This article has been updated.
San Antonio’s District 2, which includes the city’s East Side, has had five representatives on City Council over the past seven years. Two of them were appointed for months-long, interim stints. Another two resigned for other offices – including Ivy Taylor, who became the first Black woman elected mayor here.
Political observers have long said consistent leadership is desperately needed to address crime, gaps in infrastructure, and gentrification in the historically underserved East Side.
“We hear [people] in the community say we want consistency, and that’s what we’re here to do. … We’re here to be an active, advocating voice for the district,” said current Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan, who was elected in 2019 and is seeking a second term.
Andrews-Sullivan, a 45-year-old military veteran who previously worked in motivational speaking, faces 11 challengers on the May 1 ballot: production company owner Carl Booker, tax preparer Dori Brown, political activist and personal chef Pharaoh Clark, local radio host and businesswoman Nneka Cleaver, local educator Norris Tyrone Darden, business owner Chris Dawkins, high school teacher Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, tax preparer and nonprofit founder Walter Perry Sr., military veteran and political consultant Andrew Fernandez Vicencio, outgoing West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Kristi Villanueva, and Michael John Good, who works in construction and logistics.
Andrews-Sullivan noted her work on the food insecurity and shelter working group that was formed to lead the region’s response and recovery to the coronavirus pandemic. She acknowledged that there’s a long road ahead toward recovery. She supported the voter-approved workforce development program as well as the rent and mortgage assistance program, funded through local, state, and federal budgets.
Poverty, addiction, and other struggles are “triggers that cause those situations, and if we’re not speaking to the triggers, pouring more money into policing is still not going to tackle the situation,” said Andrews-Sullivan, who points to her work on a resolution to declare racism as a public health crisis and a recent ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds as highlights of her first two years on Council.
Some challengers for the seat say she hasn’t been getting enough done, especially during recent police reform movements. And with a charter amendment directed toward police reform on the same ballot, the issue was top of mind for many candidates.
Voters will be asked if they want to repeal local implementation of a state law that gives police officers collective bargaining rights. Fix SAPD, a police reform group associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, is leading the repeal initiative involving that law, which is Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code.
Andrews-Sullivan did not say if she supports the repeal of Chapter 174 but said it will be a critical vote for the community.
Booker, 53, said he would rather focus on community solutions when it comes to improving public safety.
To reduce crime, the owner of Avista Products, an advertising agency, wants to launch an ambassador program that would pay 25 individuals to stay out of trouble and reach out to service providers when they see trouble.
While upfront costs would be expensive – roughly $120,000 for 12 weeks – Booker noted that incarceration is much more expensive. He’d like the program to be funded through a public-private partnership with corporate sponsors.
Brown, who serves on the Claude W. Black Community Center advisory board, said she needed to get a clearer picture of what repeal of Chapter 174 would mean for the police and the community before casting her vote.
Clark, 33, co-founded Reliable Revolutionaries, a group seeking justice reform, last summer in response to nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He supports the repeal of Chapter 174 because collective bargaining has yet to produce meaningful disciplinary reform.
“We were tricked into ‘let’s go to the negotiating table’ [before] and then nothing ever came of that,” he said.
His group is not interested in “defunding the police,” he said, which to some implies abolishment. “We wanted to go into detail with the budget … [in] a more responsible way so that we weren’t [underfunding] other programs” such as youth activities, mental health services, and other things that benefit community well-being.
City Council unanimously voted to approve the 2021 budget, which increased the police budget by $7 million. Andrews-Sullivan said the City should take a closer look into how it can better fund public safety from a prevention standpoint.
Cleaver, who owns Black Business SA, wants to work with police officers and the union to find solutions and is opposed to the repeal of Chapter 174.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been “hijacked,” Cleaver said, “away from why the movement was even created. … That movement was created to get justice for people who are being killed … by police.”
It’s a much-needed cause, Cleaver said. “But the next thing you know, we’re fighting with a Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter versus all lives matter. And that’s not the purpose.”
She said, “What I’m going to be is more strategic with the things that we need to change.”
McKee-Rodriguez supports the repeal of Chapter 174. The union, he said, has too much power to protect bad cops “no matter what” they do.
Money should have been reallocated from the police department’s budget to fund programs that prevent crime, said McKee-Rodriguez, who worked for Andrews-Sullivans’ 2019 campaign and her subsequent district office. “We need police accountability and reform.”
He would push for the police department to de-militarize its force, make it illegal to dial 911 as a racial threat, and better fund programs to prevent crime.
Villanueva, 48 does not think less funding for police is the answer, as “there’s just not enough officers to go around” patrolling neighborhoods, she said, adding that while there is room for reform, repealing Chapter 174 isn’t the way to go about it.
Vicencio, a political consultant for current mayoral candidate Denise Gutierrez-Homer, also does not believe that repeal is the right way forward. He wants to see more engagement between the police and community, but much of the push for local police reform is an “overreaction” to Floyd’s death, he said.
It focuses “on one bad apple as opposed to the good 100 apples in the basket. … These guys are putting their lives on the line 24/7. Let’s not forget that.”
Dawkins and Perry expressed support for repeal.
Beyond police reform
Booker, 53, wants to focus on revitalizing the East Side. He opened his business in the East Side several years ago but moved out when he became concerned that he was losing customers.
“At the time, you know, they were talking about how the district could be revitalized and it just never happened,” Booker said. He moved back four years ago to change that.
One of Brown’s top priorities is improving communication among residents and with the district office, said Brown. “There’s really a big breakdown in communication.”
Public safety, economic growth, addressing the digital divide, top her list of priorities as well.
“As we improve safety, we also have to make our residents and our community aware of how we individually can play a big part in the process,” she said, suggesting that more community members should take part in the Citizen Police Academy.
Clark said of Andrews-Sullivan, “We’ve worked together on some issues that she’s been fine … but I have a vision for District 2 and I feel that we could be getting there a lot faster.”
Beyond increasing public safety, Cleaver said, “District 2 has been underrepresented for a long time.”
She wants to ensure that the economic opportunities arising in District 2 due to increased investment are taken advantage of by “our residents and our businesses of the district.”
Darden, who did not return messages seeking an interview last week, “has been a certified Secondary Special Education teacher working in the San Antonio Independent School District and George Gervin Academy” since 2013, according to his website. His platform emphasizes public safety, investment in infrastructure, and economic development.
Dawkins, 67, said being president of the Lakeside Neighborhood Association has taught him a lot about how the City functions. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” who owns a trucking software company said San Antonio needs to better prepare itself for an Austin-San Antonio metroplex.
His priorities include better communications with residents, stronger district representation on boards and commissions, and community activation of existing infrastructure such as the Wheatley Heights Sports Complex and Martin Luther King Park.
If elected, McKee-Rodriguez, 25, would be the first openly gay Black council member in San Antonio. He teaches math at James Madison High School.
McKee-Rodriguez said his top priorities are: increasing street lighting to decrease crime, encouraging more recreational and entertainment developments (“no more gas stations and carwashes”), supporting minority-owned small businesses, and moving Pre-K 4 SA’s East Side location somewhere more central to the East Side.
“We need to really re-evaluate those priorities and make sure that pre-K 4 SA is accessible to all students, because all kids deserve pre-K and all kids deserve a chance at quality education,” he said.
Perry’s eight-point plan to improve the district starts simply: pick up the trash.
“We want to attract new businesses over here,” said Perry, 45. “And the thing about it is, quite frankly, is too dirty.”
From there, he aims to tackle public safety, housing, COVID vaccination, health care, and a succession plan to improve continuity in District 2 leadership. He wants to ensure stong leadership after his term.
Vicencio, 56, would like to see the City spend tax dollars on finding better ways to combat homelessness than on projects such as the Hardberger Park land bridge.
“We have got to be more accountable, transparent, and more efficient at the way we spend the money,” he said.
While Villanueva, 48, recently resigned from the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, but she’s “on standby” as the group merges with the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, she said.
As a former West Side executive, she understands that some may have questions about her running to represent the East Side, where she has live for about four years.
“I know people don’t like to hear this, but the West Side and the East Side have very closely matched issues of housing, crime, and the different needs of the community members,” said Villanueva, a small-business owner.
Her top priorities include public safety, land use, and short term rentals.
District 2 representation
The district has been represented by a Black councilmember since 1977, when San Antonio went from at-large council representation to single-member districts. While nearly 21% of District 2’s 180,000 residents are Black, according to 2018 data, a majority (54.5%) are Hispanic or Latino. Black residents make up 7% of the city’s population, according to census data. Meanwhile, 64% of the city is Hispanic or Latino.
“I do not want us to lose the only Black seat that we have [on City Council],” Cleaver said. “We can’t lose that voice. … [And] it doesn’t look good for the fourth largest city [in Texas to] not have any Black representation.”
Two non-Black Latinos are running for the seat: Villanueva and Vicencio.
“To me, it’s not a race thing,” Villanueva said. “If you vote in the right candidate, that candidate is going to [carry the will and] voice of the people. … We’re never, ever going to help our district thrive if you don’t unite – stop thinking about this as a race game and more as a people game.”
But it’s important for Black voices to be part of the conversation at all levels of government, said Demonte Alexander, co-founder of Black Equity PAC. The new group formed to train, support, and fund Black candidates does not yet plan to endorse a candidate.
“We may take a look at the runoff. … We may jump in there,” said Alexander. “But as of right now, it’s too early to get involved. … We’re trying to help all our Black candidates. For us to endorse one over the other, that’s not productive.”
The PAC plans to co-host a candidate forum with neighborhood groups to allow candidates to meet their potential constituents. It still offers training and other resources to all Black candidates regardless of endorsement.
“If a Black candidate doesn’t win this, we will effectively have no representation on Council whatsoever,” Alexander said. “That’s not acceptable to us.”
The demographics of the East Side are changing as the area becomes gentrified, but District 2 also includes parts of the Northeast Side that are whiter and more affluent, recently attracting younger residents.
“A lot of candidates just think about the East Side,” said Renee Watson, who is director of Bexar County’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Department and is a Democratic precinct chair residing in District 2. “When you go out to the northeast, there are different issues.”
Other neighborhoods in the district struggle with some of the highest crime rates in the city, and the East Side is still recovering from decades of underinvestment in public and private infrastructure as an influx of new development brings both growth and rising property valuations for longtime residents.
The number of candidates this election cycle comes as no surprise to Watson.
“District 2 is one of those areas where if anyone wants their voice [in the mix], we all allow that to happen,” she said. “There are no backroom deals. … You don’t have to be super wealthy” or well-connected to run a campaign.
Since 1991, no District 2 council member has served more than three terms (a four-term limit was put in place in 2008).
And with low voter turnout, it’s not difficult to get a majority. Just more than 5,400 District 2 voters cast ballots during the 2019 general election, which featured eight candidates. Andrews-Sullivan finished second – and just 59 votes from third place – behind Keith Toney in the first round, defeating him by 267 votes in a runoff.
Watson expects turnout in District 2 will be higher this year with police reform on the ballot, too.
“It’s gonna bring out both sides,” Watson said. The younger generation, many of whom participated in recent local protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, will likely be supportive of the move. “Voter turnout will probably be very significant.”
Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect that Cleaver owns Black Business SA.