Who Will Be San Antonio’s Next Mayor?

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(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.

Mayor Julián Castro. File photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Mayor Julián Castro. File photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

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.

(Read more: Castro Commits: Mayor Until 2017 ‘If Voters Will Have Me.’)

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.

District One Councilman Diego Bernal at an event earlier this year. Courtesy photo.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal. File photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

“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.

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg

“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.”

“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.

District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez

District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez

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.


District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran

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.

Related Stories:

Mayor Castro Leaving to Become HUD Secretary

City Rejects San Antonio Police Union Trust Proposal

10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars

Innovative Mixed Income Housing at Sutton Oaks

18 thoughts on “Who Will Be San Antonio’s Next Mayor?

  1. I like both Diego and Ron, and I think either would make a good mayor.

    However, when I think about the most important issue facing city council over the next year, the fire and police benefits issue, I think Ron would be a much better choice.

    Diego has played an important role on the liberal wing of council, but we need someone that can build a coalition on both sides, be tough with the police negotiators, and keep council from splintering.

    Of course, with that in mind, for an interim pick there is no one better qualified than Reed Williams to deal with this issue and steer the ship until the next election.

  2. Marco

    In an early version of the story we suggested a compromise candidate could come from outside the Council, but the City Charter apparently dictates the Council select a mayor from one of the currently serving members. –RR

    • That’s good to know- I didn’t realize that.

      But it reinforces the first part of my original post, feeling like Ron has the temperament for the job, and would approach it a little less ideologically than Diego might.

      Of course, we can also start the speculation of who might be appointed to replace Ron or Diego as councilperson, should either of them be selected.

  3. So happy to have your updates, Bob. I moved to Fredericksburg, but am still interested in our incredible San Antonio. Your posts are WAY better than the Express News.

  4. Diego seems intent on playing to the far left populist wings at the cost of developing a strong tax base and an exciting urban center that would actually improve schools and services to the underprivileged. The city needs and deserves more than a politically expedient panderer. The Mission Trails vote showed Diego’s lack of backbone to make the nuanced big picture decisions that are necessary to turn San Antonio into a mature modern city.

    We need someone who is principled and wise enough to do what is best for the long-term viability of this city, even if it means incurring the wrath of short sighted zealots on either extreme of the political spectrum.

  5. I don’t see how. Everything Councilman Bernal has done has been progressive. So he cares for the people of the park, big deal. Then again, his move to stall the rezoning effort looks like a populist move, a move done for the explicit intent of looking like a man of the people. Speculation aside it seems that he believes in the good that the development will do in that area.

    As much as I like Councilman Bernal I think it is too soon. A much more experienced politician should get the seat and continue the work of Mayor Castro.

  6. Ron, hands down. The most serious problem our city faces is not streetcars, not economic development, not even transportation infrastructure. It’s water. Ron understands the water issue as well as any research scientist or policy hawk. Ron would provide the leadership we need to get through the difficult challenges we face on this issue. There’s no one else on the council who “gets it” in the same way that Ron Nirenberg does.

  7. Please have a video camera trained on Weston Martinez at the very moment Diego Bernal is named mayor.

    I want to see his head explode & then examine the contents – if any.

  8. I live in district one and I think Diego has done a fantastic job. Had you asked me on Saturday, I’d have immediately said that he should be the next Mayor. However, the more I listen to the conversation, the more I think Ron might be the man for the job this go around.
    Regardless of what happens, I think we have a pretty strong council and a number of good choices.

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