Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The year’s top story in San Antonio for this journalist is an easy call: Politics.
With everything to lose and given little chance to win, two-term City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) threw caution to the wind and challenged incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor for San Antonio’s top elected office.
Nirenberg campaigned hard on a message of change and unity, while Taylor ran a lackadaisical campaign, backed by an unlikely alliance of the establishment and police union which proved inadequate in lifting her to a second-term victory. After winning 42 percent of the first-round vote versus Nirenberg’s surprisingly close 37 percent in a three-way race on May 6, Taylor fell to Nirenberg in the June 10 runoff by nine percentage points.
Nirenberg and a more progressive City Council brought a new sense of energy and possibility to City Hall in the second half of 2017, with a pronounced focus on social equity in a city long known for its economic segregation and its negative impact on everything from public education and health outcomes to infrastructure investment and real estate values.
By year’s end, Nirenberg was battling negative headlines not of his own making, brought about by incompetence and mismanagement of the Tricentennial Commission under its CEO Edward Benavides, a former chief of staff to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and an embezzlement scandal that rocked the nonprofit Centro San Antonio and led to the forced resignation of its CEO Pat DiGiovanni, Sculley’s former deputy city manager.
On a far more positive note, voters in the May city elections also approved a record $850 million bond. While the 40 percent increase over the size of the 2012 bond was actually smaller than many had called for, more equitable distribution of that capital spending over the next five years bodes well for long-neglected inner-city council districts and neighborhoods.
With the city’s anticlimactic, weather-challenged Tricentennial New Year’s Eve celebration in Hemisfair behind us, Nirenberg and his council colleagues should be able to return their focus to an agenda packed with important long-term public policy issues. The mayor and city council also should preside over a less controversy-ridden 300th celebration of the founding of San Antonio that culminates with Commemorative Week in early May.
Taylor, meanwhile, disappeared from public view after her defeat, surfacing briefly in late December on Twitter to praise the legacy of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who succumbed to brain cancer on Dec. 19 after representing San Antonio’s Eastside in the Texas Legislature for more than 20 years. McClendon and Taylor both held the same District 2 city council seat before moving on to higher office.
With an asterisk in the record books to reflect her elevation to the mayor’s office by City Council vote following the resignation of Mayor Julián Castro in 2014, Taylor became the city’s first one-term mayor to be ousted by voters in 20 years. Dr. William E. “Bill” Thornton, an oral surgeon, was the last single-term mayor, serving from 1995-97 before losing to Howard Peak who, like Taylor, was a former city planner and, at the time, the two-term District 9 councilman.
Taylor will always have her place in the history books as the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of San Antonio, and of any U.S. city with more than 1 million people. She is only the second woman after Lila Cockrell (1975-81, 1989-91) to hold that office in San Antonio. Many voters, however, will remember her more for killing the modern streetcar project and then voiding a long-held City Council pledge to hold public safety spending to 66 percent of the city’s general budget. Taylor unilaterally overruled city staff and negotiators and bestowed a more lucrative contract on the San Antonio Police Officers Association.
Politics produced many other headlines. While the first year of the Trump administration remained Topic A among supporters and detractors alike, the decision by Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) to not seek another term after 13 years in office sent shock waves through Texas political circles and fear among moderate Republicans and Democrats that state government long dominated by conservative Republicans will turn even more polarized under Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Straus’ news was not good for Texas cities, which face increasing legislative pressure to surrender local ordinance-making power, even as state funding for transportation, public education, and the environment continues to shrink.
“In a world desperately longing for true statesmanship, Joe Straus proved himself to be the model for Texas and the country,” Nirenberg said in an email statement to the Texas Tribune at the time. “I hope his impact resonates for a long time.
“Straus is a leader of vision, decency, and integrity. His calm, steady hand at the helm of the Texas House will be greatly missed. Straus has been a voice of reason in the chaotic world of Texas politics. [He] has been a true friend to San Antonio, and cities will have to work harder to get an increasingly polarized Legislature to understand the needs of the constituents we all represent.”
The Straus news barely cooled before U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) announced his retirement from Congress. Smith, the House’s leading voice of denial on climate change and the negative impact of fossil fuels on the environment and atmosphere, has held his seat since 1987.
In August, the destructive winds and rain of Hurricane Harvey initially appeared to be heading to San Antonio, but an abrupt turn north and east sent the devastating superstorm into Houston, taking the lives of at least 77 people, destroying thousands of homes and businesses, and sending a wave of temporary residents to San Antonio. While the city escaped the storm’s severity, the San Antonio River Authority’s models of a Harvey-like storm on San Antonio predicted unprecedented flooding and disruption, greater than any city planning is likely to overcome.
Harvey was the first and worst of a sequence of killer hurricanes, including Hurricane Irma, that raked the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands where native son and future Hall of Fame San Antonio Spur Tim Duncan mounted a major fundraising effort to help islanders who lost their homes and jobs. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria followed as the most devastating natural disaster on record in Puerto Rico and on smaller islands.
With hurricane season leaving San Antonio unscathed, September brought an unexpected recognition when representatives of the River Authority, stewards of the San Antonio River, traveled to Australia to accept the coveted Thiess International Riverprize honoring the river’s redevelopment over the last 15 years.
Unimaginable tragedy struck in early November when 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley of New Braunfels opened fire on worshippers inside the small First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, 35 miles southeast of downtown San Antonio, killing 26 and injuring 20 others in a failed effort to kill members of his former wife’s family. Kelley himself was shot by a town resident and then shot himself as police closed in after a vehicle chase. It was one of the nation’s worst mass murders and renewed widespread calls for restrictions being reimposed on the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles. It also was revealed that the U.S. Air Force had failed to register Kelley in an FBI database as a convicted felon, which would have prevented his legal purchase of such firearms.
The mass shooting brought out the best in communities surrounding Sutherland Springs. Beldon Roofing CEO Brad Beldon, son of local philanthropist and the company’s chairman, Michel Beldon, announced plans to build the small community a new church with donations. The Rivard Report will update readers on that project in the coming weeks.
Business news also generated its share of headlines in 2017, notably the decision by banking and insurance giant USAA to first purchase the Bank of America tower and then announce plans to locate 2,000 more workers downtown. The year seemed to bring one announcement after another about a new residential, mixed-use, or hotel development in and around downtown, along with new startups and tech companies continuing to add workers to the center-city landscape.
Most job creation in San Antonio’s fast-growing economy continued to be generated by businesses and employers already located here. The City and County jointly announced in October that they would not submit a bid for Amazon’s new headquarters, a public competition that had cities and states across the country offering astronomical incentive packages to lure the tech giant and the 50,000 new high-paying jobs it promised. By year’s end, Amazon had not named a city as the winner of what many sought while others derided it as a taxpayer giveaway to a corporation awash in billions of dollars in annual profits.
Trump administration policies were felt directly in San Antonio, first with a back-and-forth debate over the still-unresolved future of so-called Dreamers, the Mexican-born children of undocumented workers who were raised in the United States but do not have citizenship. Trump has challenged Congress to pass legislation resolving the status of the Dreamers.
Trump’s campaign promise to end the North American Free Trade Agreement led to months of tense, continuing negotiations among the three partner nations – the U.S., Canada, and Mexico – without a final agreement or outcome. The administration’s attention turned to other matters, including a tax cut bill recently signed into law. By year’s end, NAFTA and its importance to the San Antonio and regional economy was no longer generating headlines.
The City and County are working to land a Toyota-Mazda plant that will be built in North America, although company officials in Japan have not said anything about the project since August. Local officials hope that expansion of Toyota’s truck manufacturing plant here will happen even if the City fails to win the Toyota-Mazda plant.
Beyond the newly-seated City Council’s focus on an “equity lens” being applied to spending and program decisions made at City Hall, there were other signs of social change in San Antonio. Officials decided to remove a statue from Travis Park that honored Confederate soldiers. San Antonio, like many cities in states that belonged to the Confederacy, has never publicly honored preservation of the Union after the Civil War, the end to slavery in the South, or the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Northeast Independent School District officials finally addressed the issue of renaming Robert E. Lee High School in the face of support and opposition that could not be reconciled. Renaming it LEE High School, an acronym for Legacy of Educational Excellence, seemed to assuage some and anger others.
At the foundation of the issue lie police relations with black citizens, and specifically police shootings of unarmed black men, here and in other U.S. communities. It’s a tense standoff that has cooled in recent months, but one that remains unresolved and likely to resurface.
The San Antonio Express-News reported Sunday that homicides in San Antonio declined by 15% in 2017, compared to the previous year, from 149 to 126 deaths. That’s still one homicide every three days in the city. The number would have been significantly lower had it not been for the terrible killing of 10 Mexican and Central American migrants in July who perished while locked inside a tractor-trailer parked in a Southwest side Walmart after they and dozens of other undocumented immigrants were illegally transported from Laredo to San Antonio.
The year ended with the Tricentennial opening and the New Year’s Eve bash in Hemisfair. A smaller than expected crowd braved unusually cold winter weather for the live concert that featured a lineup of entertainers long past their prime. Local officials were on hand for the festivities and the fireworks, bringing 2017 to a close and ushering in the new year.