Chick-fil-A is located at 1350 Austin Hwy.
San Antonio voters are more likely to be disturbed over the rights of all citizens than the rights of out-of-town fast-food restaurants.  Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Early voting in San Antonio’s mayor’s race is underway, and according to a front-page article in the local newspaper Sunday, a new controversy “has emerged as a defining issue” in Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s race against Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6). The issue: City Council’s decision not to allow Chick-fil-A to operate a fast-food restaurant at the city’s airport.

Chick-fil-A was mentioned 10 times in the San Antonio Express-News article, taking up nearly all the front-page territory before the article continued on page 10.

A “defining issue”? Really?

I don’t think so.

I’ll get to the real defining issues in a moment, but first let’s discuss the politics of the Chick-fil-A controversy. Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of the council’s move to bar the company because of its opposition to marriage equality. 

But by far most of the criticism, here and nationally, has come from conservative political and religious outlets. These are not the folks most San Antonians turn to for electoral guidance. Two relatively recent San Antonio events tell the story.

In 2013 then-City Councilman Diego Bernal led the council in passing an ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Several conservative political groups announced they would gather signatures to recall Bernal and then-Mayor Julián Castro.

Bernal was worried. He called several major donors, saying he needed to raise money to fight the recall. He was wrong. The effort fizzled when its organizers failed to get the signatures.

Four years ago, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court declared bans on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, Republican Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff announced that he had already “de-gendered” his office’s marriage license application forms.

“I’m very tired of violating these peoples’ civil rights,” he told the San Antonio Current. “I’m personally very tired. We’re going to embrace it.”

Yet last year Rickhoff did not draw a single opponent in the Republican primary. In November he was wiped out by the massive Democratic wave, but it certainly didn’t have anything to do with his comments on gay marriage.

The reality is that San Antonio voters are more likely to be disturbed over the rights of all citizens than the rights of out-of-town fast-food restaurants.

So what are the real “defining issues” in this campaign? It may not be easy to tell, because this may be the lowest-key mayoral election I’ve seen since arriving in San Antonio not long after the fall of the Alamo. But I see two defining issues.

The above-mentioned newspaper article mentioned that the fire and police unions “are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars” to elect Brockhouse, but it doesn’t cast this as an issue in the campaign. This despite the fact that Brockhouse earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the unions as a political consultant before his election to City Council two years ago.

We won’t know how much the unions are spending on their independent campaign for Brockhouse until after the election, but it is certain to be several times more than Brockhouse (and possibly more than Nirenberg) has been able to raise from all the rest of San Antonio for his own campaign.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and Councilman Greg Brockhouse shake hands during the debate hosted by the Rivard Report at The Spire at Saint Paul's Square.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) shake hands April 17 during the debate hosted by the Rivard Report at The Spire at St. Paul Square. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonians like their police and firefighters very much, and we want them to be well paid. But I suspect that most of us don’t want the unions to be able to buy the mayor’s office, especially while the firefighters union, whose president has called Brockhouse “our own guy,” is still in contract negotiations with the City.

How much power the unions should have at City Hall is certainly a defining issue. The other defining issue has been made very clear by both Nirenberg and Brockhouse. It is how aggressive we should be in preparing and spending for major challenges facing us as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.

Nirenberg has spent much of his first term generating citizen and expert involvement in tackling such matters as transportation, affordable housing, and climate change. Brockhouse has called the plans emerging from these efforts as too expensive, saying the City should go back to basics.

Certainly the City needs to do some cost-benefit analyses before implementing the ambitious plans being proposed, but we should also be aware of some of the costs of not taking action. These already include sclerotic traffic jams daily, especially in the northern suburbs. They include going out of federal attainment for air quality. They include the fact that a large and growing percentage of our families cannot afford market-rate housing. Without action, it will get far worse.

How we deal with these challenges is clearly a defining issue.

One other issue has been mentioned – a couple of domestic violence incidents in Brockhouse’s past. As the Rivard Report noted in its story on a debate it hosted last week between the two mayoral candidates, the councilman threatened to leave the event if either of the two moderators (one from the Rivard Report and one from Texas Public Radio) asked about the incidents.

The tactic appears to have worked, which prompts me to offer some advice to my younger colleagues. The better response was to wait until you had asked him other important questions, then to put this one to him:

“Mr. Brockhouse, you said shortly before the beginning of this debate that if we asked about the domestic violence police reports in your past you would walk out. I’m not asking about those reports, at least not yet. My question is this: Do you think elected officials should control what questions reporters can ask? Should Mayor Nirenberg have been able to condition his appearance on us not asking him about Chick-fil-A?”

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.