District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña, who represents much of San Antonio’s Southwest Side, decided late last year not to run for mayor. For now, his focus is the work that still needs to be done in his district.
District 4 is one of the largest in the city by geographical area; it surrounds Joint Base-San Antonio, includes the South San Antonio Independent School District, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Port San Antonio, and extends south toward Applewhite Road.
Saldaña, who was first elected to Council in 2011 when he was just 24, has rolled up his sleeves to serve the long-neglected area by focusing his efforts on improving streets and infrastructure, enhancing nutritional programs, cleaning up graffiti, voicing concerns about South San ISD’s governance, and pushing for additional funds for the city’s public transit system.
“I think the biggest achievement these last six years is a change of attitude in the community about their voice at City Hall,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report on Thursday. “A lot of time, they felt overlooked.”
Now 30, he wants to continue his work, serving a fourth Council term, which would be his last under term limits. In a municipal election in which most Council races are crowded affairs, Saldaña faces only two challengers: Johnny Arredondo, a 61-year-old retiree who serves as a college and high school basketball official, and 24-year-old Rey Guevara, a Catholic youth minister.
Saldaña graduated from South San Antonio High School and went on to attend Stanford University as a Gates Millennium Scholar, earning undergraduate degrees in political science and communications in 2009 and a master’s degree in education policy in 2010. Saldaña’s father and grandfather came to the states from Mexico in the bracero program in the 1940s, and his parents never entered high school.
Guevara, who studied philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said he decided to run for City Council in order to push for small government and fiscal conservatism.
“A lot of people are overstating what City Council’s jurisdiction is, and I’m trying to keep it simple – being an advocate for people [regarding] how money is spent and maintaining roads and services,” Guevara said. “Everything else I’d like to leave to the private sector.”
Guevara said he greatly respects Saldaña, but that the councilman could “do more for the district.” In fact, the councilman’s political trajectory was part of the reason Guevara was inspired to run.
“I have a lot of respect for Rey Saldaña, and one of the reasons I had the courage to file is because he was young, too, when he got elected,” Guevara said. “He’s done good, but he’s not a strong voice for lowering taxes and opposing pet projects on City Council.”
Arredondo, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UTSA, agrees with Guevara and said he feels Saldaña “doesn’t have a healthy fear for the taxpayers” in his district.
“Last month he asked the City manager and City Council to set aside funds, which are taxpayer dollars, to help with legal assistance for undocumented aliens in the city,” Arredondo said. “Regardless of where you stand on the issue, that’s taxpayer money, and if you want to do something for people who break the law, you put in your own money or have churches help with that.”
Saldaña said he has no regrets on the positions he’s taken and is most proud of sticking by his choices during his tenure.
“Part of the role of a city official is being a voice for the most vulnerable, and my positions are not always popular, like [opposing] the police contract and standing up when the state and federal government bullies the LGBT or immigrant community,” he said. “That’s the hardest part of being in elected official, some bully those decisions down, but you have to stand up for them.”
Guevara said he opposes the $850 million municipal bond, albeit “a little bit reluctantly.” He thinks there’s a lot of good in the bond, but doesn’t like the way the money is being divvied up.
“A lot of the spending is being spent on the Northside, uptown, and downtown, but we have needs on the Southside too, like schools and infrastructure,” he said. “I’d like to see it revisited.”
Arredondo said he supports portions of the bond, but “not the part that is giving $8.5 million to the arts.” Each bond project category – parks, streets, facilities, drainage, and neighborhood improvements – includes 1% for public art.
“There are other priorities, shortage of police officers, streets, our sidewalks, our drainage … not the arts and the Hardberger Park bridge so deer can cross over,” Arredondo said. “I’ve been living for 30 years with broken streets around me – priorities are not in place.”
Saldaña supports the bond, which includes $7 million to improve sidewalks in overlooked gaps of the district.
“I will not allow District 4 to fall behind and not get its fair share,” Saldaña said. “I believe we are punching above our weight with what we are getting. … We’re still playing catch-up in some areas but in this bond we’re building a natatorium on an area of town that hasn’t seen a public pool in a long time, each park in the district is getting money for improvements, and close to $24 million dollars will help fix the drainage problems at Port San Antonio.”
Saldaña called Port San Antonio a job generator for the Southside and said up-to-date infrastructure is key to spur investment in the aerospace and cybersecurity industries.
In addition to focusing his efforts on taking care of long-forgotten areas, Saldaña said he has tried to avoid “spreading money all over like a typical politician” and has instead fought to put resources into big-impact projects.
Saldaña championed the $8.1 million makeover of Pearsall Park, which opened in June 2016 and transformed a former landfill and hundreds of acres of underutilized parkland into a regional destination park just south of Lackland Air Force Base and Port San Antonio. Funds from the city’s 2012 bond paid for most of the project, and Saldaña made the case for Pearsall Park to his constituents by describing an area that would become the pride of the district.
“That took four-and-a-half years, and outside the gates of the park there’s also a community health clinic that the area needed as well,” he said. “We worked with CentroMed and the private sector to invest. … The city is not going to fund the whole thing, so it’s important to create partnerships. I don’t believe government is always the answer, but, yes, a part of a solution.”
If re-elected, Saldaña said he wants to focus on improving K-12 education by working collaboratively with school officials and will continue to urge the City to boost VIA‘s funding. As for his mayoral ambitions, Saldaña said it was a tough decision not to run, but it at the same time it also was an easy one.
“When I was making those decisions, I didn’t neglect the fact that serving my district where I was born and raised is the best job I may ever have,” he said. “It’s important that I leave the dance with the partner I came with … and I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future.”