Former Mayor of San Antonio Lila Cockrell addresses the audience during a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of San Antonio.
Former Mayor of San Antonio Lila Cockrell addresses a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As regular readers know, I’ve been giving thought lately to a persistent problem with how we pick mayors in San Antonio.

For more than 50 years we have chosen our mayors largely from the ranks of City Council members. Yet City Council is an entry-level position in politics. In addition, since 1977 all Council members have represented just their districts, with natural political territorial instincts keeping them from being active in any of the other nine districts during their terms.

The result is that City Council is not a great training ground for the job of mayor, which demands a wide variety of high-level skills for leading a diverse city of more than 1.5 million people.

Today, as voting gets underway in our mayor’s race, I want to tell the story of an earlier mayor of underestimated power and skill who had considerable training from an unorthodox source: the League of Women Voters. 

Lila Cockrell was born in 1922 and spent her infancy in San Antonio, where her father was a capable young lawyer. He died when she was only 18 months old, and her mother moved to Omaha to live with her mother and her father, who was in charge of the Prohibition Service office. He rose quickly and, when Lila was only four, the family moved to the Upper West Side of New York, where he became assistant prohibition director and then director for New York and Puerto Rico.  

In her recent book, Love Deeper Than a River, Lila describes an idyllic childhood in New York first with her grandparents, then with a good stepfather, another lawyer, whom her mother married when she was still a young child.

Her family was Republican. She tells a funny story about organizing a neighborhood march for Herbert Hoover when she was eight, only to see her phalanx of recruits melt away when their New York parents found out. At 10 she wrote a poem opposing repeal of Prohibition and sent it to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During her years at Southern Methodist University in the conservative city of Dallas, she had two experiences that especially shaped her. One was working at a YWCA camp in Colorado, where she came to make her first black friends. She also met her future husband.

During her senior year she continued conversations on race relations while being elected chair of the North Texas Areas Council of Student Christian Associations. And she wrote her senior thesis on research she did in which she disclosed a brutal fact: Dallas’s “separate but equal” segregated black schools received half the funding of white schools.

She married Sid Cockrell, who was already in the wartime Army, shortly after graduation. While he served overseas as an aide to a general, she became an ensign in the WAVES, serving in Washington.

Sid pursued a career with nonprofits after the war, first in Tulsa for the YMCA, then in Louisville for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was there that Lila, by now a young mother, joined the League of Women Voters.

She would become president of chapters in Dallas and in San Antonio, where Sid was recruited to his permanent profession as director of the Bexar County Medical Association. The League was involved not only in registering voters, but also in studying the major issues of the day. Lila came to know Dallas and San Antonio and their problems in ways many elected officials didn’t.

In 1961 Walter McAllister, the powerful banker who had helped found the business-oriented Good Government League that controlled City Hall for nearly two decades, was elected mayor. But that year, one member of his slate was nearly defeated by Wanda Ford, a Conservation Society leader, wife of renowned architect O’Neil Ford and a fixture in local liberal politics.

An oil painting of Walter McAllister (left) is hung in the McAllister family home.
An oil painting of Walter McAllister (left) is hung in the McAllister family home. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The men who ran the GGL decided they needed a woman on their next ticket. McAllister and eight or nine other men in suits and ties showed up at Lila Cockrell’s house to recruit her. She asked if she would be told how to vote on issues. She was assured she wouldn’t be.

The first two times she ran for Council, Lila listed herself as Mrs. S.E. Cockrell on the ballot. She campaigned in hat and gloves. But when she was elected, these ladylike trappings belied her independence and determination.

By 1964 Henry B. Gonzalez was gaining power in the House of Representatives as Lyndon B. Johnson began ramping up his Great Society programs. He told Lila that money was available for more public housing, a need she knew well from her League involvement.

When she began talking about it, McAllister asked her to visit him in his office. McAllister, a very conservative Republican who had no use for LBJ and his federal money, explained his position to her in gentlemanly fashion. She listened politely.

Then she went out and, without publicly airing disagreement with the mayor, quietly won a slim majority of votes on council to accept Gonzalez’s offer. Sometime later she would ignore McAllister’s opposition to seeking federal funds through a Model Cities grant and in similar fashion win council support. San Antonio became only the sixth city to win such a grant.

These sorts of activities, as well as persistent efforts to get more women and minorities on city boards, may have played a role in why Lila was dropped from the GGL ticket by the secret nominating committee in 1970. As is her style, she glosses over this unpleasantness in her book.

Two years later, after suffering an increasing number of losses by its candidates, the GGL asked her to rejoin the ticket. She won easily, but internal politics began the GGL’s death cycle. When the secret nominating committee chose attorney Roy Barrera Sr. for the mayor’s slot instead of grocery magnate Charles Becker, Becker ran against Barrera and became mayor.

Two years later, in 1975, Lila would run with GGL backing against the mercurial Becker and win. San Antonio became the largest U.S. city with a female mayor.

She quickly faced a serious crisis that had festered under Becker. The city-owned City Public Service Board (now CPS Energy) had a long-term contract with Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt’s LoVaca Gathering Company for natural gas at a fixed price. Wyatt had claimed to have the reserves to meet that price, but didn’t. The market price for gas had soared and Wyatt had raised his prices to CPS while Becker was still mayor.

As mayor, Lila also sat on the CPS board. She led them in bucking Becker and some other business leaders by suing LoVaca. After intense negotiations, LoVaca agreed to spin off its natural gas operations under the leadership of the company’s senior vice president William Greehey.

The agreement included a cash settlement of more than $100 million and plans to move the new company, Valero, to Corpus Christi. Lila told the attorneys that San Antonio had more customers than Corpus and we needed to locate the new company here.

“The negotiating attorney for LoVaca responded that he could not do that,” Lila writes in her book. “That’s when I said, ‘Then we’ll see you in court.’ He turned and walked out with a dejected look on his face.” But LoVaca caved, and San Antonio got what is now a Fortune 500 company with assets of more than $44 billion, along with millions of dollars in civic and charitable contributions by Greehey and the company.

About the same time, Lila took on another fight against the powerful Burlington Northern Railroad. It had a monopoly on shipping Wyoming coal to CPS’s power plants and their rates showed it. Lila made several trips to Washington to try to undo the strangle-hold, but the company had very good lobbyists. Once again, Lila led the city in suing. Once again the city won a big cash settlement and the award of a competing route for Union Pacific, leading to considerably lower rates,

Without ever losing the ladylike manner implied by her hat and gloves, Lila Cockrell had stood up to powers ranging from Mayor Mac to oil and railroad barons. And she had won.

But that wasn’t the end of the challenges. In 1977 San Antonio was successfully pressured to change the makeup of City Council. Instead of nine members elected at large, resulting in overwhelming power for the North Side with its heavier turnouts, the council would consist of 10 members from individual districts with only the mayor elected at large.

The result was that the 1977-79 council featured five Hispanic and one black member, together a majority. What’s more, unlike the safe Hispanic and black candidates hand-picked by the GGL, these members were sent by voters that had been shut out for decades. Together with the rise of Communities Organized for Public Service and its aggressive political tactics, this made for tumultuous times at City Hall.

Lila was more than open to minority participation. As councilwoman she had pressed her male colleagues for greater inclusion of women and minorities at City Hall. As mayor she told the newly named city manager, Tom Huebner, that she wanted his staff to look more like the city.

Lila was politically powerful enough in 1979 that Henry Cisneros gave up plans to challenge her for mayor. Her decision two years later not to seek reelection because her beloved husband was waging a losing fight for his life paved the way for Cisneros’ remarkable eight years of transforming the city with a much more aggressive and electric style.

While Lila was the perfect mayor for the transition between the GGL and Cisneros, her style was not as well adapted for the term that followed him. She was also hampered by an economic downturn that led her to support raising taxes to avoid cutting key services, giving a roll-back victory to an anti-tax group.

She came in third when she ran for re-election in 1991, behind Councilwoman Maria Berrizoábal and the eventual winner, Nelson Wolff. She would not, however, recede from the public sphere. Among many other post-politics activities, she has played a major leadership for San Antonio’s parks and in helping guide the development of the Museum Reach of the River Walk.

Perhaps because of her persistent 1950s ladylike style and the unfortunate end to her political career, Lila Cockrell is not appreciated for the strength and skill that marked her career. That needs to change.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.