Why Lila Cockrell Was One of the Most Important San Antonio Mayors of the 20th Century

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Courtesy / Jane Macon

Lila Cockrell (center) is surrounded by other former San Antonio mayors (from left) Ed Garza, Howard Peak, Nelson Wolff, and Henry Cisneros.

Shortly before he died in 2000, I paid a visit to Kemper Diehl, who was the top political journalist in San Antonio and South Texas when I was a cub reporter in 1967 and for years afterwards. His career, from 1939 to his retirement in 1996, spanned San Antonio’s journey through an era of old-fashioned political machine corruption through the reign of the business-led Good Government League with its reform and then stagnation, and into the 1980s go-go decade of Henry Cisneros.

Upon his death, Diehl was described by former President George H. W. Bush as “one of the great Texas reporters. He had the respect of everybody in both political parties.” 

He certainly had mine, and I wanted to know whom he regarded as the most important mayors of San Antonio during his time. He thought briefly before answering: Maury Maverick, Walter McAllister, and Henry Cisneros. 

Diehl was a man of his times. He missed the lady in the gloves and hat. The one the Good Government League put on City Council with the ballot name of Mrs. S.E. Cockrell Jr. The one known more for making San Antonio the largest city in the nation with a woman mayor than for what she actually accomplished in office.

That is not her true place in history. She should be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most important mayors of San Antonio. 

Diehl, of course, was not the only man of his times. The first time I interviewed Lila Cockrell, about 40 years ago, she ushered me graciously into the mayor’s office and directed me to the sofa. She sat down with me, tugged her skirt at her knee, and began the conversation.

“You know, Mr. Casey, no one likes being described as ‘dowdy,’” she said.

Yes, I had done it. I had used what I now know to be a glaringly gendered term for which there is no equally dismissive male equivalent. She made her point directly but without rancor, as though she was explaining a point of etiquette to a small child – which was, appropriately, how I felt. 

Part of the reason Cockrell’s power has been so widely underestimated is precisely that she exercised it mainly in private in a way that neither demonstrated nor engendered bitterness. Few politicians with her tenure in a top office – equalling Cisneros with eight years as mayor – have engendered so little anger and so few enemies. 

In a column last May, I detailed how Cockrell stood up to powerful men, ranging from McAllister to energy magnate Oscar Wyatt to the ethnic minority bloc of council members in the first City Council elected from districts. Today I want to argue that she not only belongs in the 20th century pantheon of San Antonio’s top mayors, but also that she should be placed above two of the men on Kemper Diehl’s list.

Maury Maverick was a giant. A World War I hero, he would rise to national prominence in only two terms in Congress as a warrior for FDR’s New Deal. He quickly became a political force – playing a strong role, for example, in passing the first federal minimum wage. But his national stardom did not keep him from losing the Democratic primary by only 493 votes after his second term. His opponent, a San Antonio machine-backed brother of the police chief, called him a “friend and ally of Communism.”

Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress

Maury Maverick

Maverick turned down a federal appointment that same year, 1939, so he could run for mayor and clean up what he had previously called “the sorriest city government in the United States.” He won, albeit with only 41 percent of the vote, runoffs not being required at that time. His victory was hailed by luminaries ranging from FDR to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black to legendary New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Maverick vigorously took a “new broom” to City Hall. He took on corruption, gambling, and prostitution. He instituted merit exams for applicants to the inbred police department and brought in a reform chief from Wichita. He also fought for better wages for pecan shellers and brought about the classification of Mexican Americans as “white” in census and other records. 

He won the first federal money for what became the River Walk from his friend FDR. And he championed the restoration of La Villita, although partially with money he took from the River Walk’s budget as a way to punish the project’s architect, Robert H.H. Hugman, with whom he feuded. 

But Maverick left little legacy other than the River Walk and La Villita for the simple reason that he was once again red-baited out of office, this time after only one two-year term. His successor was his predecessor, C.K. Quin, who was described by the San Antonio Light as “determined to wipe out every vestige of the preceding administration,” starting with a purge of the police department.

McAllister was an early ally in Maverick’s reform efforts and would be a major force in making San Antonio part of a national movement to attempt to eliminate “politics” from City Hall by setting up a council-manager government. The idea was to turn the running of the city over to a professional manager, overseen by the equivalent of a corporate board. Once the city’s charter was changed to that form, McAllister was a major force in the establishment of the Good Government League in the 1950s and would serve as mayor under its banner from 1961 to 1971.

The GGL did clean up city government and improved the city’s infrastructure. It also went part of the way toward improving the scandalous conditions in the vast Westside and Southside barrios. In 1950, less than half of homes on the West Side had indoor plumbing. By 1970, it was 98 percent. But in many ways the barrios continued to be largely ignored. Drainage projects were included in bond elections, but often the projects were not undertaken. Heavy rains often meant destructive and sometimes lethal flooding on the West Side. The GGL’s slate usually included two Hispanic members, but they were hand-picked in a secretive process and they knew who put them there.

Meanwhile, though, the GGL did little to promote San Antonio’s economic development, particularly with regard to the roughly half of citizens who were Hispanic or black. The GGL was held in such low regard on the West Side that when Henry Cisneros first ran for City Council on the GGL ticket he did not carry that sector. 

Simply put, McAllister was very powerful, but he ran an Anglo business-fueled machine that did little to advance the interests of the huge Hispanic population, for which he had little regard. What’s more, compared to Houston and Dallas during his time in power, San Antonio’s economy sputtered.

Cockrell, on the other hand, spent her first term as mayor presiding over the burial of the GGL while working on opening up city government. She instructed her new city manager to make City Hall look more like the city. One of his first moves was to hire Alex Briseño as an assistant city manager, to become city manager later. Cockrell also saw to it that the city got a female city attorney, Jane Macon.

Perhaps most importantly, Cockrell championed a city charter amendment that replaced at-large election of the entire City Council – designed to keep minorities from gaining direct representation – to a council from 10 districts with only the mayor elected at large. The amendment barely passed, and would not have without her leadership.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The San Antonio City Council of May 1st 1977 through April 30th 1979.

It was perhaps her next term that proved most important. The newly elected representatives from the long-neglected parts of town came in with the anger and militancy that the GGL had helped foment by excluding their communities from power. Between them and the newly ascendant Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) – which became one of the most powerful (and at times creatively obnoxious) community organizations in the nation, one shudders to think of the conflagration that would have overtaken City Hall had the patrician McAllister still been mayor.

Cockrell, with her strong background as head of the League of Women Voters in Dallas and San Antonio, believed strongly in government open to all. Through diplomacy, strength, and a quiet sense of humor, she managed – in her very ladylike fashion – to maintain order in what could have been a chaotic clash between militancy and a conservatism tinged with racism.

While dealing with a number of issues, she paved the way for the election of Cisneros. It was largely through Cockrell’s civic skills that city government was peaceful and productive enough under the new charter that much of the Anglo business establishment could be almost as comfortable with Cisneros, a son of the West Side, as was the Hispanic community itself.

Cisneros, of course, with a combination of energy, vision, and personal gifts, was in a class by himself. Unlike McAllister, he had an ambitious agenda for improving the entire city. And he did it.

I agree with Mayor Ron Nirenberg that if San Antonio had a Mount Rushmore, Lila Cockrell should be on it, together with Cisneros. I’m just not sure about who else.

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