San Antonio Has a Heritage of Poorly Prepared Mayors

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Henry Cisneros meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to the luncheon.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to a meeting of the Urban Land Institute in September 2018.

One of the lessons of Saturday’s city elections – and in my mind, the most important lesson – is that being mayor of a city of more than a million and a half people is one hell of a lot harder than being a City Council member.

All seven council incumbents won with comfortable margins. Mayor Ron Nirenberg was forced into a runoff by a candidate whose only two major endorsements came from the self-interested police and fire unions, which spent considerably more on his race than he was able to raise.

It’s a lesson I suspect Nirenberg has learned.

That lesson, once stated, seems insultingly obvious. But neither the city’s politicians nor its public seem to have fully internalized it. Perhaps that is because our growth has been so rapid that our perceptions haven’t caught up.

Perhaps it is because our 68-year-old council-manager form of government was designed for a much smaller and simpler political organism. It sees city government as analogous to corporate governance, with a board of directors quietly overseeing the work of the body’s CEO, the city manager.

That’s why council members until recently received only $20 a week, with the mayor getting a bonus of $3,000 a year. It wasn’t until four years ago that City Council put forth a timid charter amendment to put council pay at $45,722, which was then the median family income in the city. The mayor got a 35 percent bonus, or $61,725. And the council didn’t even allow the salaries to increase with inflation for fear that the measure would not pass.

Maybe they were right. The measure passed, but with 45 percent of the electorate opposing it.

A big-city mayor must combine both policy and political skills while being excellent at sales. Yet I can think of only two mayors in San Antonio who had previously held elective office other than the entry-level position of City Council member: Nelson Wolff and Phil Hardberger, two of our more successful mayors.

Wolff had been a state representative and a state senator before becoming a city councilman and mayor. He had also been a successful businessman. Hardberger had been a successful lawyer before being elected to a long tenure on the Fourth Court of Appeals. He is our only modern mayor not to have served on council, but his legal skills prepared him for both making a variety of cases to the public and for the fundamental political job of brokering competing demands of various constituencies.

San Antonio’s most powerful and successful mayor of the past 50 years was clearly Henry Cisneros. His only prior elected office was on city council, but he had been aggressively preparing for the mayor’s office since his days at Texas A&M. He earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at A&M and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctorate in public administration from George Washington University. Meanwhile, he served a White House fellowship in the Nixon Administration under Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Elliot Richardson, impressing him with a memo on how the agency could best serve cities.

Before coming home with hopes of becoming San Antonio’s first Hispanic mayor in modern times, he studied the rise of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, compiling what he said was a filing cabinet worth of materials on Jackson.

Similarly, inspired by Cisneros, Julián Castro started focusing on an eventual mayor’s race when he was a student at Stanford University. Ironically, perhaps the key factor in his political education was his loss to Hardberger in 2005. Four years on council had not readied him.

Nirenberg has a bachelor’s in communications from Trinity University and a master’s in the same area from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked for a while at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn, but when he returned to San Antonio he became manager of Trinity’s campus radio station.

As a councilman and as mayor he has been something of a wonk, getting into the weeds on serious policy issues. He has spent much of his first term marshaling public input for such serious challenges as addressing the city’s transportation and housing needs and for playing a role in dealing with climate change. Yet despite his educational background in communications he has not yet shown the personal ability to project passionate salesmanship in pushing his initiatives.

Nirenberg sees his accomplishments in these areas as laying a two-year foundation for an eight-year plan. Yet he won his race against Ivy Taylor by criticizing her lack of accomplishments. It was time, he said, to get the city moving again. To avoid that criticism himself, he needed to get some high-profile “wins” in his first term. He hoped such a victory would be his efforts with other local leaders to come up with a plan to offer free tuition to the city’s community colleges to any high school graduate who couldn’t afford it. Such a plan was announced earlier this year, but the full financing wasn’t finalized, limiting the political impact of the announcement.

Meanwhile, in defense of controversial decisions to decline to seek both the 2020 Republican National Convention and Amazon’s “second headquarters,” Nirenberg parsed his reasoning so carefully that it neither satisfied his critics nor rallied his supporters.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Nirenberg’s being forced into a runoff is that his opponent is even less prepared than he and other San Antonio mayors have been. Greg Brockhouse has not yet completed one term on City Council. He worked in a couple of district offices for council members, but that is not terribly impressive. Nor is his public relations and political consulting work for the police and fire unions, which are providing most of the muscle for his campaign.

With that background, he lost his first race for City Council six years ago and eked out a runoff victory two years ago by only 435 votes. And he’s not exactly running on his meager accomplishments  as councilman.

The kicker: If Brockhouse is elected, in two years San Antonio could easily get another rookie mayor.

59 thoughts on “San Antonio Has a Heritage of Poorly Prepared Mayors

  1. What’s wrong with our voters is that they fail to connect politics with policy. They vote out of anger, fear, vengeance and have no concept what their vote actually achieves. It’s so frustrating to hear people say they are going to vote out RN because he’s not “transparent” but don’t understand that voting for Brockhouse means putting an exceptionally unqualified person into the most important and difficult job in SA.

    • Amen! For the first time ever, I will be volunteering for a campaign: I will do all I can to get Ron Nirenberg re-elected.

    • I think the article, biased as it is, points out that Nirenberg’s experience as radio station manager at a small local university does not give him the experience to be mayor, so if your argument is that he is more qualified just looking at his experience does not make RN a standout candidate.

      Voters do vote based on policy—and if they don’t vote for you it is bc they don’t think your policies are good—for them, their neighborhood and the city. Nirenberg has not been transparent but people do see the policies being pushed from behind ‘closed’ doors. He has delegated the work of himself and council to innumerable groups making policy-hard for the electorate to be informed using this matrix! Often even council doesn’t know what is being done in all these groups!

        • Real Mayor’s just don’t dream about helping the community but actually get results by delegating tasks that are way over due!

          • He isn’t delegating tasks-he is delegating policy formation….big difference.

      • Do you have examples of what these delegations are? Asking as someone unfamiliar as to what these transparency issues are.

        • The San Antonio Housing Trust-a city non-profit with 3 council members as the board is a good place to start.

          You could probably choose any of the acronym groups and you will see the same thing.

  2. Mr. Casey’s criticisms of Mr. Brockhouse’s lack of political experience is exactly why he is in a runoff and has a chance at winning being mayor. Informed citizens do not trust political professionals, such as Mayor Nirenberg, who once they are in office forget that they are elected to be representatives of ALL citizens and not to minority constituencies or unelected city staff or city managers. Mr. Brockhouse is running on being a representative, not a king, not a progressive, not a conservative.

    What is interesting to me is that city employees such as the firefighters are supporting Mr. Brockhouse and not the incumbent Mayor Nirenberg. If Mayor Nirenberg is such a skilled Mayor why has he been unable to get a contract agreement with one of the critical labor forces for the City?? ….And why were the citizens of San Antonio paying $ 450K + to Sheryl Sculley when she was unsuccessful in negotiating a contract for the firefighters? …i think one of the constituencies that is supporting Mr. Brockhouse’s candidacy are the city employees who don’t trust city management.

    • Truly informed citizens do not trust politicos such as Mr. Brockhouse whose only qualification for office seems to be a very large chip on his shoulder. He is under the thumb of the unions and is unable to see the big picture.

    • “If Mayor Nirenberg is such a skilled Mayor why has he been unable to get a contract agreement with one of the critical labor forces for the City??”

      Ummm…because they want to get Brockhouse elected. I thought that was obvious.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that elected officials represent ALL citizens! Yes, Nirenberg is not doing that but neither is Brockhouse! So far, he has shown that he doesn’t represent everyone…he represents the unions. A big issue at the state level is the amount of property taxes residents all over the state are having to pay yet if the unions got their way, funding their healthcare as they want would raise our city taxes. Sheryl Sculley may have cost $450k/yr but you can’t blame her for not bending over backwards for the union’s request of $121 million/yr increase in pay/benefits. Anyone who bends so easily to that type of demand has no business running a business or being in charge of money.

      You remind me of people who refuse to move city’s because of a drop in $10k/yr in salary even though they’d save $20k/yr in housing cost. That’s actually a net increase.

    • It’s ironic you mention the democratic obligations then seem to push Brockhouse whose only allegiances has been two public unions. Not sure if you’ve lived anywhere outside of San Antonio before, but public employee unions have historically opposed many city governments (in fact they are historically and institutionally inclined to do so), many times because they refuse to make the tough sacrifices or cede powers that they are called to. Hell, look over in Dallas – the firefighters unions have basically bankrupted their pension fund with terrible investments and greedy draws, and are asking the mayor and the taxpayers for a bailout. THAT is how unions come to oppose city officials – i.e. self-interest.

      “And why were the citizens of San Antonio paying $ 450K + to Sheryl Sculley when she was unsuccessful in negotiating a contract for the firefighters?”

      Her job was city manager, not firefighter-union manager. Not sure why you’d side with the firefighter union without explaining why, or even expect that this issue would be central to their reputation.

  3. Wow! Not a very balanced article. Nirenberg worked for a local campus radio station and you think that makes him more qualified than Brockhouse? That is no resume for mayor. Brockhouse worked in public relations and consulting for fire union that managed to put issues on the ballot and win. Whether you agree or disagree w those measures the fact is he got it done. Nirenberg is backed by city insiders -Brockhouse by fire union…that explains a lot. Try a more balanced article next time.

  4. Voting for Brockhouse would put a man in office who will be eternally mad and controversial for being against almost everything (while favoring those organized groups who helped finance his run for office). Even with his lack of background preparation, at least Nirenberg is a positive person trying hard to move the city forward (while looking out for all citizens of the city against partial interests).

    • RN fails to connect with people and is seen as ‘does not play well with others.’ You cannot have confidence in policies created behind closed doors-ie: delegating mayor and council work to innumerable groups-who are not transparent to voters. He also had the chance to be a leader in the CFA debacle and should have known to do due diligence before taking a vote-he was a follower instead. Too bad Treviño didn’t give him a heads up that he was proposing this change-RN should have gone through proper channels to change the already vetted decision based on the RFP. The public saw a mayor/council that is arrogant, instead of one that works through the process in a fair way.

      Really? You don’t think all politicians, inc RN, favor those who helped put him in office? RN is backed by city insiders…and he puts them in positions to direct policy.

      I don’t feel the positive vibe you reference—it feels more like chaos and not ready for prime time players in regard to policy…climate change, transportation, housing… ‘big’ ideas but no plans accompanied by cost analysis…kind of like a high school report.

      There is a lack of professionalism at City Hall—no business could operate this way and be successful!

  5. Wow not a very good article from a so called journalist! Why all this animosity towards first responders? These men and women are hero’s, and for the life of me I cannot understand why the City of San Antonio, Express News and Rivard Report has nothing good to say other than they are ruining the city? We all now that the Express News is doing all the Mayors bidding to get him re-elected I mean just look at this article having managed a local small school radio station and he’s so much more qualified? Are you freaking kidding me? I guess certain people in this city have forgotten what happen in 2016 when someone from the outside took the presidency, and look how much better this country has been! That’s what’s happening here we have an outsider who clearly sees that citizens of San Antonio have been forgotten, and it scares the career politicians in this city that don’t want change! If RN was such a great Mayor what accomplishments does he have? All I’ve seen in this campaign is digging up domestic violence, credit issues, child support, and back taxes! If the campaign is doing all this it’s because they have NO ACCOMPLISHMENTS!

    • Are you insane? The country is better now with wrecker Trump? You forget Ron’s degrees, but I’ll bet you don’t think much of book learnin’, do you?

      • Not insane the country is better now than just 3 years ago! Are you insane Sir? Look at the economy, wages, unemployment I didn’t see that under dictator Obama! So Ron has 2 degrees and still has no accomplishments.

    • My animosity certainly is not directed against first responders. Quite the opposite. My animosity is directed toward their bargaining associations and for very good reasons summed up by two words: Harold Flammia.

      In 1974 I made two mistakes. First, I signed a fire and police petition to place collective bargaining on the ballot. Second, I voted for fire and police collective bargaining. My vote helped to unleash a political monster.

      For an excellent and accurate description of the unions’ rise to power (and Flammia’s eventual federal conviction for fraud and money laundering) see Robert Rivard’s April 28, 2014 article, “The Missing Chapter: How the San Antonio Police Union Beat City Hall” at https://therivardreport.com/missing-chapter-san-antonio-police-union-story/

  6. Brockhouse is owned by the unions.Their goal is to milk the tax payer.Nirenberg and Sculley were our only defense .Someone has to protect the taxpayer from these power hungry unions otherwise they will bankrupt the city.

  7. So the big question is where are all of the well qualified mayoral candidates who have the ability to get people behind their ideas and make stuff happen?

  8. I wish someone would publish Ron’s voting record. It’s enormously difficult to obtain. No transparency. It is horrible. The Alamo , Hays Street Bridge , over-development on the recharge zone , no plastic bag ban and general pandering to All developers. .

    • Actually, every ordinance and resolution is published on the City Clerk’s website and every single one has the vote slip(s) attached. It’s not difficult to see how the Council voted on any given item.

  9. They are working at real jobs, owning businesses, etc. We need new blood and fresh ideas from people with real world jobs and experience….but city insiders don’t want their reign to end…why do you think the same names are on boards, task forces, etc.? Why is so much done behind the scenes or in city run non/profits? Do you notice how many acronym groups we have that have been delegated to make/uphold policy…and who is on them?

    • Exactly! That’s why we need a fresh face from outside city hall who will buck special interest elites! Someone like [checks notes]… a sitting city council member who served as a paid lobbyist for a powerful special interest group!

      • Finally someone gets the irony. I guess it was lost on most, much like much of the country wanted to “drain the swamp” by electing a president who epitomized New York corruption, the ruling class, and brought his cronies into positions of power.

        I completely get being tired of city insiders. But if you want transparency… why the HELL would you want a professional lobbyist like Brockhouse who has hidden his criminal history and worked for a special interest group his entire career?

  10. Brockhouse has a history of aggressive behavior. He thrives off dissent and chaos. He’s very good at finding fault in council policies current but has failed to put forward one valuable policy proposal. He talks about transparency but takes every opportunity to utilize shady tactics to undermine others. I don’t want this man representing San Antonio on the national stage.

  11. I don’t think we want to hold up Henry C as the shining example of a “good mayor.” He is the reason for the evergreen clause in the union contracts from back in 1988. Also, if you want to review his development company that was involved in the $20 million contract with KB Homes for San Antonio Housing Authority scandal. The fact that he took the education he did shows that he wanted to become a career politician. We need folks that actually work for a living, are successful, and then choose to serve because they believe in civic service but not because they want to “re-distribute” taxpayer funds to themselves or to their friends. Instead of a radio jockey, a guy with four kids by four women, how about option C? Option C is none of the above. Wouldn’t that be interesting to have more votes for that than either of the two current candidates? Given the pathetic voter turnout, it would lead one to believe:
    1. The citizens are really apathetic
    2. Whoever is mayor doesn’t matter because the “real power” is still in control behind the scenes
    3. Given the economic and cultural diversity of the city, how can one person embody enough various constituencies to capture a majority of the public vote?

    I think many people believe that San Antonio is still just the “conference city with the Riverwalk.” Which means the most important things we provide as a city are hotel rooms/restaurants/bars/nightlife, which also equals all low-wage employment.

    We haven’t been able to shift the general mindset yet that we have:
    1. A good manufacturing base that is getting stronger with SAMA
    2. A good bio-tech base that is ever growing
    3. An excellent hospital system
    4. A developing educational system with TAMSA, Trinity, UIW, UTSA, St Mary’s, and TLU
    5. A growing Tech presence with Geekdom and Rackspace
    6. A regional hub for oil/gas due to the EagleFord shale
    7. A regional hub for financial/insurance services with USAA and Argo Group

    And then, because of all the above, it generates demand for the professional services like banking, lawyers, doctors, CPA’s, architects, engineers, contractors, and others…

    Until a few years ago (other than 281), we never had “real traffic congestion” in San Antonio. Now, a 30-40 min commute is a reality for a lot of folks.

    The City has outgrown its leadership. Thank goodness we had a great City Manager in Cheryl to make up for the clowns that are the elected politicians. We can only hope that Erik will be as adept at balancing the obvious lack of knowledge and skill set as is being exhibited by this mayoral race.

    • 👍 on all points. Until SA understands this we will be a low wage, un/undereducated city with a current poverty/near poverty rate of 54\55%!! You outlined all ideas we need from a mayor to move us forward.

  12. San Antonio needs new blood in office. RN appears to be a follower, afraid to be innovative. Needs to stray from Cisneros,Hardburger or Wolff. Need someone who leads the city council, not fearful of going against the grain. Make everything public, not decisions based of a few council members preferred. New blood is an opportunity to make our city
    reputable, not santuary & not Mexico, attract all races.

  13. So being a body builder and manager of a small university radio station prepares someone to be mayor? The mayors business
    decisions are based on bias against conservative Christians. Ron’s biggest failure was his unwillingness to fight for the best city manager we ever had. Mayor Taylor was much better qualified to hold office then Nirenberg.

  14. Nirenberg attended Trinity University in San Antonio and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in communication. He later attended the University of Pennsylvania, from which he procured his Master of Arts in communications.[8] After college, he was a program director for the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Looks like like Ron did other things than run a radio station.

  15. It’s super insulting to ivy that people are just now bringing up the fact that being a station manager at trinity doesn’t qualify you to be mayor. Why didn’t this come up when we had a woman who had 6 years of council experience, was Ivy League educated, worked for Saha, and had a degree in urban planning? Does it have something to do with the fact that she was a black woman? I voted for ron and will vote for him again during the runoff but let’s not pretend that he was actually a more qualified candidate than Ivy Taylor 2 years ago. If we weren’t applying the qualification logic then, why should anybody be asked to apply it now.

    • Agree! The problem was she wasn’t the city insider choice–guess she didn’t play nice with them, but she did do her job….

  16. The whining about “balance” in these responses would empty all the Kleenex boxes in Texas. Get a grip. Casey’s point is that neither Nirenberg nor Brockhouse is especially well prepared to lead a major US city. His more important point is that our current governance structure, as well as our political culture remains that of a small town. We should want expertise and smarts, not decry it as unwanted professionalism. Amateurish stupidity is killing us at the national level and we shouldn’t want it locally. Dont we want our kids to get college educations because we value expertise? Then why mock it in our leadership? JFC.

    • Expertise and a college education are not mutual in this day and age. No, I don’t want all kids to go to college-there are innumerable professions that don’t require a college degree, but do require critical thinking, training, skill, work ethic, etc. Btw many of the non-degree professions earn more than those with a college education (esp a degree that is not marketable)!

  17. I think that you will see a lot of undervotes in this runoff election. Two terrible choices, for different reasons.

  18. As a first responder I’d be more than happy to have a civil discussion with anybody who wants to explain how I’m working to milk, fleece, ruin, gouge, rob, or cheat the city.

  19. I am going to tell you why i’m Voting for Greg Brockhouse. I volunteer in my neighborhood association as president. I spend lots of my time at a local Starbucks. Several months back Ron drove up in the black Tahoe, walks into Starbucks, picked up his drink, looked around at who was in the place. He had an opportunity to reach out to folks and introduce himself. Instead, he said nothing to anyone and walked out and left. Last month I walk into Starbucks. Greg Brockhouse is sitting at a table. He acknowledged me and we sparked up a conversation. Soon about five folks entered into a conversation. We addressed our concerns, Greg was a great listener and reiterated our concerns. If you ask me Greg is better prepared because he is a great listener, and THAT’S ALL I NEED TO VOTE!!

  20. What are the elements of a “successful” Mayor? Who decides this criteria?

    Academic/professional credentials aside, the city has been governed via their “urban planning” model for many years, focusing on a heavily subsidized built environment agenda. Yet, despite the “best qualified city manager in the country”, S.A. earned the distinction of being the most economically segregated city in the U.S., in 2016. Have Council candidates addressed this reality? No, they have not. In fact, we’re a “world class, global” city.

    So, what is the correlation between politician & staff credentials vis-a-vis these results? Maybe it’s better not having touted credentials given our divide.
    I would say that “success” criteria is also 68 years old as well. We need new metrics, beginning with a socioeconomic construct. Is it possible to replace the old urban planning model which measures success only in business terms?

    So many questions but no one to answer them authoritatively. We’re left to pick who we like or dislike, rather than using CED tools & metrics.

  21. I believe that the mayor and council members are not aware of the dangers of misuse of our tax money due to lobby money of the wealthy and backroom deals.

    My unfair treatment during my property assessment protest, and similar experience with City staff, make me think that local government staff backroom deals are a serious problem.

    For example, the Bexar Appraisal District ignored my multiple requests for a copy of the rule for assessing the value of my lot for my home, or any lot. The arbitrator ruled against my protest without reading my argument, and, without telling me that he had not received my argument. I sent a copy of my argument through the required certified mail process. I feel that City, County, and School District staff, are more likely to do backroom deals with developers, or the wealthy, than look out for the interest of the public.

    My bad experiences with County and City staff make me suspect that my neighbor, who has a lot appraised at half the rate of my lot, got the lower assessment through a backroom deal.

    Incidentally, local union members are an important resource to help counter and to help reduce excessive influence of lobby money by the wealthy, and backroom deals.

    I will vote for the candidate for mayor who shows an awareness of this problem.

  22. I’d be interested in seeing Anna Sandoval run for mayor at the next election. This run-off is a choice between a rock and a hard place.

    • Ana Sandoval? A bachelor degree from MIT, a master degree from Harvard, and a Fulbright Scholar, backed up with a decade of professional work with various government entities? That Ana Sandoval? Yep. Yes sir. I’d consider voting for her.

    • Ana Sandoval hasn’t yet been successful with passing CAAP, her signature policy. An effective mayor should lead the charge on many important initiatives. Ana Sandoval might be a policy trendsetter one day, but she is definitely not ready to be mayor.

  23. I’m not really familiar with RN’s achievements in office, and I’m under the impression the the SA mayor’s office is a weak one by design anyway. Brockhouse turns me off with his lack of candor about the assault allegations, and what I see as his linkage with the leader of the firemen’s union, Chris Steele, who, between legal problems in Austin, and trying to keep his ex-wife on his city-provided health plan, seems Chicago-style crooked. easy pick, Nirenberg

    • You broke down the logical choice succinctly. Well-done. Gotta hand it to Brockhouse because that “transparency” campaign is effective. So effective his supporters don’t see it contradicts everything his career thus far has stood for.

  24. Agreed. It’s hilarious that she went to Yale and had experience at Housing and Community Development Department and the Neighborhood Action Department, but bootlickers here give far more credence to greedy police unions than causes like fair housing that would actually help them (under Ivy) or the job creation success that insipid Ron has had.

    Sadly you’re right. Qualifications haven’t mattered because people have shown they don’t care.

    Still think Niremberg is the right choice though. All I care about is jobs and we’ve had plenty of new jobs in the city. The last thing anyone should take to heart is what the corrupt unions want unless you happen to belong to them. Put your own, and your family’s own, well-being above those of firefighters.

  25. Citizen trust Greg Brockhouse message and are tired of establishment, city hall insiders, developers and their lobbyists agenda that Ron helps with at city hall.
    Let’s look at the scooters problem downtown put in place because of a lack of leadership. During the Uber and Lyft operating authority discussions Ron Nirenberg voted for no mandatory criminal background checks for their drivers because the companies demanded no regulation. Ron compromised public safety of our citizens to accommodate these two multi billion dollar corporations.

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