Near the end of a City Council briefing on the San Antonio Police Department’s strategy to combat violent crime, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was about to turn over the microphone to a colleague when he suddenly changed his mind.
“You know what — no.” He went on to add his sharpest criticism yet of a program that critics say resembles one in Memphis, Tennessee, where police officers were charged with murder in the beating of Tyre Nichols, a young black man who died from his injuries three days later.
“No one here should feel reaffirmed about what we’re doing based on the presentation we heard here,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We’re learning. We are in an important stage of growth, but we are not at the point where we’re putting our money where it should be to make meaningful [change to address] our societal flaws. That’s the point I’d like to make.”
Less than three months away from his first shot at retaining a seat that is prone to turnover, the moment encapsulated McKee-Rodriguez’s proclivity for standing on principle, even when doing so could leave him open to criticism.
The 27-year-old former council aide defeated his former boss to become the first openly gay Black man to hold elected office in Texas. Since then, his willingness to speak up on sensitive issues like policing, abortion and gentrification has won him friends among the progressive groups that have grown increasingly powerful in local politics.
“I look different than most elected officials. I’m more outspoken than most elected officials. … And the way that I operate is fairly different,” said McKee-Rodriguez, in an interview at his district office in the Claude Black Community Center last month.
McKee-Rodriguez now faces critics who say that approach hasn’t helped him gain clout at City Hall, nor has it helped the East Side capitalize on San Antonio’s explosive growth.
And as he gears up for city elections in May, a political action committee funded by business people and developers hopes to replace him with someone more aligned on their economic priorities.
“I believe things are done through relationships, and the better relationships we have, I believe we can really get some work done in District 2,” said the Rev. Patrick Jones, one of three announced challengers to McKee-Rodriguez. “Development is going on without us, and I feel like we need to be a part of it.”
Carla Walker, a retired communications professional and McKee-Rodriguez’s former appointee to the MLK Commission, Edward Earl Giles, a caregiver, and James Guild, a retired Army veteran and military healthcare consultant, have also filed to run in District 2.
Leaders from the PAC, called the San Antonio Equity Alliance, plan to interview candidates after filing closes on Feb. 17, according to a source familiar with the effort.
Community leaders in District 2 have long felt like a low priority to city government — a sentiment that was aired publicly last year during a fight to keep part of Brackenridge Park from being moved into another district.
Yet the district has struggled with persistent turnover on City Council.
Jada Andrews-Sullivan served just one term before losing to McKee-Rodriguez, who filed a complaint of harassment against her chief of staff while working as one of her staffers.
Andrews-Sullivan’s predecessor, William “Cruz” Shaw, was popular among colleagues but grew disenchanted with city politics and resigned to become an associate judge before the end of his term. Shaw had ousted the incumbent, Alan Warrick, after he was discovered passed out on a park bench outside City Hall.
“I would say that District 2 is a victim of unfortunate circumstance,” said McKee-Rodriguez. “… I think District 2 isn’t as contentious a district as people think.”
Among his opponents, however, criticism of the incumbent has already gotten personal.
McKee-Rodriguez said he removed Walker as his appointee to the MLK Commission at the request of other commission members. She was among the first candidates to file for the municipal election, and accused McKee-Rodriguez of putting his personal social issues agenda ahead of the nuts and bolts of the district.
Jones and McKee-Rodriguez feuded last election cycle over accusations that Jones, who is the president of the Baptist Ministers Union, had told people not to support McKee-Rodriguez because of his sexuality.
Jones said in an interview that the solution to the turnover in representation was electing a lifelong resident of the district who wouldn’t use the office as a political stepping stone. McKee-Rodriguez moved around with military parents as a child and attended high school in Hawaii.
“Unlike many of the other communities, we have failed to elect people that were actually a part of our community,” said Jones. “We elect people that don’t have a real affiliation with the district, and once they get in the office, they forget about the people that have elected them.”
Insurgent to insider
McKee-Rodriguez returned to teaching after leaving Sullivan-Andrews’ office and began to get involved with the Texas Organizing Project, where he’d been an activist before going to work for the councilwoman.
When McKee-Rodriguez launched his uphill campaign against the incumbent the following year, TOP volunteers knocked on thousands of doors to help him. He took 63% of the vote in a runoff.
“Bexar County TOP members were impressed with not only his understanding of issues that impact our communities — especially on housing, health care and public safety — but his desire to implement community-based solutions to improve quality of life in District 2,” said TOP Co-Executive Director Michelle Tremillo.
The council’s new class of progressives rattled business as usual at City Hall.
“Since my situation, I think there’s a different level of accountability there,” McKee-Rodriguez said of the city’s workplace culture, which underwent big changes before he’d even taken office. “Nobody wants to see a situation where … a council aide is treated poorly, and then ends up becoming a news story, and that council aide ends up beating the boss.”
New members arrived and quickly questioned the benefits of the city’s spending priorities, particularly when it comes to policing and financial incentives for development and housing. They also clashed openly with city leaders during the fiscal year 2021 budget cycle.
While fellow progressives on the council have since largely moved their policy disagreements behind closed doors, however, McKee-Rodriguez has used the dais to speak up, even when he’s at odds with his colleagues.
For example, when members of the council decided not to ask Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) to resign after his alleged involvement in a hit-and-run car accident — a symbolic move since they don’t have to power to remove members — McKee-Rodriguez used the moment to talk about racial inequity in the justice system, abstaining from the vote on whether to approve lighter sanctions against Perry.
“I gave my remarks and then everyone else was like, ‘Oh, well, Councilman Perry is a good friend and he serves his constituents,'” said McKee-Rodriguez. “… There’s a real victim there.”
McKee-Rodriguez’s opponents have seized on his willingness to bite at each moral fight that comes across his plate.
“I think that’s a very important thing, that whomever represents our District 2 seat must have the ability to at least have six good friends” on the council, said Jones.
McKee-Rodriguez contends he has been successful working behind the scenes to influence policy, pointing to a street lighting index and civil rights coordinator that he pushed the city to include in the 2021 fiscal year budget as examples.
And while he’s tangled publicly with some of his colleagues, many of them view McKee-Rodriguez’s willingness to push them on sensitive issues as an asset.
“The things that he brings to the council are very difficult issues and topics that we maybe wouldn’t be talking about otherwise,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee McKee-Rodriguez serves on and attended a public safety meeting he hosted in District 2.
“It’s not just that he’s not afraid of having the conversation with us publicly, he goes into the community and then brings that back,” she said.
Among the issues McKee-Rodriguez has consistently pushed his colleagues on is accountability in law enforcement.
In 2021, his first year on the council, he sought to reduce the city’s planned budget increase for SAPD through an amendment that was voted down. The following spring he voted against the police union contract, along with council members Mario Bravo (D1) and Teri Castillo (D5).
Since then, increased crime in big cities across the nation has caused progressives at every level of government to pull back from the criminal justice reform efforts that arose after the murder of George Floyd.
The Texas Legislature passed a law preventing municipalities from cutting their law enforcement budgets, and most members of the council, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, are more focused on quelling residents’ crime concerns than reviving a police accountability effort that fell short in 2021.
“I think what you see is the power that SAPOA (the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association) has had… in stoking fear,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “Any time you push for accountability, any time you push for any kind of criminal justice reform, any time you try to push for restorative justice practices, SAPOA is going to make it seem like you’re defunding the police, you’re enabling criminals and you know, all the scary things.”
So far, McKee-Rodriguez is the only council member to announce support for a proposed City Charter amendment that seeks to ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds, as well as expand the city’s cite-and-release policy. The effort is supported by TOP, but some Democrats worry it could do more to mobilize conservative voters against it than excite progressives in May.
“My constituents are going to know that I’m supportive of this,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “I’ll let them know when I’m canvassing, when I’m campaigning, because I have just as much stake in seeing something like the Justice Charter implemented as I do in my election.”
Life in the spotlight
For better or worse, McKee-Rodriguez says he’s clear-eyed about his ability to attract attention — and scrutiny. He said his campaign team studied the number of times his name appeared in news articles shortly after he took office and found that McKee-Rodriguez was quoted more often than any other council member, even on issues outside of his district.
“That’s not something that you prepare for,” said McKee-Rodriguez.
In one unusually candid moment — even for him — McKee-Rodriguez took the mic at the beginning of Pride Month last June to point out that all of the students who attempted suicide in his time as a teacher were LGBTQ, and that he’d been asked on multiple occasions to reassure companies seeking to hold conventions in San Antonio that it’s a safe place to bring LGBTQ employees.
“I am expected to support economic development by sharing my story with queer folk, knowing that my experience is not valued by other elected officials in the city,” he said at the June 2 council meeting.
McKee-Rodriguez acknowledged the issues he brings to the council chambers are often ones that illicit strong feelings from both his supporters and detractors.
“When people see me, they have either a very strong positive reaction,” he said, “or they have a very strong negative reaction.”
McKee-Rodriguez said that dynamic has taken a personal toll on him over the past two years and caused him to question whether he has a future in politics beyond City Council. He recently finished a master’s program in educational leadership at UTSA, and said he envisions a future after council trying to shape education policy from an unelected role.
“Being an elected official, I don’t know if it’s for everybody, but I’m here now and I’m doing it,” he said. “I’m going to seek this office for as long as the people will have me. After that, I’m really not that interested in other offices.”