After San Antonio City Council members discussed possible economic incentives for, and the impacts of, hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention during a closed-door meeting Thursday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and at least four Council members agreed that the costs of hosting the GOP convention outweighed the benefits.
City Council members said the discussion was limited to fiscal and logistical concerns as required by state rules for such executive sessions.
But that didn’t stop many from voicing their personal political opinions outside formal meetings. Some said they based their decision on financial and security analyses presented to them; others said they simply would not welcome a convention that supports President Donald Trump and his “divisive” administration.
Several industry, business, and community leaders lobbied Council to put the city’s proverbial hat in the ring and pursue the convention that Republican National Committee officials had said could draw an estimated 40,000 people to San Antonio and generate $200 million in economic impact.
“We had very clear rules of engagement on this conversation,” Nirenberg told reporters after the meeting. “We did not discuss partisan political views at all. Objectively speaking, while the economic impacts proposed are eye-opening, there is a reason why the City of San Antonio has not bid on a political convention of this nature in 20 years, and why so few cities in this country see that this season is even worth it.”
Nirenberg cited concerns about “disruptions” to traffic, infrastructure, neighborhoods, and “life in San Antonio” that protests could cause. The in-kind or otherwise public resources required to host the convention is not an investment San Antonians should have to make, he said.
The RNC request for proposals calls for a “fundraising plan” to cover the convention’s $70 million price tag. A local group of business leaders pledged to raise most of the money required, but Nirenberg said the City still would incur costs through its transportation and police departments.
The decision would have been the same had the Democratic National Convention asked for a bid, Nirenberg said. “Politics were left out of the conversation. … I have no interest in [the DNC] either.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) called the decision to step out of the running a missed opportunity.
“It’s another stunning lack of leadership from Mayor Nirenberg,” Brockhouse said. “We have all the means possible to pick up this type of political convention. I think the point needs to be made we just came off a fantastic NCAA Final Four – there was massive disruption in the city with that, and we pulled it off 100 percent.”
Brockhouse agreed that the city attorney kept a short leash on the political comments but said nothing was discussed during the closed-door meeting that could not have been discussed in a public meeting.
“This is what’s wrong with City Hall,” he said. “When we do these things in executive session – we do them with an attorney. We can’t come out and tell you what people really feel.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) agreed. “We should have focused on supporting our political system whether Republican or Democrat,” he wrote in a statement after the meeting. “I am frustrated with [Council] being kept in the dark.”
Executive sessions do not feature a council “vote;” rather, members indicate their position and a consensus is reached. The Rivard Report polled Council members to find out whether they thought the city should submit a bid to host the Republican National Convention.
- Mayor Ron Nirenberg: No. (See above.)
- Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1): No. “The fiscal benefit of hosting the current administration’s Republican National Convention in San Antonio does not outweigh the tremendous respect we have for our cultural heritage,” he said during his State of the Center City Address on Tuesday.
- Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2): No. “Councilman Shaw was most concerned with what the economic impact would look like,” a spokesperson said after the meeting Thursday. “He has been looking at this from a business perspective, not a political perspective.”
- Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3): Maybe. Not included in the overall cost estimate were what Viagran referred to as “ancillary” costs of hosting the event, such as capital improvements needed, overtime for San Antonio Police Department officers, waste management, and emergency operations. “I wanted to know the true cost that may not be part of an RFP, but they are going to be part of our budget that we as a council have to budget for in the future,” she said after the meeting.
- Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4): No. “One week of economic boost two years from now does not [override] all of the feelings that my constituents have,” he said. “The fact that our president has gone out of his way to personally offend so many residents who I represent and personally offend …. folks who are transexual or Dreamers or disabled – the list goes on – it’s been very difficult to say yes to this and controversial because the president has made it so.”
- Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5): Maybe. “We just didn’t have enough information to proceed, and there was not really a consensus,” she said. “We still had a lot of unanswered questions [about the cost and benefits], and it seems like the City staff didn’t have a lot of answers.”
- Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6): Yes. (See above.)
- Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7): No. “I am concerned there would be long-term negative economic impacts if this event were hosted here. When I look at the short-term benefits, to me it just doesn’t outweigh that risk,” she said. “This could be a very divisive event. Not only because of the way San Antonio voters swing, but also because of the current image that the RNC is presenting right now.
- Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8): Unknown. Pelaez was not available for an interview and did not produce a statement by time of publication.
- Councilman John Courage (D9): Maybe. “I believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly,” he said. “Whatever they decide to do is up to them.” Asked whether the same level of scrutiny would be applied to a bid for a Democratic National Convention, Courage said, “Absolutely, I would think so.”
- Councilman Clayton Perry (D10): Yes. (See above.)
The Republican National Committee reached out to the City of San Antonio in early December, according to numerous sources, and started coordinating with Visit San Antonio in February to explore the logistics. According to a Visit San Antonio official, the city has the capacity to host the thousands of visitors in terms of hotel rooms, and it doesn’t overlap with any other major event at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in August 2020.
The original deadline for the request for proposals to host the event was Feb. 28, but that date was not set in stone, according to an RNC official.
“We don’t have a deadline, we have timelines,” Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member who heads the convention site selection committee, told the Rivard Report recently. “We’re earlier than normal with our timelines … If San Antonio really wants the bid, of course [they can submit.]”
He declined to say how many cities have submitted bids to host the GOP national gathering. “Until a city says they want to go public, that’s their call.”
In a memo to his fellow Council members last week, Nirenberg said he first learned in late March that San Antonio was still one of several cities the RNC was interested in. He planned to have the full Council briefed on March 28.
“However, prior to that date, I was informed that the GOP opted not to pursue a bid from San Antonio. As such, no further discussions occurred” until Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale emailed him Monday, April 23, Nirenberg wrote.
Several local business leaders and industry association leaders have flatly denied that local Republicans opposed making a bid, as Nirenberg has said.
Parscale, a part-time San Antonian who co-owned a local website design and digital communications firm, then unleashed a series of tweets that were critical of Nirenberg’s inaction toward hosting the convention last week. Those tweets continued Thursday after word reached Parscale that Council declined to pursue. “City Council just made the business community their enemy. Have fun with that.”
Weak-kneed Ron. A city council of left-wing activists destroying the economy of #SanAntonio. @Ron_Nirenberg and city council just made the business community their enemy. Have fun with that. https://t.co/P5PJVPih6B
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) May 3, 2018
A dozen other business and industry organizations, including the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the South San Antonio Chamber, the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association, and the San Antonio Restaurant Association, were filing letters similar to one penned by prominent local businessmen last week.
“This is not a political decision, but an economic one,” International Bank of Commerce CEO and Board Chairman Dennis Nixon, IBC Senior Vice President Eddie Aldrete, billionaire philanthropist Red McCombs, and former Democratic State Sen. John Montford wrote. “We ask the City Council to stay the course on what is best – and right – for the City of San Antonio and be reminded of what makes our city so beloved – a welcoming city with open arms and a community of diverse backgrounds that serves as a haven where all ideologies and backgrounds have an opportunity to be voiced and heard.
“We cannot let politics get in the way of our city’s growth and economic opportunity. Leadership Matters!”
Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told the Rivard Report Thursday that the chamber isn’t taking an official position.
“We’ve done well for 300 years without a Republican or a Democratic convention,” Cavazos said. “We love the tourism and hospitality industry but this is not going to make or break a year for us. We’re concerned with the amount of dollars that would have to be raised locally that would impact local nonprofits. This kind of money, we should put into other things in the community that are more foundational – not a three-day convention where we potentially divide people more in our country.”
Asked if he would feel the same way about the Democratic convention, he said, “exactly the same way.”
“Our focus should be industries like aerospace, manufacturing, automotive, bioscience – not hosting a three-day convention that is going to potentially be divisive and paint San Antonio in a negative light based on the rhetoric that we’re seeing coming out of Washington from both parties.”
A source inside the business community who asked to remain anonymous told the Rivard Report that this decision was reminiscent of Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s unilateral decision to pull out of the running for internet giant Amazon’s second headquarters in October 2017.
“The business community feels burned and hung out to dry,” the source said. “The mayor failed to bid on Amazon and failed to bid on this convention, and business leaders feel as if our city is adrift at sea.”
On Thursday, Kaufman said he felt sorry for locals who put time and effort into San Antonio’s bid.
“It would have been a great proposal. It’s a great city and has a lot to offer. We’re in the process of selecting a city and have many other places to go, and we’ll move on,” Kaufman said. “We were overwhelmed with the amount of support that came from San Antonio – letters and phone calls – very impressive.
“The leaders decided to lead in a different direction, and the mayor and council had to decide what they thought was best for San Antonio, which is their right. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say, to quote an old song, ‘I left my heart in San Antonio.’ People were terrific.”
Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking and reporters Jeff Sullivan and JJ Velasquez contributed to this report.