Rey Saldaña is nearing the end of his eight-year tenure on City Council, and five relative newcomers to the political scene are vying to fill his District 4 seat.
After initially deciding not to publicly weigh in on who should succeed him, Saldaña told the Rivard Report on Tuesday that he is endorsing Adriana Rocha Garcia, a 39-year-old Our Lady of the Lake University assistant professor.
“I hesitated to endorse anyone because the way to win the South Side is not a long list of endorsements,” Saldaña said. “The way to win is a long list of addresses that you have knocked on.”
The 32-year-old councilman said he has been impressed by Garcia’s on-the-ground work engaging with voters in his district.
Garcia, a former Saldaña appointee to the San Antonio Ethics Review Board, appears to be the frontrunner to win the race, having raised thousands more in political contributions than any other candidate, according to campaign finance report filings from Jan. 1 to March 25.
But District 4 is a political constituency in which name recognition and fundraising isn’t as relevant as it is in other districts, said Colin Strother, a political strategist who advises campaigns in South Texas. The district, for one, is skeptical of politicians with ties to the City Hall establishment. The Southside electorate has also historically favored candidates who employ a grassroots campaign style, Strother said.
“The thing about District 4 is the turnout is so low that even a political neophyte … if they got out there and aggressively organized [can win],” he said. “This is anyone’s race to win right now.”
Garcia faces a candidate pool that includes former Republican candidate for Texas House District 124 Johnny Arredondo, insurance salesman Joel Mendoza, proposal specialist Samantha “Sami” Sanchez, and retired City employee Genevieve Trinidad.
Arredondo and Trinidad did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
Mendoza, a 32-year-old Rio Grande Valley native, said he was inspired to seek public office for the first time after volunteering for Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign this past fall.
“I’ve never been into the political scene or anything like that,” Mendoza said. “I got pretty emotionally invested [in the Senate campaign] and started to learn the important issues. After November, I thought about what I can do to help my city … and local government seemed like the right step to take.”
Sanchez, 30, said she left her job in March to focus on her community. She has lived in the district since 2007 and is raising her kids there, she said.
“I’ve always had a passion for empowering my community, whether it be through my job or just [through] volunteer work,” she said. She said her most recent job as a quality and proposal specialist entailed helping Alaska Natives rebuild their villages. “As much as I was helping people in other places, I really wanted to bring that back to San Antonio and really focus on my community.”
Mendoza, Sanchez, and Garcia all spoke of the importance of empowering a District 4 population that often feels left in the shadows. The South Side is historically more Latino, Spanish-speaking, lower-income, and less educated than San Antonio communities north of the urban core. Candidates said they would continue to direct funds toward public improvement projects in District 4, just as Saldaña did when he paved the way for Pearsall Park to be developed.
Garcia said elevating the voices of those who have in the past felt unheard is one of the main principles she’s running on. She said she plans to do that by educating residents about the functions of local government and how they can provide input. Garcia also plans to look at the makeup of the City’s boards and commissions to ensure that there are appointees from every part of the city.
“I think it’s important to continue knocking on doors even when it’s not election season and just reaching out and asking people, ‘How are your sidewalks doing? Let me check on those lights. Are there still stray dogs?’” she said. “I think getting back into the neighborhoods is really important to me.”
Garcia’s campaign brought in $14,600 in donations and spent about $12,200 as of the April 4 campaign finance reports. Arredondo reported $1,350 in contributions and about $4,000 in political expenditures during the same Jan. 1-March 25 period. Mendoza’s campaign received $690 in contributions and spent about $450.
Filings for Sanchez and Trinidad did not appear in the City’s electronic filing system.
Saldaña, who has served the maximum four Council terms allowed by the city charter, recounted his own underdog victory in the District 4 race in 2011 when he defeated the clear favorite, Leticia Cantu. He cautioned that fundraising – and even his own endorsement – will not be what wins the election this time around.
“I got out-raised in my  election,” he said. “Regardless of your campaign account, what matters is your roots and your sweat. When it comes to campaigns, even if [Garcia] under-raised I would still be confident in the amount of work I’ve seen her and her team have [done] on the ground.”