(Originally published on Saturday, May 17, 2014.)
Mayor Julián Castro is fond of calling San Antonio the nation’s seventh largest city, but it will only take six votes in a city of nearly 1.5 million people for the next mayor to win the office.
If Castro is named to President Obama’s Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as expected, the 10-member City Council will select Castro’s successor to fill the remaining one year of his unexpired third term. Castro does not get to vote to help choose his successor.
San Antonio’s mayor and city council members can serve a maximum of four, two-year terms. Castro’s predecessor, Mayor Phil Hardberger, was limited to two, two-year terms, but led the effort to relax the nation’s most restrictive term limits for a major city. Many hoped Castro would use a fourth term in office to push for further charter reform and win professional salaries for future mayors and council members. That possibility fades if he leaves office now to join the Obama administration.
Castro was eligible to run for a fourth term in May 2015 and serve through 2017, a commitment he had publicly made but now appears to be reversing.
Had Castro stayed for four terms, he would have left office closer to the finish line of his SA2020 initiative, the end of the “Decade of Downtown,” the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park and the city’s 300th birthday in 2018. While Castro’s legacy as mayor inevitably becomes the subject of debate, the fight to succeed him ensues.
“Everyone on the council starts out with one vote,” quipped one political observer who was handicapping the outcome.
Most City Council watchers expect two-term District One Councilman Diego Bernal and first-term District Eight Council Ron Nirenberg to vie actively for the position.
“I’ve always tried to be a good teammate and I believe in the idea of a team and I want to make sure we can maintain that on the council,” Bernal said Saturday. “That’s an important component of my consideration. But I’ve received a tremendous number of calls, emails and social media messages of support, but it requires a tremendous amount of thought of what is best for the city and not just what do I want for myself.
“I actually love being a councilman,” he added. “I’m attached to the residents and there is a lot of good work underway that I’d like to complete.”
Nirenberg was a bit more direct in his interest in filling Castro’s unexpired term for one year.
“We have built such momentum from Mayor Hardberger though Mayor Castro, and it’s critically important who we elect to be next mayor sustains that momentum,” Nirenberg said Saturday. “That’s what’s on the minds of voters in all 10 districts. People are focused on jobs, on water, on solving our long-term transportation needs. The interim period is vital to the future of our city. We need a strong leader.
“Over the last 24 hours since this broke I’ve received a lot of phone calls from district residents, from others around the city, from former mayors, asking me to please consider it,” he added. “To me it would be a great honor to serve the entire city of San Antonio. If my colleagues see me in the same light, I’d be honored. I’m seriously considering it.”
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“It could be end up being yet another play of the city’s North-South divide,” said one political analyst who likes both candidates. “Rey Saldaña is future mayoral material, too, but he’s young and he’s smart — smart enough to probably decide this isn’t his time. ”
Saldaña didn’t win his office by playing it safe, however. He was opposed by Castro and others and considered a long-shot council candidate when he first won office. Saldaña, however, did just begin a new job as chief of engagement for KIPP San Antonio, and would be unable to hold that job and earn a professional salary if he were to become mayor.
District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor could present herself as a compromise candidate, and point to redevelopment efforts on the city’s Eastside that are just taking root as reason to support her and those efforts.
Newly elected District 9 Councilman Joe Krier would like to entertain a mayoral bid, some friends say, but they add he was thinking in the context of Castro completing at least his third term with Krier making his decision after a few years on City Council.
The most experienced officeholder, District Six Councilman Ray Lopez would be another obvious compromise candidate, especially if he were to announce he did not intend to seek a full term as a mayor. That might be a commitment Lopez does not care to make.
A vote along ethnic lines favors Bernal, who would have six votes counting his own vote and the other five Council members who are Hispanic.
But Viagran is said to be angered with Castro and Bernal over their decision to vote against the rezoning of Mission Trails Trailer Park in a highly contentious 6-4 vote, a major district initiative Viagran was carrying. Bernal also made the motion that prevented the zoning change from being approved the first time it came up for consideration at Council.
Bernal joined Castro and a Council minority Thursday in a vote some say played to a highly emotional audience of longtime park residents and inner city advocates, but was cast knowing the measure would pass despite their opposition. The plan to develop a $75 million mixed-use project with hundreds of new market-rate apartments on the 21-acre Mission Reach frontage can now proceed.
Whoever is selected to finish out Castro’s term through 2015, he or she will face serious challenges in uniting the Council on issues such as collective bargaining with the police and fire unions, a SAWS initiative to double development fees to help cover the costs of the city’s continuing sprawl into the north and northwest, and the challenge of working with City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff to balance a budget that increasingly is inadequate to meet the city’s most pressing basic needs.