If she is elected to represent District 3, her transition into office will be smooth, Phyllis Viagran assured.
“I know what’s in the works and what needs to be completed,” Viagran said during a virtual candidate forum on Monday hosted by the League of Women Voters of the San Antonio Area. That’s largely because her sister is the District 3 incumbent, Rebecca Viagran, who has served the maximum four terms on City Council.
That name recognition matters quite a bit, said Bryan Gervais, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“There’s some evidence that dynastic candidates, which I guess we can call them, benefit from some brand recognition … I think at a local level especially, which are low-information elections, where folks don’t have a lot of political knowledge about specific issues or the candidate’s ideology,” Gervais said. “And here in San Antonio for our local elections, which are nonpartisan, they don’t have partisan cues, either. So at the local level, name recognition is going to matter a whole lot more.”
District 3 is the largest geographically of all the 10 Council districts, covering 116 square miles of South San Antonio. Phyllis Viagran, a community outreach coordinator and trainer with Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), joins 11 other candidates vying to win the open seat. She is not the only familiar name on the ballot; voters also may recognize Tomas Uresti, a former state representative for District 118, which includes some of the council district.
Uresti also is the brother of former State Sen. Carlos Uresti, who is in prison after being convicted of 11 felonies, and Albert Uresti, Bexar County’s tax assessor-collector since 2013.
It’s possible Tomas Uresti’s chances for the District 3 seat may be hurt by his brother’s criminal history, said Henry Flores, a professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University. Uresti lost his statehouse seat in the 2018 primary just weeks after his brother’s conviction and ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat later that year. He also failed to win election to the Harlandale Independent School District board of trustees in 2019.
“They’ve always kept family issues out of the limelight if they could,” Flores said. “Still, the public’s going to remember that and I don’t know how that is going to play in the election.”
Uresti’s campaign website and Facebook page do not detail his platform, though he released a Youtube video at the end of March entreating voters to consider him. In it, he promised to focus on pandemic relief for small businesses, vaccination efforts, and preparing for severe weather events like the February winter storm.
“I think there are some issues that have not been addressed that we can address as quickly as possible,” Uresti said in the video.
In Monday’s League of Women Voters candidate forum, Uresti highlighted his past experience as a state representative, a Harlandale trustee, and a board member for the Bexar County appraisal district.
“We have great candidates all across the board, everybody has something to add, but you know I’ve served as a representative in different capacities,” he said.
Viagran highlighted unemployment, domestic violence, senior care, and the digital divide as core pillars of her platform.
“Broadband as a utility is essential,” she said during the forum. “I think mobile data is great, that’s what most of our seniors have in the area, but I think that broadband infrastructure is necessary as we move forward … and as we continue to do things online. How do we do that? We need to bring our stakeholders together and we need to have a talk about affordability.”
Viagran, raised $15,655 for her campaign between Jan. 1 and March 22 and had $9,998 cash on hand, leading the pack in fundraising efforts. Uresti raised less than $7,000 and reported having no cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports dated the same period.
While Viagran and Uresti have the advantage of name recognition, candidate Marcello Martinez has arguably more extensive city government experience, having served for eight years on the Planning Commission.
Martinez reported $11,810 in contributions and $7,335 in his last campaign finance report. He also outspent Viagran by more than $3,500. His platform featured many of the same issues heard in District 3 and citywide discussions: infrastructure improvements, affordable housing, and economic development.
“District 3 is growing, there’s no question about it,” Martinez said during the candidate forum. “It can happen to us or we can guide it. Those are our two choices but it’s going to happen. And I really believe we can control it.”
Other District 3 candidates also emphasized the need for a police substation in the district. Mark Arthur Vargas Jr., a former college and career readiness counselor, said he wants to see that substation staffed with a psychiatrist and social workers to deal with domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health as well.
“Because an officer is not needed for every call,” he said Monday.
Angela Cardona, who works as an executive assistant at national nonprofit AVANCE Inc., and stay-at-home mom Katherine Herrera Garza, who ran her husband George Garza’s campaign for the Texas House last year, both said there must be efforts beyond simply putting a police presence in the district. Cardona said she hopes to see more community building efforts with police, while Herrera Garza said people need to “promote strong family values and marriage counseling” to address public safety issues.
Though the next District 3 representative has yet to emerge, the combination of low turnout and a wide-open race makes one aspect of this somewhat predictable, Flores said.
“To me, it’s still going to end up in a runoff,” Flores said.