District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo started his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering but realized after a few semesters that his heart was in political organizing.

“I was just scared that I was going to get an engineering degree and end up with a job where I’m engineering, like, the bolts that go on the front wheels of a Ford Taurus,” the 45-year-old said. “I wanted to be able to do things that would be more meaningful and have more of an impact on our community.”

Bravo’s victory in June over three-term Councilman Roberto Treviño surprised many, as they expected the power of incumbency to shield Treviño from a challenger. One of his political mentors even tried to dissuade Bravo from running against Treviño, arguing that Bravo had no chance. But after months of hard campaigning, Bravo won with 54% of the vote in a runoff election. Friends and family credit his success to his tenacity, curiosity, and willingness to listen to everyone.

“Even though I didn’t want him to run, Mario was dead on,” said Christian Archer, a former political strategist who counts himself as a mentor to Bravo. “He was right.”

‘What a mess’

While still an engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, Bravo spent a semester working as a Senate messenger at the Texas Legislature. Though he had not considered a life in public office, that experience planted the seed.

“I would sit there [on the Senate floor] and listen to people deliberate, and I was really surprised at what a mess it was,” Bravo said. “I saw the people who were serving in office and thought, ‘Surely these can’t be our best and brightest.’ At that time, it made me think, ‘I’m not the best person to serve in office but surely I can do better than many of these people.’

He also met Ed Wendler, a lawyer and lobbyist in Austin who was a close ally of former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Bravo’s mother had lived with Wendler’s wife when they were younger and connected her son to the politically influential Wendler.

Wendler, who died in 2004, helped shape Bravo’s career, he said. Wendler opened doors for Bravo and connected him with opportunities, including introducing him to Archer. The two would become friends.

“I met Ed Wendler back when I was a young rabble-rouser and there was this young kid living in his garage,” Archer recalled.

Archer, who spent much of his career as a Democratic strategist and campaign consultant and more recently started the nonpartisan Bexar Facts poll, went on to recommend that “young kid” to work on various political campaigns, after Bravo graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. One of those was Juan Garcia’s 2006 run for the Texas House in District 32. Before Bravo agreed to campaign for Garcia, Archer remembers that he insisted on interviewing his potential boss.

“He’s like, ‘I’ve got to make sure he’s right on the issues,’” Archer said. “And Mario and Juan spent two days interviewing each other.”

Archer said he believes those strongly held convictions will make Bravo a leader on City Council, especially on environmental issues.

Combining politics and the environment

Bravo bounced around early in his career, working on political campaigns, including Mikal Watts’ exploratory U.S. Senate run and Brewster McCracken’s Austin mayoral race, while also doing some sales and public relations work. In 2012, he earned a master’s degree in public affairs from UT-Austin.

In 2015, he joined the national nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund as an outreach specialist for Texas; he now serves as a project manager. These days, his EDF work is focused on vehicle electrification efforts around the state. Bravo also has made time to work on local political campaigns, he said, helping three of his current colleagues’ election bids.

In 2018, he made his first run for political office, seeking the Democratic nomination to replace County Commissioner Paul Elizondo. He finished third out of three candidates in the Precinct 2 race.

Locally, some environmental advocates have expressed concern about Bravo’s environmental bona fides. Those who take a hard line against fossil fuels, such as Anacua Garcia, a member of the Climate Action San Antonio coalition, disagree with Bravo’s position that because natural gas is cleaner than coal it has value as a “bridge fuel” toward more renewable energy.

During his time at EDF, Bravo promoted best practices during drilling and extraction to find and prevent gas leaks that can negate the reduced emissions of burning natural gas in the first place.

Bravo is not in favor, however, of CPS Energy subsidizing and encouraging the use of natural gas by giving customers rebates to switch to natural gas appliances, and activists see his decision to resign as chair of CPS Energy’s Environmental Stakeholders Group last year as proof they will be able to work together to push the utility toward a greener future.

“My community wants to see structural changes at CPS [Energy] and Mario has said that he is open to talking about that with us,” Garcia said.

When Mayor Ron Nirenberg created a new Municipal Utilities Committee for City Council last month, he placed Bravo on it. Bravo said he’s prepared to work with CPS Energy on moving toward more renewable energy.

Some advocates have targeted Bravo for his choice to campaign on removing the homeless individuals who slept by the District 1 field office. Bravo maintained that he listened to residents in the adjacent Dellview neighborhood while prioritizing the health and safety of homeless San Antonians.

“What’s different is I’m working with all the nonprofits who work in the city who serve the homeless,” he said. “Before, [Treviño] had a go-it-alone approach.”

He said he hopes to continue talking with nonprofits, residents, and the city on how best to address homelessness and connect people to services.

Archer said he believes Bravo will make good on that promise.

“Mario is one of the most thoughtful people I know,” Archer said. “And even if you disagree with him, he’s going to listen. And that’s a very unique, rare skill that most people don’t have. When he asks you a question, he really is looking to become smarter.”

Family politics

Bravo’s family is no stranger to political involvement. His mother participated in the Crystal City walkouts and campaigned for Ann Richards during her gubernatorial run. His maternal grandfather worked for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and his maternal grandmother was active in the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, according to family members. His paternal great-grandfather Manuel Bravo was the Zapata County judge for 20 years.

During Bravo’s childhood, the close-knit family lived on 25 acres in Northwest San Antonio, where they raised chickens, rabbits, and their own food. He looks back at that time as the foundation for his focus on sustainability, a lens he said he applies to everything.

Today, his living experience is more urban. Bravo lives in District 1’s Deco District, in a building owned by his parents that has multiple units; he helps manage the property.

Bravo’s mother and sister say he’s always been committed to listening to others, always eager to learn more. Sister Diega Bravo said it made sense that her younger brother would be the one in the family to seek elected office. She and younger brother José Armando are simply too hot-headed, she said, while Mario could always navigate tense situations with ease.

“He’s very good at being able to compartmentalize having a disagreement with somebody and not taking it personally,” she said.

His mother, Sissy Bravo, attributes Mario’s levelheadedness to growing up as a “classic middle child.”

“He’s willing to go either way. He’ll do what the older one says and take care of the younger one,” she said. “I’m also a middle child, and I always said the middle child doesn’t have to drive the car or ride shotgun. They’re just glad to be going somewhere. He was a very easy child to be a parent of.”

Sissy Bravo believes her son’s grassroots convictions, combined with his understanding of how the right policies can benefit residents and the environment, will serve San Antonio well: “That’s his forte.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.