Three local leaders were the big winners in Bexar County on Tuesday, even though none appeared by name on the ballot. By the time early voting totals were released, the verdict of high approval was in.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez all received super-strong majority votes of confidence in their leadership through the pandemic, and mandates from voters to lead us in the months and years ahead.
Nirenberg and Wolff have shared the stage since March in a nonpartisan, consensus-building approach to managing the impact of the pandemic and social and economic shutdown on the city and county. At times they have taken on Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders, whose hands-off approach to the pandemic clashed with local, proactive efforts. What the mayor and country judge lacked in legal advantage they more than made up in moral authority.
Martinez, meanwhile, has spent the last five years as the evangelical leader of the city’s largest inner-city school district, serving more than 50,000 mostly poor, mostly Latino students. His increasingly successful campaign to lift failing schools to be the equal of campuses in wealthier, whiter parts of San Antonio might very well be the most effective anti-poverty measure underway here.
Voters by overwhelming margins gave all three leaders the kind of backing campaign dollars cannot buy. All three can continue to chart their current paths with great confidence.
With record early voting, any doubts were erased even before the first of 302 boxes were tallied from Election Day. All five local propositions passed with margins ranging from 66 percent to 77 percent in favor. Those are landslide numbers.
The City of San Antonio’s Proposition A to extend funding for Pre-K 4 SA for another eight years drew 357,174 votes in favor, 73 percent, versus 130,516 against, 27 percent.
The City of San Antonio’s Proposition B funding the SA Ready to Work workforce development plan did even better, drawing 376,967 votes in favor, 77 percent, versus 113,284 against, 23 percent.
Urban bus systems in U.S. cities everywhere struggle to win voter favor, a challenge considering that most voters outside a very few big cities do not rely on mass transit, especially voters in Sun Belt cities. Still, the Advanced Transportation District/VIA funding proposition drew 331,819 votes, almost 68 percent, versus 158,669 against, 32 percent.
VIA’s CEO Jeff Arndt has to be encouraged by the vote after managing the state’s most underfunded urban bus system for more than eight years. Arndt and his team have a plan, Keep SA Moving, for meeting the city’s mass transit needs as San Antonio and Bexar County grow by an anticipated 1 million people in the coming decades. What he has lacked is the funding to implement that plan. Passage of the proposition gets him part of the way there.
Passage of two propositions approving San Antonio ISD’s $1.3 billion bond represents a record investment in inner city public schools. One proposition asked for $1.21 billion for school renovations at 36 campuses, while the other asked for $90 million to address technology needs for the school district. With all votes tallied, 68 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of SAISD Proposition A, and 70 percent voted in favor of SAISD Proposition B.
While there were no countywide propositions on the ballot, I include Wolff in my assessment of voter confidence for two reasons. One, as noted above, he and Nirenberg have jointly managed the pandemic and reopening; if voters lacked confidence in either of the two, that would have been expressed with reduced support of the City’s three propositions.
Two, Wolff and the Commissioners Court played a key role helping Nirenberg and City Council fashion a city-county solution to continue funding aquifer protection and continued buildout of the greenway trails system. The aquifer protection tax has received overwhelming voter support for two decades. Reallocating the one-eighth-cent sales tax to workforce development and VIA Metropolitan Transit was the biggest gamble of Nirenberg’s political career. Many doubted he could do it. Working with Wolff, he proved doubters wrong.
Having the gravitas of Wolff, who has held a range of elected offices here for four decades, at his side only bolstered Nirenberg. His narrow runoff victory in 2019 against first-term City Councilman Greg Brockhouse is now in the rearview mirror. Were the two to face off today, it would be no contest.
As the bitter showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden showed, the country is divided like seldom before, and nothing about the eventual outcome is likely to change that really. In many ways, the United States is no longer united. San Antonio and Bexar County residents should hang on to what we have: a shared belief in local leaders. It’s not something every city and county can claim, and it is worth a lot. Without it, where would we be?