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In a municipal election, locally born and raised candidates are quick to remind voters that they are "from here," hoping that voters will hear, “I personally know your issues, so I have your best interest in mind.”
For a city pursuing a more prominent place in the region and even the nation, does it really matter whether strong leadership is "from here?" It's a question District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, 30, and Eastside community leader Brian Dillard, 33, consider often. Both can attest to how internal and external identity politics have worked against their home districts.
“I do appreciate somebody who is from the neighborhood, but it’s low on the totem pole [of priorities],” Dillard said. “What’s important is that you are [completely committed to] the community.”
Saldaña is a rising star in municipal politics, a homegrown success story who has established a record of accomplishment within his Southwest San Antonio district. His efforts to reform the troubled South San Independent School District school board have brought him to the same conclusion: Local roots don’t supplant talent, integrity, and passion for the community.
While racial boundaries have contributed to poverty on the south, east, and west sides of town, bias against outsiders has just as often scared away potential change agents who don’t fit the profile of the community.
Saldaña, the son of Mexican immigrants, graduated from South San High School and went on to Stanford University. After earning his master's degree in education, he returned to his home district, and at age 24 decided to run for City Council. He lacked the support of other prominent Hispanic officeholders and community leaders, but he ran a classic grass-roots campaign and scored a major upset. He has held the seat ever since and will reach the term limit in 2019. With a record of neighborhood and district advocacy and a squeaky clean profile, he doesn't have to campaign as hard now as he did six years ago. Saldaña finished with 78.36% of the vote in the May 6 election and can sit back and relax while candidates in six other districts, including two incumbents, battle it out in the June 10 runoff.
Many expect Saldaña's next challenge will be a run for mayor or Congress.
Dillard grew up in the Wheatley Courts neighborhood on the Eastside. He earned his bachelor's degree from Ellis University and served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. Dillard is currently an associate with Delta Risk LLC, a cybersecurity consultant firm located in downtown San Antonio, but he’s better known for his civic activism. He serves as president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. He also sits on the board of the Ella Austin Community Center, Centro San Antonio, and the VIA Metropolitan Transit Community Council. He was a member of the Parks and Recreation Citizens Advisory Board for the City’s 2017 bond and currently sits on the Citizens’ Advisory Committees for San Antonio Independent School District’s 2016 bond.
Both men are proud of their public service records, but unfortunately, Saldaña said, a good candidate is hard to find. Saldaña’s political dominance and Dillard’s wide civic involvement indicate that they are the exception to the rule.
Whether hiring a police chief or city manager or awarding City contracts, Saldaña said the commitment to quality and talent has to prevail even if it means hiring someone from another place or someone who doesn’t increase the diversity of the field.
“You choose talent, bar none," he said. "You look at the talent as objectively as you can.”
In awarding the recent river barge contract, Saldaña voted for the "local" team, Go Rio San Antonio, but said that he did so as a matter of consistency.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to do another round [of scoring], I’m voting for whoever wins that round,’” he explained.
Go Rio received the top score by one point – over a Chicago-based firm that had a proven track record in the business – on a scoring matrix, and Saldaña voted with the rest of the Council, save for District 8 Councilman and mayoral candidate Ron Nirenberg, to award the contract to the group with local majority ownership.
On decisions such as the rehiring of William McManus as police chief over Interim Police Chief Anthony Treviño, a San Antonio native, Saldaña said he has gotten angry feedback from his constituents.
That frustration doesn't surprise him. He's equally sympathetic to an under-represented community's reluctance to vote for an outsider. For those committed to greater equity and opportunity for their home communities, “there’s a strong pull in our hearts and in our heads. You wonder if you are turning your back on a community that has seen a lot of backs,” Saldaña said.
Deep Roots of Inequity
Until 1977, San Antonio did not have single-member districts. Most of the at-large members came from near-north neighborhoods, where the prosperous and middle class settled throughout the 20th century.
Heavy representation drove increased economic development, along with discriminatory home loan restrictions known as “redlining” that were abolished in 1977. Neighborhoods on the east, south, and west sides of town were left economically isolated. Saldaña’s district became home to landfills and junkyards.
“We’ve always been an area of town that has been dumped on – literally,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report in a previous interview.
District 2, where Dillard grew up, has been similarly neglected.
With only a few exceptions, the school districts, which were often the largest employer in the area, were beset with corruption. Without strong school boards or plentiful housing stock for the middle class, the poverty cycles became more and more entrenched, while development begat development on the Northside.
“[The move to single-member districts] was a monumental shift because we were finally going to get resources and attention and a voice,” Saldaña said. It would finally challenge the nominal representation that had been “deaf, blind, and silent to all things having to do with the ingredients for successful communities.”
Still, there has been a lag, Saldaña said. For ambitious, successful young adults coming out of South San and similar schools, housing stock and school quality still can’t compete with the Northside. “There’s really strong gravitational pull toward districts 8, 9, and 10,” Saldaña said.
The path to the middle class leads out of his district, Saldaña explained. Those who choose to stay have a hard time earning the trust of middle class voters, campaign donors, and other local leaders outside their district.
Being a local boy benefited Saldaña in his initial campaign for City Council. However, when working with business leaders or other elected officials from elsewhere in the city, he feels like his particular education serves as the minimum requirement to prove that he’s qualified. “It’s like I have to have that [Stanford credential] to overcome being from the Southside.”
Race is another barrier. Dillard said that even when a black or Hispanic person can accrue enough cultural capital to earn the respect of white people – especially those in more affluent parts of town – there is still a layer of skepticism.
Councilman Alan Warrick's (D2) recent admissions of drinking to excess, and what Dillard claims is a pattern of similar irresponsibility, sets the district back when it comes to credibility, Dillard said. He fears Warrick's public drunkenness represents the worst of what people outside the district assume will come from someone deeply rooted in a troubled part of town. Instead of a shining example of the future of the district, Dillard said, it tells the people of District 2 to lower their expectations.
Warrick did not respond to the Rivard Report's request for comment.
Neither Mayor Ivy Taylor, 46, nor her runoff opponent, 40-year-old Nirenberg, is from San Antonio. Taylor is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Nirenberg was born in Boston and raised in Austin. Both established themselves by building a record of dedicated service to their respective districts as Council members, an example of the city's expanding vision of itself and a willingness to claim talented leadership as its own.
Meanwhile, the municipal election in May brought another promising local talent to the city's attention: District 7 Councilwoman-elect Ana Sandoval, 42, who came with her family to San Antonio as a 1-year-old immigrant. After graduating as valedictorian from Jefferson High School, Sandoval went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from MIT and master’s degrees from Stanford and Harvard University. She then moved back to her neighborhood in District 7, right next door to the house she grew up in.
It is critical that these native, racially diverse leaders continue to rise to the challenge, Saldaña said, because members of the next generation are watching. When he was a student, Saldaña already knew that white kids from other parts of town could grow up to be doctors, lawyers, and mayors.
He wanted to know that the future could belong to someone who looked like him.
Education is Key
To broaden the field of future leaders, Saldaña has set his sights on improving South San ISD, helping form South San Kids First, a grass-roots advocacy group seeking to reform the district, which is currently under sanction from the Texas Education Agency. In the last school board election, the group had a hard time finding qualified candidates to run against even the most heavily criticized incumbents. Candidates backed by South San Kids First won two of the four seats in the November 2016 election.
Neighboring Southside ISD has seen similar troubles with its school board. Former State Rep. John Lujan told the Rivard Report that he sees the professionalization of the school board as essential to improving school districts. He proposed a solution that would allow the superintendent to appoint two or three members of the board, with the ability to reach outside district boundaries.
Saldaña and Lujan are confident that there are South San and Southside alumni who want to give back to the district, even if their jobs or families have moved them elsewhere in the city. Lujan would support a looser definition of "from here."
When Dillard came back to the Eastside, he too saw the critical need for improved educational opportunities. The best efforts at economic development and investment are derailed if the schools keep churning out students without a future, Dillard said.
“I started to realize everything came back to [education], including the reason we can’t find leaders,” he said.
He turned his attention to the San Antonio ISD school board and has worked to improve his community's representation there.
Who’s Really “For 2?"
While Dillard does not want a career in politics, he has become an advocate for the Eastside, including the hunt for representation on school boards and at City Hall.
He looks to his leadership training in the military, which focuses on those who are “willing and capable.” Such people are hard enough to find among the general population, but when you start looking for them among populations that have been cut off from the political process, underserved by public education, and weighed down by poverty, the choices are even narrower, Dillard said. He’s backed a couple of school board and City Council candidates with little chance of winning, simply because he feels that the established leadership needs to be held accountable.
In the current District 2 runoff election, Dillard is backing William "Cruz" Shaw, who is seeking to oust Warrick. Dillard feels he is backing a winner, if District 2 opens its doors, as it did for Taylor when she served as District 2 Councilwoman from 2009-2014.
Shaw, who is originally from Houston but attended UTSA and opened a law firm in District 2 in 2010, brings what's necessary to community representation, Dillard said. In addition to having the talent to do the job well, Shaw grew up in a neighborhood similar to those on the long-neglected Eastside.
You can take the hardship you grew up with and use it to help others in that situation, if that’s what you intend to do, Dillard said.
Growing up on the Eastside, Dillard said he has seen plenty of people from the district benefit from the economic and political disenfranchisement. He calls them “poverty pimps." They create a filter to keep change and progress away, because the status quo benefits them.
“We’re in this vicious cycle,” Dillard said. “We listen to people who are ‘one of us,’ even when they are telling us things that we can see with our own eyes aren’t true.”
Suspicion of “outsiders” has been earned in many disenfranchised communities. Opportunists abound even now in the rapidly changing Dignowity Hill area, Dillard said. He brings it back to commitment. Regardless of race or where you were born, Dillard said, there has to be some decision to identify with the people of the neighborhood, not just an interest in the potential for economic development.