This article has been updated.

A few days after the May municipal election, Rudy Lopez walked into a small room at a senior living community in Southwest San Antonio. Having made it into the runoff for the District 5 City Council seat, he greeted the small group of women gathered there for an early Mother’s Day celebration, sitting at tables draped in pink plastic and decorated with “Elect Rudy Lopez” sugar cookies.

Lopez, who drew 14.7% of the vote on May 1, knew some of the residents well enough to call them by name and invite them to dance as a DJ played upbeat music. In his campaign pitch to the apartment’s residents, he said wanted to prioritize seniors’ needs if elected.

“I know personally how difficult it is … to get services for seniors,” Lopez told eight women at Bexton Place. “I take care of my mom and dad. Mom’s 88, Dad’s 87. … I have experienced how hard it is to just even get a caretaker or provider.”

Lopez, a 51-year-old retired civilian employee at the San Antonio Police Department, came in second on May 1, with 991 votes. His opponent in the June 5 runoff, 29-year-old substitute teacher Teri Castillo, gained more than twice the votes he did  – 2,077, giving her 30.7% of the vote. But Lopez has secured local endorsements that could indicate stronger support from established political voices, including endorsements from state Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) and current District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. (The San Antonio Express-News editorial board also endorsed Lopez, but only gave him “a slight edge” over Castillo.)

Gonzales, who threw her support behind Lopez just before the May election, said she was impressed by his ability to work with others and herself. As a member of the Thompson Neighborhood Association for the past eight years, and president for the past four, he has worked with her on area projects and bread-and-butter City Council priorities, Gonzales said. 

“I appointed him to the bond oversight committee,” Gonzales said. “He helped me with the Billy Mitchell housing rehabilitation [project]. …  We worked on some traffic coming in the area, some lighting projects in the area, alleyway cleanups, a lot of just neighborhood stuff, which is really what we need here in the community.” 

Before retiring, Lopez worked as a civilian police department employee for 25 years. He spent time in the identification department and spoke with pride of helping to start the ID Recovery Program that is still in operation today. As an employee, Lopez tried to ensure a smooth workflow for everyone around him, said former SAPD Assistant Chief Geraldine Garcia.

“I relied on Rudy to make sure things were done,” said Garcia, who worked with Lopez when she oversaw the records and identification section. “… He took initiative.”

Gonzales acknowledged that Lopez is an underdog going into the runoff election, which historically draws fewer voters than the general election. Lopez had less than half the number of votes that Castillo had on May 1, and Castillo was the only person in the 11-candidate race to break 1,000 votes. 

Ultimately, the runoff will be determined by which candidates can turn out their supporters. Castillo said she’s been block-walking or calling people every day as election day looms. Sofia Sepulveda, who has been volunteering on Castillo’s campaign, estimated that she herself has knocked on around 500 doors.

District 5 is the smallest council district, covering 22 square miles of San Antonio. It also holds the distinction of being the most densely populated in San Antonio, according to SA2020, but is also the poorest with 32 percent of its population living in poverty in 2018. Those characteristics have thrown the issue of affordable housing and gentrification into sharp relief for residents, something Castillo has made a foundational piece of her campaign. At the core of her candidacy is “ensuring that our public money works for us,” she said.

“What we have to do is to build and invest in programs that already exist but are severely underfunded,” she said Thursday. “For example, the Under 1 Roof program, minor rehab program, and several others similar to those rehab programs – they already exist.” 

Though Castillo may not have the same kind of community ties that Lopez has built, she too was born and raised in District 5 and lives close to her parents on the West Side. She is a member of the Historic Westside Residents Association and an urban policy historian. Amelia Valdez, one of the co-chairs of the Historic Westside Residents Association, called Castillo an “angel” that helped the association solidify its voice in the affordable housing conversation – especially when protesting the redevelopment of public housing project Alazán Courts that would have displaced the residents. That project was later scrapped.

“We were struggling,” Valdez said. “She came in at a time where we had a need for language, for her background in history and working in schools. She came as an intern from another area. … She just did incredible work.”

Castillo has demonstrated leadership abilities within her community advocacy groups, Sepulveda said. Sepulveda works as the Texas Organizing Project’s (TOP) statewide health care organizer and met Castillo through the group in 2019. Right before the coronavirus pandemic hit San Antonio, Castillo and Sepulveda were in the process of setting up a health care-related event with other TOP members and the logistics discussion got “contentious,” Sepulveda said. But Castillo guided the conversation to a solution.

“When people started arguing, she was able to stand up and talk to everybody and tried to bring all the ideas together and then said, ‘Let’s go through all of them until we agree on something that makes sense,’” Sepulveda said. “I thought her taking leadership within that big back-and-forth with around 20 people was amazing.”

Castillo is no longer a member of TOP, as the organization’s policy is to take people off their membership rolls when they run for public office, Sepulveda said. TOP did endorse Castillo, as did other progressive groups, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio). Rosie Castro tweeted an endorsement of Castillo last week.

“She’s ready because she has been super active in her community and has an understanding of what folks need & want in [District] 5,” said Castro, a long-time activist and mother of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) and Julián Castro, former mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development who also tweeted his support of Castillo’s campaign this week.

While Castillo’s interaction with local government has been from the lens of a community organizer, that perspective brings value to City Council, Sepulveda said. As an organizer, Castillo “listens to understand,” she said.

“We see it with [U.S. Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who wasn’t a politician herself, but was an organizer as well, right? And she understands what people need based on what she heard in the community,” Sepulveda said.

TOP is also backing District 2 candidate Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who is challenging incumbent Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan. There are five City Council runoff races in Districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9. Sepulveda hopes the number of runoff races draws more attention to them, lifting Castillo to victory.

TOP is providing block-walkers for both McKee-Rodriguez and Castillo ahead of the runoffs. “That’s what we’re doing to ensure that we take this council seat,” she said.

Early voting begins Monday and ends June 1. Election day is June 5.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.