SA2014: Lost Momentum in The Post-Castro Era

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Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.

Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks with friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.

The politics of 2012 seem like a long time ago now as we assess the year 2014 in San Antonio, a year with two distinct periods: The last months of the Mayor Castro Period, and then the post-Mayor Castro Period.

There is an argument to be made – and I am making it – that Julián Castro's decision to resign as mayor to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration has proven to be a serious setback for San Antonio.

Castro's decision to pursue opportunity and political ambition in Washington, D.C., has left his hometown unsettled politically and has slowed the city's momentum, taking San Antonio off an ambitious course first set by Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-09) and continued and accelerated by Castro during his five years in office.

His decision interrupted what should have been a historic, eight-year run in office. That run would have ushered San Antonio into a celebration of its 300th birthday in 2018 and moved it closer to the year 2020, a year that will come to serve as a measure of how much the city has really progressed.

2012 is when Castro hit the campaign trail on behalf of President Obama and his bid for a second term in the White House, and it's when Castro drew the eyes and ears of the nation in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. When speculation was published on the Rivard Report that he could be Washington-bound in a second-term Obama administration, Castro took to Twitter to definitively splash cold water on such conjecture:

"@Rivardreport That’s an easy one, Bob. I’ll be mayor through May 2017, if the voters will have me. Zero interest in Washington.”

(Read more: Castro Commits: Mayor Until 2017 'If Voters Will Have Me')

That tweet was sent out April 26, 2012. By May 23, 2014, Castro was standing alongside President Obama at the White House as the freshly nominated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Rumors have since swirled about Castro's ambition to be the vice presidential candidate on the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket, probably with former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whatever the future holds for him, it seems it will be in national politics. Texas remains a one-party state with no prospects for near-term change. Whether his move to Washington in 2014 proves to be a good one for his own political trajectory remains to be seen.

But it's not too early to judge its impact on his home town. San Antonio has suffered in the wake of his departure. Continuing political instability is at the root of the problem.

Musical Chairs and Interim Appointments

Castro and the newly elected members of the 2009 City Council enjoyed the prospect of eight years in office, thanks to a November 2008 vote to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms, an initiative led by Castro's predecessor, Mayor Hardberger.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Only interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, formerly the District 2 Council member, and District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez remain in office from the Class of 2009.

Taylor, Lopez, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, and District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina are the only four members left from the 2011 City Council. Medina's leave of absence this year to fulfill reserve military obligations led to the interim appointment of Mari Aguirre Rodriguez.

Interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina.

From Left: Interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina.

Both District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier and District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher gained their Council seats as interim appointees. Both have since been elected.

Since Castro has resigned and Taylor was elected interim mayor, two interim Council members, Keith Toney and now Alan Warrick II, have held the District 2 seat.

Alan Warrick II (left) and District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney.  Courtesy photos.

District 2 Councilmember Alan Warrick II (left) and former District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney.  Courtesy photos.

District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal has resigned to run for the House seat held by state Rep. Mike Villarreal in the Texas Legislature, while Villarreal was first to declare himself a candidate for mayor in the May 9, 2015 city elections. Roberto Treviño, yet another interim appointment, now holds Bernal's seat.

Former District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal (left) and current District 1 Councilmember Roberto Treviño. Courtesy photo / Iris Dimmick.

Former District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal (left) and current District 1 Councilmember Roberto Treviño. Courtesy photo / Iris Dimmick.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, soundly defeated by Republican Sen. Dan Patrick in the November lieutenant governor's race, has since announced she will resign from the Texas Senate to challenge Villarreal in the mayor's race. Like Castro, Van de Putte told voters earlier last year that her "place was in the Senate," and that she was not planning a mayoral run, but that pledge also has been taken back.

Mayoral candidates Mike Villarreal and Leticia Van de Putte spoke at the Alamo Beer Company brewery ribbon cutting ceremony. Photos by Iris Dimmick.

Mayoral candidates Mike Villarreal (left) and Leticia Van de Putte spoke at the Alamo Beer Company brewery ribbon cutting ceremony. Photos by Iris Dimmick.

With the Feb. 28 filing deadline for city elections still two months away, it remains to be seen whether Mayor Taylor will keep her pledge not to run for a full term as mayor, or if she, too, will reverse that commitment.

Van de Putte's about-face led two longtime state representatives in the local delegation, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer and Rep. José Menéndez, to both declare their candidacy for the District 26 Senate seat, a race that inevitably will mean another state House seat that will need to be filled.

Never in contemporary San Antonio history have so many officeholders taken their oath of office without voter approval. I don't know of anyone who thinks all these falling dominoes have strengthened City Council or will strengthen the Bexar County legislative delegation. Most, in fact, see both bodies being weakened by all the unplanned changes and interim appointments. Politics has superceeded governance.

One fact is indisputable: Relaxing term limits has not led a majority of elected officeholders  to maximize their time in office and impact in the job.

The decision by Mayor Taylor and the City Council to withdraw political and financial support for VIA's street car project only one week after Castro left town is the best example of the city's elected leaders suddenly reversing course without any public debate preceding their decision. Whatever your stand on this particular transit option might have been, it's hard to see the move as anything other than capitulation in the face of loud, but not necessarily deep, opposition.

The same could be said for Council's mismanagement of the rideshare debate. Influenced by Council chambers spilling over with cabbies, the Council took one look at a wildly popular and appealing 21st century transit option that could greatly reduce drunken driving and chose to impose last century rules and regulations designed for a traditional taxi industry.

It was as if City Council were regulating Netflix so it wouldn't harm Blockbuster, ignoring the inevitabilities of technology advances and the free market.

The most important issue left hanging as 2014 gives way to 2015 is the interrupted collective bargaining talks between the city and the police union and the lack of any talks between the city and the firefighters union. Castro used his strength as mayor to keep individual council members from sidebar meetings and talks with union officials, and to keep the Council squarely behind City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff as negotiations proceeded. That unanimity has dissolved over time, with individual Council members charting their own courses, and even interim appointed members pursuing their individual inclinations.

For all the name-calling from the unions and the attendant media hype, the simple fact remains that the unions' rapidly rising health care and benefits costs are a ticking time bomb in the city's budget. After years of warnings from Sculley, who has won this city a rare AAA bond rating, a politically secure Castro agreed to do something about it as the Sept. 30 expiration of the five-year contact neared.

The only way forward is for union members to start paying health care premiums like the rest of the country's insured workers, and work to reduce unnecessary costs by agreeing to a better-managed plan. Until that happens, no amount of individual politicking, sensational headlines, or third-party interventions will fix the problem. Demands for  pay raises that equal or exceed anticipated premium payments is a shell game, and won't do anything to alleviate budget pressures.

Until San Antonio gets an elected mayor and 10 elected Council members who can unite on important policy matters in an atmosphere of stable governance, the city is not going to regain the momentum it enjoyed for most of the last decade.

The May elections are only five months away now, and the momentum the city has lost since Castro resigned can be regained, but only with the right leadership. If you are not registered to vote, if you care about the future trajectory of San Antonio, now is the time to get that done to ensure your vote counts in May.

What happens in the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature matters enormously, too, particularly in the realm of public education funding, which is why every registered voter who lives in Senate District 26 or House District 123 should go to the polls and vote in the Jan. 6 special election.

On May 23 of this year, I published a column headlined,  Goodbye, Julián. San Antonio Will Miss Its Mayor. This is the last line of that column:

"We hope San Antonio will look back in a few years and say we did okay without you, that we sustained the momentum and continued forward as a city on the rise."

 *Featured/top image: Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks with friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

City Hall Must Defend San Antonio’s Bond Rating

Amid the Holidays, It’s Time for Jan. 6 Special Elections

Warrick Officially Takes D2 Seat

City Council Has (Another) New Face

Villarreal Backs Rideshare, Van de Putte Follows Suit

27 thoughts on “SA2014: Lost Momentum in The Post-Castro Era

  1. There is a notable dearth of capable political leadership at the city level – a dilemma on particularly stark display during the ride sharing debacle. Complete amateur hour.

  2. I have lived in true blue states and blood red states and I can say this without hesitation: our best and brightest are not being elected or even running for public office. It’s usually the slightly dim interested in personal gain and glory that run. Very frustrating.

  3. You make a good argument. But in the longer term, Castro will be good for the National Democratic Party as we need to recover from this latest loss in the US Congress and be poised for 2016. Bernal and Menendez or Martinez Fisher will be good for the Texas Legislature. We can continue the momentum locally if we elect either Villareal or Van De Putte, they are progressive candidates that will do good for San Antonio. I don’t know why the council voted for Taylor as interim Mayor, maybe they thought they could trust her not to run, but she doesn’t seem to be keeping her word. However, I don’t think she has a serious chance of winning at least I hope not. As to the rest of Council, the seats will eventually be filled by representatives of their districts, and we have been lucky with the majority of those.

  4. Maybe the momentum was was lost prior to Julian Castro resigning and only became visible after a new Mayor was appointed. It’s my contention, that he resigned in perfect time, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to resolve the SAPD & SAFD contracts and street car issue. These two issues could have killed his aspirations for the VP in 2016. The union contracts could have had a negative impact fundraising and support from the national unions if he was responsible for the Police and Fire contract cut backs. With that said, my opinion, momentum was lost prior to him resigning. Thoughts?

  5. City Council members are largely irrelevant. The only significant power is hiring/firing the City Manager. But getting past monied special interests to fire Scully is a large task. And I don’t ever remember hearing anything of significant substance or an original idea coming from either Castro. City staff makes the decisions. They BS council members to get what they want and they think is necessary. They give council member minimal token respect. A recalcitrant member is waited out until their term expires. This used to be much easier under old term limits. Not sure about now. No matter how much lipstick gets put on this pig, it’s still a cheap labor semi-border town with no significant money. Meanwhile outsiders move here to take advantage of the cheap low wage way of living and think eating beans and rice at Mi Tierra’s is a real treat.

  6. If he was truly committed to this, he would have never left. A true leader leads for the betterment of others, not self.

  7. I tell everyone…San Antonio is an easy stepping stone for someone’s career and the Castros made that obvious from day one…things is….we the people of this town..we really need to find those who are literally commited…they have been part of the community from Day one…and always been about the community..thats who you elect…not be blindsided by the pretty things that never got their hands dirty..

  8. I interpreted this as a rant in response to the ‘shiny things’ not being brought to the light (streetcar and rideshare). Julian did an excellent job of marketing himself as a catalyst for progression in SA. I won’t argue with that, the guy did a hell of a job bringing SA into a more modern circle, but I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that SA has lost momentum. I think we’re making great progress wrt focusing on SA’s foundation to shape our long term future. A comp plan isn’t sexy, therefore, it’s not going to get as much hype as the ‘shiny things’ that Julian brought to the game. I think it’s unfair to state that SA has “lost momentum” simply because the Mayor had a mindset of ‘all that glitter is not gold’.

  9. “It was as if City Council were regulating Netflix so it wouldn’t harm Blockbuster, ignoring the inevitabilities of technology advances and the free market.”

    Your point is right on the money. It seems leadership is slipping back to its comfortable ways. Happy new year Rob.

  10. Happy New Year, Bob!…..great insights on the momentum lost post Castro. It may take a while before we get back to some semblance of stability on city council. Too much uncertainty and ambivalence has crept into the arena. My district, D2, may potentially have another rep come May! The mayor’s race now has another contender, Tommy Adkisson….and on it goes. Hopefully folks can be motivated to actually vote in May!

  11. I am a fan of Mayor Castro but he is one person. He, too, was probably met with challenge after challenge in a city where we talk a big game and yet see no progress. Why? Because the system is mediocre, inefficient and lackadaisical. Who would want to stay Mayor of a city with these types of “leaders” running the show? I’m happy Mayor Castro is representing us at the national level but it’s time that someone step into his role. That’s how the chain of command works!

  12. Noticeable Setback? Lets see, voted to remove a bike lane that was backed by his SA2020 plan. He seems to already back then to be acting like a Washington Politician by acting Conservative lacking a back bone on real progressive issues. I fail to see how his leaving left SA hanging. Maybe on the Streetcar though.

  13. I rarely agree with you Bob. But this story is dead on. I was writing it on my head after I noticed it was rats jumping from a ship scuttling to regain control and balance the power. During that all they could do was attack Sculley.

    But now please write a story about CPS and how they enlisted SA’s top cop as “security” so nobody can complain about getting ripped off ever again.

  14. JPW: Just plain “W-O-W” on this one. Great stuff. Too many games of musical chairs, too little benefit to constituents. Thanks for spelling this out in such a clear and compelling way.

  15. Shackelford is probably right about the No Win on streetcars and the police/fire union benefits issues. Bob, there was quite a bit of debate about the streetcar proposal–had it actually connected points of more interest/utility for residents of San Antonio, it might well have had more support.
    UBER does not seem to be winning in many cities–maybe its management will look at finding win/win solutions instead of my way or the highway. That does not seem to be the UBER approach anywhere.

  16. This message, rightly brought to the forefront provides welcome dialogue, thank you Mr. Rivard for analysis. Although a mover and shaker like Julian Castro who left all too soon, you can’t begrudge. We can hope that he will come back, a la Phil Hardberger who was in DC as well at Castro’s age. San Antonio has had great mayors for the last decade, tough shoes to fill. In the meantime, we need to concentrate on getting more highly educated public servants to do the same thing from their roots that Julian did . Get smarter, move up, give back, come back, repeat.

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