It’s a shame that City Council’s finest hour in memory unfolded behind closed doors last week as a majority led by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), the Southside son of Mexican immigrants, stood down Mayor Ivy Taylor and agreed to sue the state of Texas and challenge the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” law which Gov. Greg Abbott signed last month.
It happened only one week after the City Council’s conclusive vote on the 10-year, $100 million river barge contract, a vote that rejected one of the nation’s premier marine cruise companies, Entertainment Cruises of Chicago, in favor of a bidder that isn’t even in that business. The winning team includes Landry’s Restaurants of Houston, VIA Chair Hope Andrade, and restaurant owner Lisa Wong.
I can’t remember another time when this City Council did not fall in line behind Taylor, who has strived to keep contentious issues off the agenda in instances where she might be denied a majority vote. One of her campaign talking points is that Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), whom Taylor faces in a tense June 10 runoff election, can’t assemble a Council majority of six votes on his issues.
As the Council met in executive session on May 25 beyond the eyes and ears of the public and the press, Taylor joined two Northside Council members, Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10), both stepping down shortly at the end of their terms, in opposing the lawsuit. The evidence suggests they are on the wrong side of history, and in a city defined in significant measure by Mexican immigrants over the last century, also out of touch.
SB 4 is the latest attempt by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature to implement an agenda that is unmistakably anti-Mexican and anti-Mexican-American. The law allows local law enforcement officers to establish whether people they stop for infractions or criminal violations are U.S. citizens. Officers are required to detain non-citizens without proper documentation or face fines. Local officials resisting implementation of the law can be removed from office.
Debate over SB 4 and other socially divisive and agenda-driven legislation like the so-called “bathroom bill” consumed far more time and attention in the just-finished legislative session than issues of genuine importance and consequence, such as public education and higher education funding.
It’s fair to ask how long SB 4 would last if officers were directed to disregard skin color and ask everyone they encounter at traffic stops, for example, to prove their citizenship. The law is clearly predicated on racial profiling, and thus is likely to fare no better in the courts than the original Texas Voter ID law, which was ruled unconstitutional, a measure that justices correctly noted was conceived not to eliminate unproven voter fraud, but to suppress minority turnout at the polls.
That’s why Saldaña urged Taylor and his Council colleagues to take a stand against Abbott and Republican lawmakers and join the lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). The decision makes San Antonio the largest Texas city, along with Austin, El Paso, and other, smaller municipalities, to sue the State.
“Usually, when there is an issue like this where the mayor believes there will be fractured Council, the mayor will work hard to see that it doesn’t come to a public vote,” Saldaña said in a Friday interview. “Normally, no one pushes back hard. But this time, my fellow Council members, left and right, knew in their hearts and minds this was the right thing to do, that it was time for our city to stand up to the governor.
“In fairness to the mayor, she has said she opposes SB 4, as does the City staff, the police chief, the sheriff, the county judge, and just about everyone else who matters in this city,” Saldaña said. “But a Council majority disagreed with the mayor and her argument about the timing being wrong. The question of timing on an issue like this sounded to us like a delay, and as someone who has been on the Council for six years, I know delay often translates to never.”
Taylor issued a post-executive session statement defending her resistance to the litigation.
“In this case, the prudent course would be to wait until a decision has been made on whether a special session will be called,” Taylor said in a statement Thursday. “Additionally, I believe that any decision to join this lawsuit should be made in coordination with other major Texas cities, which is why I have consulted with Mayors Adler (Austin), Turner (Houston), and Rawlings (Dallas).”
No one I know believes there is any chance that Abbott or legislators would be willing to revisit SB 4 in a special session, which has not yet been called. A Council majority did not buy the mayor’s argument, either.
People present at the executive sessions and other closed sessions tell me that Taylor argued for delay in joining any lawsuit, fearful that an angry governor might retaliate against the City by using the line item veto to cancel the $75 million for the Alamo Plaza Master Plan included in the new budget.
That would be politics at its most crass. It also is an unlikely outcome given some of the names associated with the Alamo Endowment: Ramona Bass, Gene Powell, and Red McCombs, all of whom are invested in a successful Alamo Plaza redesign.
If the four-year river barge debacle ended with a politically-driven override of City staff’s recommendation, a melodrama that eroded public confidence in the City Council led by Taylor, last week’s override of the mayor’s position suggests a new City Council on the horizon willing to demonstrate greater independence.
Six of the 10 Council seats will be decided in the runoff election. At least half the Council members will be rookies, counting newly-seated Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who unseated incumbent Cris Medina in the May 6 vote.
Saldaña found unanimous support for the lawsuit from his inner city colleagues: Roberto Treviño (D1) and Alan Warrick (D2), both of whom face runoff challenges; Rebecca Viagran (D3), one of Taylor’s most loyal allies; Shirley Gonzales (D5), whose mother is an immigrant from Mexico; Ray Lopez (D6), who leaves office after serving four terms; and Sandoval (D7), herself a Mexican-born immigrant. Nirenberg was the only non-Hispanic Council member to join the majority.
As the lead image on this column demonstrates, voters are facing a barrage of direct mail flyers as the days count down to the June 10 runoff election. Monday and Tuesday are the last two days of early voting. Only an anemic 13-15% of the city’s registered voters are expected to turn out in the June 10 mayoral runoff.
Who wins in the mayor’s race and the six runoffs will say a lot about the profile of the elected officials who will lead San Antonio into its Tricentennial year of 2018 and through a time when national politics put the city’s relationship and historical, cultural, and families ties with Mexico on center stage.
“The mayor and Council members we elect need to understand this is a liberal city that can take on big challenges, including when necessary, challenging state leaders in Austin,” Saldaña said. “I am glad San Antonio’s position on SB 4 was decided now. It wouldn’t be right to say we’ll take it on some other day, maybe.”