Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A few months ago, a resident of San Antonio’s South Side reached out through social media to Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) about a problem at Arnold Park.
“Can you help us?” he recalled the question. The nets for the soccer goals placed in the public park were missing.
About three months later, Saldaña’s office was able to purchase new nets and have them installed.
Little things matter, like the resident who pointed out that they have been playing on soccer goals with no nets. Sorry it took so long. Enjoy! 🥅 ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/IyIRaAe7GG
— Rey A. Saldaña (@rey4sa) November 27, 2018
“Little things matter,” Saldaña said in a late November tweet. “Sorry it took so long. Enjoy!”
A lot of good Council members would do – and have done – similar work for the community, he said – that’s the job. And the big legacy projects or initiatives matter, too.
“I’d love to say that the proudest moment on the Council are things that you can see and touch – that you can throw a rock at,” he said, citing Pearsall Park. He championed its $7.5 million transformation from landfill to 505-acre public park. He’s proud of the park, “but not in the way that people assume.”
For the South Side, a long-neglected part of San Antonio, those little things and big things have an even greater impact, he said.
“We have quietly – but maybe not so quietly – been diverting a lot of our attention and resources to an area that people [politicians] have forgotten about for 30-40 years simply because the formula was: there’s nobody out there that votes,” he said.
“At the end of the day, folks will not remember what you did or won’t remember what you say – they’ll remember how you make them feel,” Saldaña said.
Beginning in January, Saldaña will start his new role in a newly created position at Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy nonprofit supported by H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt.
“I can’t tell you how enthusiastic I feel about getting to do something that makes my heart beat as much as getting to serve my community,” Saldaña said. “This is another type of [community] service.
“They believe that a transformation of public education in Texas starts from the ground up. … We are organizing communities to put pressure on elected officials.”
Raise Your Hand Texas is enhancing its community outreach team and Saldaña will remain in San Antonio to be part of the founding team of that effort.
“Rey’s story, passion, and talents will help bring much needed regional support from families, community leaders, and business executives to advance public education issues at the state level,” said Libby Cohen, director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas.
Saldaña, 32, will leave his Council seat in less than five months, but he says it’s likely not the last City Hall will see of him.
“I want to come back and run for mayor,” Saldaña said. “The question for me has always been when.”
At a fundraiser Thursday night, he told a crowd of staffers, friends, and family that he will not run for mayor next year. The money he’s raised so far, about $140,000, and whatever raised that night, he said, will act as a kind of savings account for when he returns to politics.
His wife, Jessica, gave birth to their son, Eli, in early November, which changed Saldaña’s priorities and circumstances.
Thursday also was the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary.
“With eight years on the Council, it didn’t matter if I was speaking to a CEO, leader of a nonprofit, chief of police, or neighborhood leaders, so many of our problems kept coming back to one thing – education,” Saldaña said. “I’m thrilled to join the fight with an organization [that] understands public education in Texas is the only way we live up to the promise of the American dream and stem so many of the problems we have been so accustomed to dealing with on the back end.”
Education, he said, “is why I’m sitting where I’m sitting.”
Saldaña’s father and grandfather came to the States from Mexico in the Bracero Program in the 1940s, and his parents never entered high school.
He attended South San Antonio High School and was applying only to local universities before he found a local anti-dropout organization called Communities in Schools San Antonio. The group’s staff told him to think bigger. He applied for and received a full academic scholarship to Stanford University.
He played on the university’s varsity baseball team, he said, “I didn’t actually play, because catching bullpen doesn’t count in Division I baseball. But you get to wear uniforms and you get to travel.”
Visiting cities like Seattle, Washington D.C., and others made him think about why San Antonians did not have similar access to things such as reliable mass transportation.
So he returned home after graduating with a bachelor’s degrees in political science and communication and a master’s degree in policy, organization, and leadership studies with the intent to run for office.
Saldaña also has taught at Trinity University and Palo Alto College, worked for University of Texas at San Antonio and KIPP San Antonio, and came around full circle to serve as a board member for Communities in Schools.
While he spoke to the crowd that gathered Thursday night in Botika to celebrate his career and future, a video composed of clips from Saldaña’s first campaign in 2011 played behind him.
People told him he looked the part, “but you have no shot,” the then-24-year-old candidate recalled on screen. He was running against Leticia Cantu, the wife of the outgoing District 4 representative who was pegged as the rightful heir. He pulled ahead with 52 percent of the vote and became the youngest member to serve on San Antonio’s City Council.
“I can now say that we did it,” a younger Saldaña said on screen to applause from his crowd and the crowd gathered in front of him eight years later.
In 2013, he won with 84 percent of the vote. In 2015, 65 percent, and in 2017, 78 percent.
Besides his work in the educational space, Saldaña made it a point during his tenure to increase funding for VIA Metropolitan Transit. He led the charge, starting in 2015, to draw attention to the city’s inadequate mass transit system. He started riding the bus to see what it was like.
He led a minority of Council members who wanted to see an increase in VIA funding through alternative City funds. Eventually, that became a majority and the City started allocating general fund dollars to help support increased frequency along bus routes.
“It was a real challenge of ideas,” he said. “We had to shift the way that we thought about a city’s role in supporting people who don’t have a vehicle and that has never been a conversation at the Council level.”
He has had conversations with Mayor Ron Nirenberg about serving on the VIA board as chair.
Saldaña also worked with CentroMed to open up new health clinics on the South Side, and that’s something the community needed but wasn’t necessarily expecting, he said.
Education has been a centerpiece of his life, he said, and so it was natural to prioritize it during his time on City Council.
In 2016, he joined South San Kids First, an education advocacy group on the city’s South Side, to tackle problems with the troubled school district board of his alma mater. Financial mismanagement and inappropriate conduct required a Texas Education Agency (TEA) conservator to intervene in school board affairs.
After two years, TEA removed the oversight measure when the agency said the board was headed in the right direction and its focus on student outcomes had improved.
Saldaña also was a strong advocate for the tax ratification election this year that would have brought an additional $6.4 million to the district. That measure was rejected in August by 57 percent of South San voters.
City government has little authority when it comes to education, but Saldaña said he and other Council members have realized that engaging with local school districts comes with the job.
“Where there was a culture of … ‘stay in your lane,'” he said, “now people are stepping up and saying this needs to change.”
He’s hoping for a competitive race to replace him next year, he said, “because it makes the victory and holding the position that much more fulfilling.”
But Saldaña has no plans to leave his Council seat early, he said.
One of several initiatives he wants to get rolling before he departs is a master plan for the vacant Abraham Kazen Middle School near Loop 1604 in the far-Southwest Side. Kazen closed last year as a result of low enrollment and financial concerns, and South San Antonio Independent School District has plans to repurpose the school to serve students in other ways.
The city – and the future District 4 representative – could help facilitate that change with bond money and a community-driven master plan, Saldaña said.
He hopes he can get that on track with the “escape velocity” it needs to be completed soon – just like with transportation and education.
The best piece of advice he received from a former elected official, he told the crowd Thursday night, is that “the hardest part about being an elected official is not being an elected official.”
“You leave office and all of a sudden you get all of this courage that you could have done or should have done,” he said. “With my team’s help, I’m very satisfied with the work that we’ve been able to do in the district.”