By many accounts, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s handling of San Antonio’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been calm, measured, and science-driven. Even would-be challengers in the 2021 mayoral election have said so, though he still has detractors.
Most evenings since emergency stay-at-home orders sank in and sank the local economy, he has appeared next to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to provide coronavirus updates – often bearing grim news – to the community.
He keeps his fatigue well-hidden, but he often reveals frustration with state officials and others who would stand in the way of public safety efforts recommended by health experts.
“I’m mellow by nature, at least that’s what [my wife] always tells me,” Nirenberg said last week. “My blood pressure doesn’t get raised very easily. When it is, you know.”
Now in his second term, Nirenberg isn’t the first mayor to have to deal with a crisis, but the pandemic has brought unique challenges. Layered on top of that is a strong, sustained call for police reform and an election in November that will include workforce development and transportation funding initiatives on local ballots.
“These are deep and complex challenges,” Nirenberg said. “From the most immediate food and shelter concerns to the fact that life will go on – and what kind of life do we want to have?”
Some question if his often wonkish, measured approach will win votes in May. He narrowly won reelection in 2019 against then-Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who criticized Nirenberg’s “lead-by-committee” style.
How he handles these issues and the “economic disaster” over the next few months “will determine the remainder of Ron’s tenure as mayor,” said Christian Archer, a longtime political consultant who is often an ally of the mayor. “We’re on chapter five of a 15-chapter book [to May].”
In 2005, just four days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, newly elected Mayor Phil Hardberger announced on CNN that San Antonio was open to any victims in need.
“[Hardberger said] we’re going to be a community that opens its arms,” said Archer, who was a chief strategist for the former mayor. “And he never looked back.”
Nirenberg also took a strong stance in March after a cruise ship passenger infected with the deadly virus visited North Star Mall after being released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s quarantine at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Nirenberg quickly declared a local emergency, and the City filed a lawsuit against the CDC. San Antonio saw his metaphorical “blood pressure” go up.
“He let CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News and the world know that [the CDC is] not going to mess with public health in San Antonio. People rallied instantly in a very similar way to Hardberger and Katrina,” Archer said. “But here’s the difference: Katrina had an ending point.”
And San Antonio’s response to Katrina didn’t tank the economy.
“Three months later [San Antonio] was back to normal and Phil just rode that tidal wave” of political capital to get the largest bond program in the city’s history approved, establish Phil Hardberger Park, and get funding for the Museum Reach river extension, Archer said.
Unlike Katrina, the health response during the pandemic – from simply wearing a mask to reopening businesses and schools – has become highly politicized.
In a June Bexar Facts/KSAT/Rivard Report poll, 52 percent of Republican voters said “the worst is over” regarding the impact of the coronavirus, and 61 percent said continued social distancing and business closures will cause unnecessary damage to the economy and residents’ lives. Only 14 percent of Democrats thought the worst was over and 16 percent thought social distancing and business closures would cause unnecessary damage.
That nonpartisan poll, founded by Archer, showed a 67 percent approval rating for Nirenberg, down from 74 percent in April. Before the pandemic, he had 56 percent approval.
‘Dreams deferred’ as pandemic triggers policy triage
While the challenge from Brockhouse and blow-out fight against the firefighter union’s charter reforms hampered some of the progress Nirenberg hoped to make on big initiatives during his first term, that seems to pale in comparison to the level of recalibration the mayor has had to perform on priorities within his agenda.
Nirenberg walked away from his near-miss reelection (51 percent of the vote) in 2019 without a strong mandate, many observers have said.
He then doubled down on Connect SA, a comprehensive multimodal transportation plan to address the city’s insufficient mass transit system, by calling for City Council and voters to support VIA Metropolitan Transit with a one-eighth-cent sales tax. That money would be shifted away from the popular aquifer protection and trail development program.
But in early June, nearly two months after stay-at-home orders were implemented, it was apparent that the tax revenue needed to be diverted toward the economic fallout.
“Clearly the pandemic response and health crisis and now the long-term economic recovery has changed our agenda and changed many of the priorities we have locally,” Nirenberg said. “At the same time, it’s a clarifying point for us, because a lot of the things that have been exacerbated by the pandemic cut to the heart of the agenda I came to office with in the first place.”
Fighting generational poverty was always implicit in his work in affordable housing, transportation, and climate sustainability, he said. “It is now explicit and clearly one of the most urgent issues that people are talking about at the kitchen table. … [This] is a moment for us to capture the momentum on things that we’ve started.”
VIA officials vowed to place their bid on the ballot anyway. But Nirenberg and the transit agency arrived at a compromise: The tax revenue would be used for workforce development and education first. After that, VIA could receive the money. For the first time, voters will be asked to fund an initiative with sales tax four years before the money will be used for that purpose.
“There are a few elements of the agenda that are dreams deferred, but … the goals for public transportation expansion … are still very much part of our future,” Nirenberg said. “The triage process has changed the order in which we work on some of them.”
He formed a task force in July to develop what would become the workforce initiative that would be funded by the sales tax – if voters approve it in November.
Last week, City Council got a first glimpse of the initiative, giving it mixed reviews.
The four-year, $154 million initiative aims to get 40,000 unemployed or underemployed residents into either certification or college programs that feed high-demand occupations while providing financial and career support services.
Some Council members agreed that it furthers the goals set out by its previous spending and recovery plan approved in June that devotes $75 million toward similar workforce development programs.
Others said the initiative, as is, isn’t focused enough on serving the poorest of the poor and couldn’t guarantee that participants get a job or stay in San Antonio.
There’s not much time to work out the kinks. Council will discuss the initiative again on Tuesday and vote Thursday on whether to place it on the ballot. The deadline to get items on the November ballot is Aug. 17.
Renewing the one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA, the City’s popular prekindergarten program that serves 2,000 4-year-olds at four school locations, also is on the November ballot.
Like Pre-K 4 SA, the workforce initiative is a long-term, intangible, do-it-for-the-future idea. It’s unclear what kind of metrics will be used to measure success, but residents won’t have a chance to renew the workforce initiative if VIA also is approved.
Black Lives Matter and ‘the mayor of this goddamn city’
San Antonio saw Nirenberg’s blood pressure rise again in early June on the sixth straight day of Black Lives Matter protests in San Antonio sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis.
Nirenberg said he was not interested in forming another task force or committee that would not lead to change. He told protesters to keep him alone accountable “because I’m the mayor of this goddamn city, and we’re going to make change together, OK?”
The crowd cheered. It was a rare public display of emotion (and expletive) from the mayor.
Later that month, Nirenberg crafted a resolution spelling out City Council’s priority of removing problematic disciplinary rules in the next police union contract, increasing police transparency, and finding a way to provide “public safety” beyond the police department. Nirenberg and most of the Council raised a fist in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
While the resolution touched on much of what activists were calling for, they said public input was insufficient and Council voted to delay a vote on adoption.
When the 2021 budget was presented last week, activists were appalled that the proposal would increase the police budget by $8 million. While a fraction of the police department’s budget was sent to the Metropolitan Health District and the Office of Innovation, it wasn’t enough to cover the 5 percent increase police officers are contractually obligated to receive next year.
Nirenberg supported City Manager Erik Walsh’s proposal to have the Council’s Public Safety Committee lead a months-long analysis by of how funding for the police department could be diverted to other services.
“Real change, if we’re going to do it – more than just lip service – takes time and deliberation and that’s what I’m committed to,” Nirenberg said last week.
Activists thought there would be at least some form of “defunding” of police, Archer said. “So when the mayor says, ‘I’m the mayor of this goddamn city, hold me accountable,’ I think they’re going to.”
“Being a policy wonk and doing things by committee … that’s not a [rally cry],” Archer said.
Nirenberg said his approach is more inclusive.
“No single individual has ever laid the groundwork for the future of our city,” he said. “If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we can only move forward if we do so together. Convening our communities to realize our collective goals ensures that no voice goes unheard.”
The mayor said in June that he would sign two petitions aimed at repealing two state laws in the May election. Successful repeals would dismantle the public safety unions and improve the City’s ability to negotiate terms of employment for police and firefighters.
As the budget process continues and those petitions launch, Black Lives Matter will be paying close attention to where the mayor and Council members stand.
A familiar challenger
Those considering a run for the mayor will be watching closely, too, though Nirenberg has not announced a bid for a third term. Brockhouse said he’ll likely be running for mayor again – though he may consider waiting to run for Wolff’s seat as head of Bexar County Commissioners Court. Wolff, who has been county judge since 2001, has said he will retire in 2022.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who considered challenging Nirenberg as she approaches the end of her final term next year, said she too has eyes on the county judge’s seat now.
“Having an open seat is much more appealing than running against the mayor,” Gonzales said. “I do feel like [Nirenberg] has done a very good job during the pandemic. … There’s no reason to try to take him on right now.”
She had asked Nirenberg to delay the closure of businesses in March. But she now concedes the closure order was the right thing to do.
The campaigning environment is another factor that many would-be candidates across the state are considering, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the Univerity of Texas in Austin.
Incumbents have a traditional advantage, but it’s unclear how much blame – especially on the local level – will be transferred to elected officials because of the coronavirus, he said.
“I think the question about the pandemic is the degree in which people will separate out government response to this idea of the pandemic as an act of nature that was beyond people’s control,” Henson said. “I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.”
Early on in the pandemic, the mayor sought advice from epidemiologists and top health experts to help guide him, said Henry Flores, professor emeritus in the political science department at St. Mary’s University.
In true wonkish fashion, he listened to them and analyzed data, said Flores, who advises Nirenberg. “He considers all variables and bits of information before he makes a decision.”
The mayor handled the first few months of the pandemic well, Brockhouse said.
Now people are looking for “leadership and direction” and, instead, they’re getting rushed sales tax vote for a murky workforce development initiative that switches to mass transit in four years; a budget that tries to “pleases no one”; and a looming fight with the police union over the contract and state law, Brockhouse said.
“I’m seriously considering coming out full bore against all of [Nirenberg]’s business in the November ballot,” he said. “Somebody needs to be the loyal opposition.”
Nirenberg is laser-focused on the recovery of San Antonio and likely won’t “take the bait” to engage with political pundits and critics on frivolous process debates, Flores said.
“This crisis has brought his leadership personality out in the open,” he said.
Likening San Antonio to a “big tower that we’ve been building,” Nirenberg sees a chance to “get it right” in the coming months.
“This [coronavirus] earthquake has brought it all to the ground and we can finally see a foundation that we need to repair,” he said.
“It’s been no doubt, a challenging year full of turmoil,” Nirenberg said. “But this is a reckoning in our country. Through that, there’s such a tremendous opportunity to build a city and a community that is truly reflective of our values: equity, resiliency, and opportunity for all. There hasn’t been a better opportunity in our lifetimes to do that. I’m truly excited.”