Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses supporters during election night at his campaign watch party.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses supporters during election night at his campaign watch party. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s most divisive and bitterly fought mayoral campaign in memory came to an end Saturday as Mayor Ron Nirenberg narrowly edged challenger and District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse.

With about 16% of eligible voters participating, Nirenberg squeaked by with a little more than a 2 percent margin, less than the 3 percent margin he tallied in the first round of voting on May 4.

It was a far more muted victory for Nirenberg as incumbent mayor than his defeat of Mayor Ivy Taylor by a 54.59-45.41 percent margin in 2017.

Nirenberg’s first term as mayor was marked by ambitious longterm planning initiatives that do not necessarily translate into support at the polls, and a near-constant volley of challenges and political firestorms.

In the end, Nirenberg barely prevailed against a first-term councilman who is a close ally of the firefighters union and was beset throughout the campaign by allegations of domestic violence.

Still Nirenberg won and his longtime antagonist Brockhouse lost. The man who firefighters union President Chris Steele called “our guy” in a secretly taped firehouse political speech gambled all as a rookie councilman to take on Nirenberg. He now will have to reassess his future political trajectory without the benefit of elected office as a platform to remain visible in the public eye.

The outcome shows once again that for all their political muscle, the police and fire unions most often come out on the losing end when they challenge incumbents with their own hand-picked special interest candidates.

Brockhouse spent much of his one term on City Council serving as a weekly critic of Nirenberg and his initiatives, many of which were the work of the council majority. He did, however, participate in one huge political victory when two of the three charter reforms pushed by the firefighters union passed by big numbers last November. Brockhouse was the only council member to endorse passage of the measures, which led to the unions’ long-sought retirement of City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Greg Brockhouse gestures to supporters after conceding defeat to incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Greg Brockhouse gestures to supporters after conceding defeat to incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

Victory Saturday by no means guarantees Nirenberg success in his second term. For that he will have to hit the reset button to protect long-term planning initiatives while navigating more immediate challenges, notably the lack of a deal with the hostile firefighters union.

Council incumbents also will expect Nirenberg to build better lines of communication and avoid what they say were surprise decisions and initiatives in his first term in which they were left in the dark.

The much broader challenge will be uniting a deeply divided city, seemingly infected now with the same partisan rancor that has long characterized national politics.

San Antonio’s electorate, as analysis of the runoff vote undoubtedly will show in the coming days, is increasingly divided along partisan and geographic lines, with voting blocs espousing very different social values and agendas, and generally speaking, residents in the more affluent white suburbs and those in the minority-dominant urban core living in two different cities.

Whether Nirenberg can bring together these very different populations and continue to work effectively to close the equity gap in one of the most economically segregated cities remains to be seen. Finding ways to accelerate the construction of badly needed affordable housing, and ways to help an underfunded VIA Metropolitan Transit are key to demonstrating the ability to manage the city’s rapid growth and rising cost of living.

Nirenberg will be helped considerably by the makeup of the new City Council, with three new members and, for the second time ever, a female majority. Nirenberg will no longer be faced with a vocal antagonist bent on deterring his agenda and challenging his leadership.

Should Brockhouse decide to pursue politics or public office in the future, he inevitably will have to do more than stonewall the media and public on credible charges of domestic abuse leveled against him by a former wife and his current wife.

Nirenberg seems happier governing than campaigning. Starting Sunday, he can stop being a candidate and return to being mayor.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.