Almost exactly 40 years ago, in preparation for one of the most pivotal mayoral elections in San Antonio history, I interviewed John Steen as he prepared to take on Henry Cisneros.
Cisneros was the rising star, raised on the West Side and in his third term on City Council, having returned after earning advanced degrees from Harvard and George Washington University and having served as a White House fellow working for Cabinet secretary Elliot Richardson.
Steen was also a city councilman, a prominent businessman, former chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the last chairman of the Good Government League, the business-oriented political organization that had ruled the city for nearly 20 years before disintegrating.
I asked Steen if he had done any polling to see where he stood in a potential race.
“I don’t need to,” he said, explaining that Ronald Reagan had, the previous month, carried Bexar County.
I wrote that there were two problems with this analysis. First, Reagan had carried the county with its conservative suburbs and even more conservative rural areas. But he had not carried San Antonio.
Second, John Steen was not Ronald Reagan.
Steen went on to run a spirited, well-financed campaign and lost nearly 2-to-1. Cisneros did not carry the Anglo North Side, but he made substantial inroads and increased turnout on the Hispanic West Side by an astounding 50 percent, carrying nearly all of it.
I was reminded of John Steen’s analysis the other day when I interviewed Greg Brockhouse, who is planning a repeat race against Mayor Ron Nirenberg. His strategic analysis is not precisely analogous to Steen’s, but it does rely partly on last month’s presidential race.
Brockhouse’s thesis is that after important elections, the groups who lost are more energized in the next election. On a national level, he notes, the party that doesn’t hold the White House usually picks up congressional seats in the midterm elections. He expects the same dynamic to motivate local Trump supporters in next spring’s mayoral election.
“There are a lot of Trump supporters in Bexar County,” he said. He added that “Conservatives and faith-based people lost their champion” and that the energy among conservatives and Republicans “is the highest I’ve ever seen.”
Brockhouse’s plan is to woo those voters aggressively. That came through when I asked him a litmus-test question: Was he ready to identify Joe Biden as the president-elect? Like all but two local Republican-elected officials (both of whom did not seek reelection) quizzed by the San Antonio Express-News and all but 27 of the 249 Republican members of Congress surveyed by the Washington Post, Brockhouse dodged the issue, repeating voter fraud is a problem and that Trump has the right to challenge the election in court.
He clearly didn’t want to alienate Trump supporters. He also took a stand on another issue that resonates with Trump voters: He called Nirenberg a “fearmonger” in his nightly broadcast briefings on COVID-19 with County Judge Nelson Wolff. He particularly blasted Nirenberg for restrictions on bars and restaurants.
“The City has no contact tracing information that bars and restaurants are causing community spread,” he said. He added that restaurants are very safe, even indoors.
Nirenberg has no authority over bars. Gov. Greg Abbott gave that authority to county judges. Wolff authorized bars to reopen at 50 percent capacity in October after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission permitted it. Most San Antonio bars had previously reopened under similar restrictions as restaurants. The city’s Metropolitan Health District bases its policies not on its own research but on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, Brockhouse’s broader point is a contention that Nirenberg has overreacted to the coronavirus. It’s a position attractive to Trump supporters but may not play well with the rest of San Antonio.
It’s also an issue in considerable flux, making it hard to know how it will play in the spring. By that time, we might see a major post-Christmas surge in infections, possibly leading to a serious strain on our hospitals and an increase in deaths. But by that time, it also is possible that the coronavirus vaccine will be in widespread distribution.
Brockhouse is poised to go strong for the conservative, pro-Trump vote, but he knows he will need a broader reach. After all, Biden thumped Trump in Bexar County, 58 percent to 40 percent. As this San Antonio Report map shows, Trump fared even worse inside city limits.
What’s more, turnout for the presidential election was a record 65 percent in Bexar County. By contrast, turnout for last year’s mayoral race was 15 percent. That is, sadly, one of the better turnouts in recent years and up from a pathetic 11 percent in the first round of voting.
In today’s polarized times it will be a heavy lift to form a coalition between Trump supporters and a substantial portion of the more liberal urban voters that characterize San Antonio and other Texas cities.
Another key question is whether Brockhouse will get the kind of support from the police and fire unions that he did in 2019. Reports by the firefighters’ political action committee show that during the four months leading up to the runoff, the firefighters’ PAC spent more than $150,000 on the campaign, mostly on contract labor campaign workers. The police union’s contributions were not as clearly described in reports, but it might have spent more, including on repeated mass mailings. Together it’s safe to say the unions spent well more than Brockhouse was able to raise himself.
Still, even as Nirenberg has showed new strength with the passage of the city’s job training program and other initiatives, he will have to take Brockhouse seriously. After all, Nirenberg prevailed in last year’s runoff by just over 2 percent.
Brockhouse showed he was able to run an aggressive and balanced campaign. Look for him to take positions on local issues not ordinarily associated with conservatives, positions that he says his team is still polishing but that he promises will “stun” many people.