police officers and firefighters than [former City Manager] Sheryl Sculley and [former Mayor] Phil Hardberger.”
That was one of two jabs Brockhouse took at Nirenberg about Sculley, who retired after 13 years earlier this year. “I worry what you’re going to do without her,” he told the mayor at one point.
He also took shots at Nirenberg’s lack of military experience and the fact that he was not born and raised in San Antonio. “He’s not from here, but that’s okay,” Brockhouse said. “That doesn’t make him look less, but it makes my résumé look better.”
Nirenberg landed a few blows of his own, including pointing out that because Brockhouse rents his home, he doesn’t pay property taxes.
The two candidates differed on their views of the proposed climate action plan and climate change mitigation goals expected to emerge this year.
“[The climate plan is] a road map of how we can deal with the future and make sure we can clean water, clean air, and an excellent economy at the same time,” Nirenberg said. “It’s not a mandate, it has no statutory power, but we have to make sure we have a roadmap for the future.”
The plan would set a year 2050 goal to reduce San Antonio’s greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming, from power plants, vehicles, and other sources to zero.
A clean environment matters, Brockhouse said, but he called the plan itself weak. “There’s no dictates, there’s nothing,” he said. “… It’s a multibillion-dollar potential spending program that you, the taxpayer are going to to foot.”
Big businesses are “running scared” from cities with plans like this,” Brockhouse said, adding that energy market “takes care of itself over time.”
“Well, thanks for your vote on the Paris Accord,” Nirenberg said.
The two have frequently disagreed about job growth and employment. They revisited that topic Friday, too.
Brockhouse cited reports from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas earlier this year that companies have cut jobs out of the workforce in San Antonio – and the city added fewer jobs last year than it has since 2009.
“We have the worst job creation we have had in the last 10 years,” Brockhouse said.
But Nirenberg pointed out jobs were also created last year and employees were hired. San Antonio’s unemployment rate in December was 3.4 percent, under the national rate of 3.9.
“Councilman Brockhouse has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding basic fundamentals of economics,” Nirenberg said. “We are at statistical full employment. … Everybody looking for a job can find a job here in San Antonio.”
Statistical “full employment” means that while not everyone has a job, the jobless rate is the lowest it can be without causing inflation.
Audience members were pre-selected by KTSA to ask most of the questions of the two candidates while Ware asked follow-up questions.
Listen to the full, hour-long discussion on KTSA’s website here.