Mayor Ron Nirenberg socializes before the event.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks with attendees at a campaign event. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

We will learn a great deal Tuesday night. About our city, our state, and our nation. But we’ve already learned one very important thing.

San Antonio’s business community has largely recovered from its raging anger at Mayor Ron Nirenberg over his decision last spring not to pursue the 2020 Republican National Convention. At least it has recovered enough to vigorously back Nirenberg’s efforts to defeat three charter amendments the firefighters union has put on the bottom of the ballot.

The necessity for amicable relations between mayors and business leaders is demonstrated by the fact that U.S. cities these days are almost entirely led by progressive politicians with good business relations. Most city dwellers are politically liberal and vote that way.

But business leaders are crucial to the success of cities and of their mayors. Need to attract more jobs? To pass a bond issue? To fight off well-financed ballot measures by special interests? A mayor can’t do any of those things without the support of business leaders.

In this case those leaders have come through in spades. The original budget for the Go Vote No campaign fighting the amendments was $1.1 million. But $2.2 million poured in. Citizens made scores of contributions at or below $100. But business leaders and businesses themselves opened their wallets to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. By contrast the firefighters union’s political action committee, which portrays the
propositions as striking a blow for democracy, received contributions from only four individuals – at an average of $45.15 each.

A stunning $790,000 for the campaign came from a single source: the union and its political action committee. And that’s on top of the $500,000 the union paid for an out-of-town firm to gather the signatures needed to put the measures on the ballot.

The union may have thought – and business leaders clearly believed – that its populist ballot measures would be an easy sell to San Antonio voters. Especially the second proposition, which would cap the salary of any future city manager at 10 times that of the lowest-paid city workers.

The union’s sales pitch was simple: City Manager Sheryl Sculley “makes more than the president of the United States and the governor of Texas combined.”

This isn’t precisely true, but close enough to be effective. Sculley last year earned $475,000 plus a $75,000 bonus for $550,000. The president earns $400,000 and the governor $153,750 for a combined $3,750 more than Sculley. The union proposal would cut her salary about in half.

That might be a great rallying cry for citizens in San Antonio, where the median household income is about $57,000. But business leaders know how important it is that the city has a highly skilled manager.

Even scarier to business leaders is the first of the union’s propositions. It would cut the number of signatures required to put a measure on the ballot to overturn a city ordinance from about 70,000 to 20,000. It would also expand the time limit for gathering the signatures from 40 days to six months.

And it would subject some matters to a referendum that aren’t included under the current City charter. These include zoning decisions, tax rates, and rates for the city’s water and electrical utilities.

Imagine being a business owner who just won a zoning change but had to wait six months as a neighborhood gathered or a competing business paid to gather signatures to overturn it – and then wait until the next election if they were successful. And knowing how important reliable water and electricity are for the city’s growth, business leaders can’t see letting citizens directly veto rate hikes necessary for dealing with that growth. It’s not as though City Council members aren’t already nervous about rate hikes.

So business leaders are clearly motivated by more than a spirit of forgiveness in backing Nirenberg’s campaign against the ballot measures. But let’s recall how they reacted last April when former San Antonian and current Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale Twitter-attacked Nirenberg for having quietly decided to reject Republican overtures to bid on the 2020 convention.

Parscale taunted Nirenberg as “weak-kneed Ron” who was making “a colossal political mistake” by passing up a $200 million economic stimulus. Heavyweight business leaders publicly disagreed with Nirenberg, who first privately rejected an approach by Republican leaders, then led the Council in deciding against seeking the convention. The leaders included Red McCombs, IBC Bank’s Dennis Nixon, car dealer Ernesto Ancira, and many others. In private, some were bitter. Nirenberg heard personally from many of them.

That may be why Nirenberg turned to a relatively new face in San Antonio politics to head up the fundraising effort for the Go Vote No campaign. Gordon Hartman, a homebuilder and the force behind Morgan’s Wonderland, took the job with enthusiasm. Not only has he attended countless meetings and made more speeches, he also personally pitched in $125,000. Another member of a new generation of business leadership, Rackspace co-founder and downtown developer Graham Weston, gave $150,000.

Other heavy hitters include the two Zachry companies at $80,000 (together with $30,000 from Zachry family members), Frost Bank at $100,000, and USAA and Valero at $200,000 each.

I suspect there are lingering suspicions about Nirenberg from many in the business community over the convention issue. But it is pretty clear now that despite statements to the contrary, Republican leaders were desperate to find some bidding competition for Charlotte, North Carolina, which was then the only competitor.

Republican officials assured the public quite a few other cities were quietly working on bids. But in the end, Charlotte was the only city to bid. And in July its City Council voted to do so by a razor-thin 6-5. One switched vote and the Republican convention would have faced homelessness.

Some business leaders might feel that shows we could have had the convention. Others might be open to the notion that for so many city leaders around the nation to just say no may show some wisdom.

Whatever the lingering feelings, the election results may have a bearing. Some business leaders feel that if the propositions pass it will be regarded as a sign of Nirenberg’s weakness. He is up for re-election next May. Opposition could begin organizing immediately.

But if the measures are defeated, it’s likely the mayor won’t face any significant opposition. And it’s likely that the teamwork that defeated the propositions will help reinforce a continued working relationship with business leaders. (Note: For those who are still considering how to vote today on making referendums easier, please see this opinion piece on California’s experience in Sunday’s New York Times.)

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.