Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Most candidates begin their first political campaigns with a round of glad-handing to drum up support among key figures.
Six years ago, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg began his rise to political power by writing his own personal policy bible.
Before he was elected to represent District 8 on San Antonio’s City Council, Nirenberg wrote out a lengthy set of white papers on nearly every major policy issue that faces San Antonio — transportation, affordable housing, and sustainability, to name a few.
Fast-forward to his time as mayor, and those are the same issues Nirenberg has spent considerable time and political capital tackling. After his first two-year term, the results are mostly lengthy plans on paper. The pace of progress has slowed on some initiatives, such as the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan he spearheaded early in his term.
Nirenberg and his supporters say he is laying the foundation for generational change in San Antonio, helping prepare the city to accommodate a million new residents by 2040, lift thousands of residents out of poverty, and take its rightful place on the national stage.
Many critics say the former bodybuilder has tried to do the lifting on his own, often failing to build a sense of trust and lines of communication among his colleagues on City Council. His base lies to the center-left of San Antonio politics, though some progressive activists say the enthusiasm they felt when he took office has waned.
“I set the agenda,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report in a wide-ranging interview at his campaign headquarters Wednesday in Southtown. “I articulate the vision for the city. That’s my job. There are going to be people who disagree with the vision, and there are people who may disagree on the Council. That’s why everyone has a vote.”
Nirenberg’s greatest assets in his race for a second term may be the weaknesses of his top opponent, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6).
Setting aside allegations of domestic violence that Brockhouse and his current wife have denied, Brockhouse’s ties to the firefighters union and his efforts to dislodge former City Manager Sheryl Sculley have soured many San Antonio business elites who might otherwise have aided him in his bid to unseat the more liberal Nirenberg. The union pushed three ballot initiatives in 2018 that sent many civic and business leaders into a panic about the potential effect on the City’s governance and finances.
Local chambers don’t endorse candidates, but North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Cristina Aldrete said, “Really, there’s nobody to endorse.”
“Neither one is head and shoulders above the other” when it comes to attracting the business vote, she said.
Teamwork sometimes an issue
Though he’s philosophically aligned with most of his colleagues on the Council dais, Nirenberg is criticized by some – not just by Brockhouse – for not including them on critical discussions in and outside of City Hall and for how he handles confrontation, their suggestions, and tough decisions.
The latter is best illustrated by comments made by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) last week as Council, in yet another split vote, decided not to revisit the decision to exclude Chick-fil-A from the airport concessionaire contract. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) had made the last-minute amendment to the contract to take Chick-fil-A out because of his and some constituent concerns about the company’s ties to anti-LGBTQIA groups.
“I find it very offensive that we put the City in this position and that the mayor hasn’t taken control of the situation early on,” Gonzales said. “I, for one, am offended and tired of it and believe we need to get on to the important work of this city.”
Gonzales told the Rivard Report this week that Nirenberg’s leadership involved too many committees, task forces, and vision documents.
“The mayor really does believe in having the voices heard in the community, but I think it can create what appears to be a very indecisive leader,” she said.
However, she added, “I’m 100 percent supportive of Ron. … I believe in his vision, I just don’t believe in his approach.”
Nirenberg believes there is no lasting change without substantial community input and buy-in.
“A big part of the job is managing the pace of progress. … We have bold ideas for the city, we have bold initiatives for the city,” he said. “But you can only go so fast as the community can tolerate. Otherwise, the wheels fall off.”
Other Council members spoke about Nirenberg’s leadership only on the condition of anonymity. Some said they believe his failure to keep them informed is unintentional, while others said it seemed to stem from his belief that he’s got “all the answers.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), a fellow conservative, is more philosophically aligned with Brockhouse and often joins Brockhouse in casting minority dissenting votes against Nirenberg’s initiatives. Notably, he cast the lone vote against the affordable housing policy.
“We don’t have a team,” Perry said. “To me, that’s a leadership issue.”
Watching other councils before he was elected in 2017, Perry said they seemed to be more communicative. He is not endorsing a mayoral candidate.
“I’m collaborative by nature,” Nirenberg said. When asked how he would describe his relationship with his colleagues, he kept his answer short. “It’s professional,” Nirenberg said, then paused for a while. “It’s collaborative.”
The clashes of governing style – some say ego – between Nirenberg and some members of Council have largely remained behind the scenes. He has been able to get broad support for most of his key initiatives: a new affordable housing policy framework, the city’s first so-called “equity budgets” that back up housing and street maintenance with cash. As mayor, he’s never been on the losing side of a major Council vote.
He also touts San Antonio’s reduced crime rates, job creation – albeit slower than in recent years – and higher ethical standards compared to two years ago.
“The guy can accomplish things,” said Gene Dawson, president of Pape-Dawson Engineers and a City Hall insider who has been involved with some of Nirenberg’s most significant initiatives. “They may not be what everybody wants, but he can be effective when he wants to be.”
There are some signs that support for Nirenberg is fraying among the city’s more strident voices on the left. Community organizers criticized Nirenberg and other Council members for not including more resident input on changes to downtown development initiatives.
“I don’t think he has done enough to support the workers in San Antonio,” said Sofia Sepulveda, a local progressive activist who criticized Nirenberg’s lack of strong actions on requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave to their employees and expanding the City’s non-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQIA employees. Sepulveda said she plans to abstain from voting for mayor in the May 4 election.
“Time and time again when we have asked him to stand on the side of the people, I don’t feel that he has done that,” she said.
Nirenberg, 43, was born in Boston. He’s of mixed Ashkenazi Jewish, Filipino, Malaysian, British, and Indian descent, a background that serves as an asset in racially diverse San Antonio.
Raised in Austin, Nirenberg attended Trinity University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a program director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. After returning to San Antonio, he became general manager of KRTU, Trinity’s jazz radio station.
He was a leader in his neighborhood even before his first election to City Council representing District 8. He served as president of the homeowner’s association of the Summerfield neighborhood. He was also on the board of Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, often getting involved in high-profile zoning cases.
When former Councilman Reed Williams chose not to seek a third term, Nirenberg decided to run against two opponents. That was around the time former Mayor Phil Hardberger remembers Nirenberg paying him a visit.
“That was not too unusual, because I’ve been around enough that people sort of make their stops,” Hardberger said in a phone interview this week. “But he was different.”
Hardberger said he read all of the lengthy policy proposals Nirenberg presented to him, and they convinced him the Council candidate was worth supporting.
“You can tell he’s intelligent, but it was more than just intelligence,” Hardberger said. “He had done a whole lot of work.”
Nirenberg also impressed a young TJ Mayes, who had just returned home to San Antonio after college. Mayes was flirting with the idea of launching his own Council bid, but he decided to meet with Nirenberg to get a better sense of his possible opponent.
“Within five minutes, I knew I wanted to support him because he’s a genuine, authentic, nice guy who clearly knew the issues, and his heart was in the right place,” said Mayes, who served as Nirenberg’s chief of staff before later leaving to work for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
As the representative for District 8, Nirenberg scored some high-profile victories. Perhaps his biggest achievement as a councilman was saving Bracken Cave from a massive residential development planned nearby over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in the bats’ nightly flight path. Home to the world’s largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, much of the land surrounding it is now protected. Nirenberg’s efforts to preserve the bat habitat earned him the nickname, used in some circles, “Batman.”
He also became somewhat of a contrarian voice to then-Mayor Ivy Taylor, who was serving her first elected term. The best example might be his stance on the San Antonio Water System’s $2.8 billion Vista Ridge pipeline project.
Nirenberg managed to thread the needle on Vista Ridge by appearing to be opposed to the project in interviews and speeches from the City Council dais, while still supporting the project in the end. Along the way, he did more research into the issue than any other Council member, even going to visit landowners at the pipeline’s origin point in Burleson and Milam counties.
Nirenberg voted with all other City Council members in 2014 to approve the pipeline contract and again in 2015 to raise SAWS’ customers’ bills to pay for the project. He now says that those two votes were the hardest he ever took during his Council term.
His stance on Vista Ridge and other issues gave Nirenberg some space to needle Taylor, considered by many to be friendlier to business. Taylor’s campaign fought back with ads painting Nirenberg as “Liberal Ron.”
He says he initially didn’t want to run against Taylor, but he faced the prospect of “being another voice in the wilderness.”
“I was not OK with that,” he said, adding that his choice was to “put up or shut up and run for mayor and see if the community agreed with the direction I wanted to take the city in.”
The contrast between Taylor and Nirenberg – and likely the stunning Democratic losses nationwide in 2016 – allowed Nirenberg and a slate of other progressive candidates to ride a wave of support into electoral victory in May 2017.
Their first action as a new City Council was to pass a resolution committing San Antonio to the goals of the Paris Accord, an international agreement to limit the worst effects of climate change. Brockhouse voted in favor but has been one of the proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan’s toughest critics.
Plans and distractions
Hardberger said these larger planning efforts probably have prevented Nirenberg from seizing some “quicker, easier-picked fruit, because those are major subjects that it takes years to fix.”
“Would he be better off politically if he mixed some lesser goals in there? Maybe,” Hardberger said. “But it’s in his nature to get after what he considers core issues. He probably has drawn some political fire because these issues are all incomplete now. And two years from now, they’ll probably still be incomplete. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing something about it.”
It didn’t help that Nirenberg had to spend much of 2018 fending off three charter amendments proposed by the firefighters union that many civic and business leaders saw as an apocalypse for San Antonio governance.
While the Chick-fil-A controversy is getting plenty of headlines and sparking heated exchanges at mayoral and Council race debates, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, the defining issue for the past eight years has been “whether we are going to stand up to the police and fire unions on a financial crisis that could exist if we buckled like previous councils have.”
The fire union’s contract has loomed large over Nirenberg’s first term as mayor – first in the contentious November proposition election and more recently during negotiations and mediation sessions.
Nirenberg made himself the public face of the “Go Vote No” campaign to defeat the three propositions, and more than $1 million was raised for the effort. Still, voters approved Proposition B, capping tenure and compensation for future San Antonio city managers, and Proposition C, the measure granting arbitration privileges to the union on a labor contract. Voters were firmly against Proposition A, which would have redefined referenda rules and made it easier for residents and interest groups to challenge City Council decisions.
Brockhouse, who was the only Council member to support the propositions, touts his close relationship with the unions as an asset he can use to arrive at a deal, but Nirenberg cautions voters about electing someone who he considers to be a union “puppet.”
The City’s attempts to rein in health care costs for its police officers and firefighters also played a large role in Taylor’s single elected term. The police union signed a deal in 2016 but firefighters didn’t accept an invitation to start negotiations until Brockhouse issued an open letter earlier this year urging the union to come to the table.
Saldaña, who is serving his eighth and final year as the District 4 representative, said he’s proud to have worked with councils that stood up to “power bullies” in the union.
“Ron could have started work on his own agenda if he gave this interest group what they wanted,” Saldaña said.
The proposition election, said San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, “was a significant distraction for our local community, for both the public and private sector.”
Remaining items on Nirenberg’s to-do list include establishing an independent ethics review board, changing the date of municipal elections from May to November to try to increase voter turnout, and changing the city charter to allow for City bond programs to pay for housing directly.
Other initiatives that Nirenberg has raised but not addressed: implementing mandatory once-a-week yard watering restrictions and reviewing impervious cover regulations for future development.
Rifts on both sides
A key message of Brockhouse’s campaign is that Nirenberg is anti-business, but Brockhouse is not the only one concerned about Nirenberg’s relationship with the business community.
Workers’ rights advocates celebrated when Council approved a paid sick-leave ordinance last August, but the business community asked for a repeal. The ordinance, which Nirenberg and others called “imperfect,” requires all employers to provide paid sick leave with maximum earned leave according to the business size. Businesses with more than five employees must comply by Aug. 1; those with fewer have until August 2021.
Rather than let the ordinance go to a public vote, where it would have likely been approved, Nirenberg said, Council’s approval means it can be fixed more easily. The state Legislature is expected to overrule all local paid sick-leave ordinances this summer, and the issue is being considered by the State court.
If it’s not overruled, he said, San Antonio will be ahead of the game in fixing and implementing its ordinance.
The same workers’ rights advocates who cheered the ordinance last year were disappointed last week when Nirenberg led a split vote to oppose Saldaña’s attempt to change the City’s stance from to neutral to opposed to the proposed state legislation.
“It’s disappointing that the City of San Antonio would shoot themselves in the foot like this,” said Joleen Garcia with the Texas Organizing Project, which worked with other groups to get the ordinance to City Hall. “This is a law that they passed – that we all passed. … Now the mayor is turning his back.”
Neither side is satisfied with Nirenberg’s handling of the issue. The business community would like to have seen Council delay the ordinance entirely until the state or court decides paid sick leave’s fate in Texas, said Aldrete of the North San Antonio chamber.
“I’m not worried about the left or the right, I’m worried about the big fat middle that is San Antonio families that depend on a strong economy, safe neighborhoods, and a transportation system that’s going to last past the next election,” Nirenberg said. “My friends on both sides accuse me of being affiliated with the other side, and that tells me I’m doing something right.”
Combine the paid sick leave issue with Chick-fil-A, the decision to pass on hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention, and the failure to submit an application for the next Amazon headquarters, his stance on climate change – and the result is a litany of complaints from the business community about the sitting mayor.
“Ron has an open door, he meets with the business community, but sometimes there’s unilateral decisions that frustrate the business community,” Dawson said.
Regarding Amazon and the Republican convention, Dawson said that he doesn’t think Nirenberg’s decision, in the end, would have been different as the result of more dialogue, “but you can’t make unilateral decisions, because that gives naysayers a reason to be upset at you.”
The rift is perhaps best illustrated by a City Council “scorecard” released this week by the North SA Chamber, which ranks Nirenberg as third-best – or third-worst, depending on who’s reading it – when it comes to votes regulating businesses.
“These are not easy issues,” Nirenberg said. “These are trying times to make the kind of progress on the issues that we’ve chosen to address. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s also not easy to do it in an environment where you have a member of the Council who’s been deliberately trying to exploit division, who’s been deliberately trying to create and heighten the kind of tension that only serves his political purposes.”
Saucedo-Herrera and Aldrete agree that of all the so-called “anti-business” votes, the Amazon call was not necessarily a bad one by Nirenberg.
The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) worked on a response to Amazon’s request for proposals, found that the city did not meet some of the minimal requirements, and the decision was made in collaboration with the City and Bexar County to not formally submit an application, Saucedo-Herrera said. “It was not a unilateral decision. … It was definitely a team effort.”
“It was the largest RFP we’ve seen – ever,” she said, but the City simply didn’t have the space downtown, the housing, or mass transportation to submit a meaningful bid, and the prospect of also having to give Amazon a massive incentive package soured the deal.
“We didn’t say no, we just responded on our own terms,” Saucedo-Herrera said, noting that the team used the things that San Antonio was lacking for the bid to highlight the work being done to address those issues.
With the scale of the tasks Nirenberg hopes to accomplish as mayor, progress might always seem incremental. Hardberger said Nirenberg will be lucky if he can push the city forward on any of these issues, even if he’s elected to another three terms.
“Those are just big subjects, and most mayors just wouldn’t want to tackle them,” Hardberger said.