Raindrops – the first in weeks – pattered Spring Sunshine, a residential street in San Antonio’s northeastern suburbs. Ezra Johnson arrived to knock on doors and brought along his umbrella, a blue and white one to match his campaign logo.

The District 10 City Council candidate came to block-walk Friday armed with only a voter data app on his phone that pointed him to the front doors of people his campaign had contacted previously. He knocked on one door, then spoke briefly with an older woman on her front porch.

“She’s already voted,” Johnson said. “And voted for me.”

Considered the most likely of four challengers to unseat two-term Councilman Clayton Perry, Johnson came within 6 percentage points of beating Perry in a 2017 runoff. Since then, Johnson has worked nonstop to hone his credentials.

After criticism about a lack of neighborhood association experience, Johnson joined the El Dorado Homes Association, becoming president within a month of joining. In 2018, he was nominated for the VIA Metropolitan Transit Board. He made financial arrangements to quit his job as an administrative law judge for Texas’ oil and gas regulator if he gets elected. He’s earned high-profile endorsements from the San Antonio Express-News and a local council of the AFL-CIO, among others.

“I have spent the last four years trying to address the legitimate concerns people had back in 2017 about why I might not be the most qualified candidate for City Council,” Johnson, 44, told the San Antonio Report.

City Council races are nonpartisan, but a victory by the progressive Johnson would be considered an upset in a district often seen as conservative. The district went for President Joe Biden by 7 percentage points in November. However, this election could see a swell of conservative turnout due to Proposition B, which would strip San Antonio police officers’ collective bargaining rights.

Perry, a 65-year-old civil engineer who served 21 years in the Air Force before working in the private sector, is often the lone conservative voice on the San Antonio City Council. His rise to council followed a traditional District 10 path through his neighborhood association, then as a member of the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance.

Perry’s opponents cast him as a roadblock who doesn’t accomplish anything on council. Though Perry has a reputation as a fiscal watchdog, “it’s more so that he’s a fiscal guard dog,” said Gabrien Gregory, another progressive challenger in the race.

“It’s unproductive to guard the money and not want to spend any of the money on serious issues that are going to impact a lot of people,” Gregory said.

Perry pushes back on the notion that he’s always a no vote. In a phone interview last week, he was quick to list his policy accomplishments: passing a $5,000 homestead tax exemption, pushing for the City to fill all its vacant police officer roles, and bringing more street maintenance funding to his district.

“I don’t vote no on every single thing on Council,” Perry said. “That’s the perception there is, but not at all.”

Yet Perry enjoys how he stands out from his colleagues. Without his perspective, City Council would “just be an echo chamber,” he said.

“The fiscal conservative folks wouldn’t have a voice on City Council, and I want to continue to be that voice,” Perry said.

A divide on city streets

One good example of the differences between Perry and Johnson is on streets and transportation. One of Perry’s key campaign points is the rise in funding for street maintenance for the district during his tenure.

“I’ve really excelled in that area,” Perry said Saturday, though he added that “there’s still a long way to go.”

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

But it’s not like Perry got this funding on his own. In fact, it might not have happened had Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) not pushed so hard for budgeting for street maintenance based on the actual conditions of streets, rather than dividing up the money equally among council districts. District 10, it turns out, had the fourth-worst street conditions among all council districts following districts 2, 1, and 3.

Johnson criticizes his opponent for having a narrow vision about how to address streets without ballooning the City’s budget.

“Mr. Perry is always talking about how we’re not spending enough on street maintenance, we’re not spending enough on sidewalk maintenance,” Johnson said. “We have so many thousands of miles of streets and sidewalks, it would swallow the entire City budget to do nothing more than perform the maintenance work that we need. What we need to be doing is putting less strain and stress on our existing infrastructure.”

Seeking new ideas in transportation, Johnson has served three years on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board, where he was influential in rallying support for a long-sought shift of sales tax revenue to fund public transit.

Perry was one of two no votes against putting that sales tax shift on the ballot in November. He said he voted that way because he didn’t want to vote on a permanent tax shift that wouldn’t kick in for five years.

“I’m more for out-of-the-box thinking for public transportation,” Perry said.

But on transportation, Johnson’s the one with more out-of-the-box ideas. One of them is using federal funds newly available to San Antonio because of its air quality violations to create incentives for employers to let people continue working from home at least one day per week.

“Because obviously if folks aren’t traveling to and from their office some days a week, that means they’re not driving their cars. They’re not on the road,” Johnson said.

Council District 10 candidate Ezra Johnson visits voters in his district ahead of municipal elections on May 1st.
District 10 candidate Ezra Johnson visits voters in his district ahead of municipal elections on May 1. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Stances on Prop B

Street maintenance probably isn’t the most animating issue for District 10 voters right now. Instead, that’s Proposition B.

Perry and Johnson are both opposed to Prop B, but for different reasons.

Perry is a full-throated supporter of the police department, enough to draw protests from Black Lives Matter activists outside his home in July. One of Perry’s main talking points is his consistent push for the City to fill the more than 200 vacant police positions it had in 2017 when he came to office.

“I’m seeing a lot of no votes against Prop B because they feel that it’s a threat to the police and eventually themselves,” Perry said. “People want to feel safe, and they see this as a threat to their safety and security in their neighborhoods.”

Johnson, on the other hand, supports the police reforms that Fix SAPD, the group that got the proposition on the ballot, is seeking. He just doesn’t see Prop B, which would end the police unions’ right to collective bargaining, as the right avenue to get them.

“I don’t see how we’re going to achieve the accountability that’s needed through Prop B and in exchange we would be taking away fundamental rights from workers,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think that’s a good tradeoff.”

The better way, in Johnson’s view, would be to have a City Council that takes a stand on what they want to see in a new police contract.

“I think it would be much faster and simpler to have a City Council that stands up and says, ‘These are the 10 reforms we want to see in this contract, and if we don’t get them, we’re not going to approve it.’”

District 10 voters who want a candidate who supports Prop B might look to Gregory.

The part-time Army Reserve officer, part-time Starbucks barista wants to see Prop B passed, an area where he sees the greatest contrast between him and Johnson.

“I think that this is an issue more of civil rights and reform than a labor issue,” Gregory said. “I strongly support collective bargaining for unions. I just don’t think that every single profession, including police, falls into the category.”

Other challengers

Gregory and two others are vying to be an alternative to both Perry and Johnson. The other two are educator Alexander Svehla, and Emily Norwood, who worked on a reform campaign targeting CPS Energy last year.

Of those three, the 24-year-old Gregory has the most momentum, if fundraising is any indication. As of the campaign’s most recent finance reports, Gregory had raised $4,816 in campaign funds, compared to Perry’s $66,320 and Johnson’s $30,510. Norwood raised $895; Svehla didn’t file any campaign finance disclosures.

In an interview last week, Gregory said he’s got the right combination of traits: youthful energy, new ideas, and military experience. He’s running for his first elected office, though he’s served as president of Bexar County Young Democrats and has worked on multiple Democratic campaigns over the past seven years.

“I think people are tired of electeds who don’t listen,” Gregory said. “We need proactive leadership based on listening. We need to open our ears more.”

Black Freedom Factory holds a #forthepeople forum, a discussion with candidates for mayor and council people. Photos taken on March 3 and March 4, 2021.
District 10 candidate Gabrien Gregory Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Though he’s on the same end of the ideological spectrum as Johnson, Gregory said he’s had more issues with Johnson than with Perry during the campaign. Gregory said Johnson had met with him and spoken to him multiple times, trying to persuade him not to run.

“I can’t tell you how many comments he’s made that clearly indicate he thinks he is deserving of this seat,” Gregory said.

Johnson confirmed that he had met with Gregory but denied that he had asked him not to run.

“I just explained to him why I thought I was the better candidate, based on my experience and my past work in the district,” Johnson said.

Asked during his block-walking about Gregory’s comments, Johnson was taken aback. He leaned back for a second on his umbrella, then began listing all the work he’s done over the past four years.

“I feel like if I was entitled to it, I would have just continued doing what I was doing and come back and said, ‘I’m back. Love me now?’” Johnson said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.