San Antonio Professional Firefighter Union President Chris Steele delivers petitions to City Hall.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele delivers a speech outside of City Hall in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

The San Antonio firefighters union will “stay out” of this year’s mayoral election but issued endorsements for two incumbent council members, union President Christopher Steele said Wednesday.

Some political observers expected the union to endorse former Councilman Greg Brockhouse, a staunch fire and police union ally who previously worked for both groups as a political consultant.

Instead, union membership will be focused on the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Steele said. “The firefighters love this community and feel that any effort that takes them away from helping the community hurts all of us,” he stated in a news release.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Brockhouse are expected to be the top contenders in the race that drew 12 other candidates.

An internal survey taken about two months ago showed that 68 percent of the 565 members who participated were in favor of endorsing Brockhouse, a union official confirmed. However, after further internal discussions, 67 of the 72 members who voted Tuesday wanted to stay out of the race.

The union news release called Councilwomen Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) “champions in the effort to take care of this community alongside the brave men and women of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters.”

Steele confirmed their endorsements in a phone interview with the San Antonio Report.

During the 2019 election, the union was heavily embroiled in the mayor’s race, backing Brockhouse with funding and advertisements. A leaked recording of a union meeting featured Steele calling Brockhouse “our guy.” At the time, the union was locked in a legal battle with the City over its contract and had launched an aggressive ballot proposition campaign.

After nearly six years, a new labor contract was decided in 2020 through a lengthy arbitration process, which the union secured through one of the propositions that passed.

Brockhouse said he was unfazed by the news that he would not be receiving the union’s endorsement, pointing to the fact that the majority of firefighters indicated support for him.

“I will always have the backs of the rank and file and their families,” Brockhouse said. “But I am on a path to lead this city, first and foremost.”

This campaign is different from 2019, he said.

“I am running to be a mayor for everyone,” he told the San Antonio Report via text message. “I wish the Firefighter leadership well, but I am telling everyone I speak with, I am making decisions based on what’s best for this City and its residents. If anyone doesn’t like that, they can support the other guy, who’s making promises all over town he never keeps.”

For the firefighters, Steele said the “battle scenario” of the last election is just not appealing to the membership this election cycle. 

Those who showed up to the meeting to vote were more “educated on the process” of endorsements than other members, Steele said. “The surveys simply asked should we endorse him or not, but most of the folks … didn’t know there was an option which said, ‘Don’t do anything.'”

Between the mandatory overtime firefighters have endured during the coronavirus pandemic and last month’s emergency response to the winter storms, he said, ”the fatigue is probably more so because of that.”

The fire department has been involved in nearly every aspect of the City’s pandemic response, from testing to vaccinations. 

“The general feel from our members was like … we don’t even want to talk about any of that [political] stuff right now,” Steele said. “Thank God we’ve got a contract, and let’s focus on [getting to] herd immunity. … It’s just not something we want to take time on.”

Steele said he plans to retire sometime this year. “It’s like closing a book and it’s time to open a new book,” he said. “I think everybody’s kind of ready to close the book.”

Nirenberg’s campaign welcomed the news that the union would not be supporting Brockhouse.

“The firefighters are front line workers in our battle against COVID,” said Gilberto Ocañas, Nirenberg’s chief political consultant. “We will stay focused on delivering our message to voters and working together with everyone to come back stronger as a community.”

Stephen Moody, an executive board member of the union, said said he “tried hard to get my friend Greg endorsed. We have fought many fights together. The members are tired of politics and are worried about what might come next in our current crazy world.”

He declined to disclose what was discussed during the meeting.

“I will not discuss the arguments I made,” Moody said. “They must remain inside the confines of our hall. Family business is family business.”

Another battle may loom after this election. 

Police reform activists have successfully placed the repeal of Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code on the May 1 ballot. If voters decide to repeal, the police union will loose its right to collectively bargain for its labor contract. While a separate ballot initiative would be required to repeal Chapter 174 for the fire union, activists have also set their sights on Chapter 143, which lays the foundation for civil service employment.

There’s a real concern that once one provision is repealed, it will be easier for others to fall, Brockhouse said. 

“I completely understand if their focus is saving collective bargaining, and I respect that 100%,” he said. “Times are changing. We’re not always aligned. … I’m going to bat for the union membership. That’ll never change. I love the firefighters and police officers, and they’ve got a bigger fight than who the mayor should be.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org