Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse will be sharpening their rhetoric over the next five weeks in hopes to win a June 8 runoff election – the third consecutive mayoral runoff that features an incumbent.
Nirenberg will likely make his ambitious vision for prosperity more relatable and double down on criticisms of Brockhouse’s ties to the public safety unions while Brockhouse can now unleash harsher attacks on what he calls Nirenberg’s anti-business and anti-faith record, political observers say.
“It’s going to be hot, interesting, and intense – and that will draw the public out,” said Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor who served as secretary of housing and urban development under President Bill Clinton. It will come down to the efficiency and organization of their respective campaigns, he said, and in many ways the personal strength of the candidates
“It’s going to get personal, I think,” Cisneros said. “Individual characteristics – that’s what it’s about. That’s what leadership is about. It’s about you and what you offer and there’s no hiding.”
Brockhouse’s strong election night performance, 45.57 percent to Nirenberg’s 48.66 percent, shocked many in the political world, Cisneros said, but “maybe we shouldn’t be surprised” – given the momentum that Brockhouse was able to harness out of the November proposition election and controversial vote to remove Chick-fil-A from an airport contract.
Those weren’t the smoking guns that Nirenberg’s campaign thought they would be, said Christian Anderson, who worked for former Mayor Ivy Taylor’s campaign and previous mayoral elections but is not involved in this one.
“They expected that once this stuff became public that it would have a much greater impact,” Anderson said, and it just didn’t. “It reflects how strongly voters are connecting with Brockhouse’s message.
“The mayor has plenty of support, coming in at [nearly] 49 percent,” he added, “but obviously there’s a real division.”
Traditionally, hints at domestic violence would destroy a candidate, Cisneros said, but “the climate has changed some with respect to how people separate personal character [from] confidence to deliver public policy.”
Personal flaws have become ubiquitous with politicians nationally, he said. “Everyone has skeletons … when it’s all out there, you have to choose between two flawed people. Given that environment, what they have to do is focus on the issues that are of concern to people and their lives.”
While Cisneros said he remains unbiased in analyzing their campaigns, he said he believes Nirenberg should be allowed to finish what he started as mayor.
Nirenberg’s first term has had its fair share of distractions – the union-backed propositions perhaps chief among them – and controversial City Council decisions, which has contributed to a lackluster list of accomplishments Nirenberg can point to. He’s been able to establish aggressive affordable housing policies, start work on a comprehensive transportation plan, and get a climate action plan near the finish line.
“For the average voter, those sorts of long-term planning issues don’t connect in a way that moves them,” Anderson said. “I suspect that most voters aren’t really aware of all of those things.”
Connect SA, the nonprofit Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff formed to develop a multimodal transportation plan initiative, isn’t making national headlines like Chick-fil-A did. “Neither is domestic violence,” Anderson said.
“We’re about to see a new negative campaign,” said Christian Archer, a Democratic operative who led the campaign against the union-backed propositions and has worked for previous mayoral campaigns. “Campaigns are all about momentum … there’s clearly momentum behind Brockhouse. [The runoff] is a toss-up that leans Brockhouse.”
To take that back, Nirenberg will have to paint a picture of “what a Mayor Brockhouse would look like” when dealing with issues that the next Council will face, Archer said, including the firefighters union labor contract, Pre-K 4 SA renewal, and Edwards Aquifer protection, to name a few.
Nirenberg’s base includes very passionate groups including environmental and transportation advocates, Archer said. “They need to be lit up.”
The general election results were “truly a wake-up call,” he said.
Cisneros, a tri-chair of Connect SA, said Nirenberg will have to refocus his promises from general community prosperity to “precise things that matter to people’s lives. … The mayor has a job to do in terms of sticking to basic services and identifying himself as a fighter for the people.”
Brockhouse already has that populist message in the bag, campaigning on lower property tax rates, increased police force, and less regulation.
While the business community is alarmed by Nirenberg’s stance on Chick-fil-A, rejecting the 2020 Republican National Convention, and pulling an Amazon headquarters bid, many are just as uneasy about Brockhouse’s stance on the firefighter union-backed propositions aimed at how City Hall functions. He was the lone Council supporter of those initiatives, two of which were approved by voters.
Brockhouse has been able to point to Chick-fil-A as “another example of what’s wrong at City Hall,” Anderson said.
While Nirenberg downplays Chick-fil-A, Brockhouse downplays the public safety unions’ involvement in the election.
“If there was a flaw in [Brockhouse’s] armor, it would be he needs to assure people that he can be an independent and objective mayor” when it comes to the public safety unions, Cisneros said.
The police and fire unions are backing Brockhouse, who used to work for both, and spending considerable resources and time campaigning for him.
“The runoff is exactly the right environment for [Brockhouse],” Cisneros said. “If this was a boxing match, we’re going into the final round with a candidate that has a lot energy and is a brawler.”
While Nirenberg has a broad base, Cisneros said, Brockhouse’s is definable and excitable.
It’s possible that Brockhouse was angling for a runoff, he added. “He threaded the needle in such a way that he didn’t alarm voters.”
Historically, San Antonio has a slightly higher voter turnout for runoffs than in general elections. The sharpened rhetoric will bring out voters “for both sides” who might have sat out the first round, Anderson said. Runoffs likely won’t spike turnout in districts 2 and 4, along with 6, Brockhouse’s district, as most voters live in the northern districts 8, 9, and 10 – where incumbents had strong victories.
Of the more than 960,000 registered voters, only 110,000 – or about 11.5 percent – cast a vote in the May election. However, voter turnout has increased since 2011 when turnout was 7 percent.
It pales in comparison to other major cities, but Molly Cox, CEO of SA2020, said it’s also cause for celebration.
“We’ve got to double down and keep moving the needle,” she said.
Many local political commentators frame the problem of voter turnout as an “individual responsibility problem,” Cox said. “But our voter system is designed to keep voter turnout low.”
Blaming – or shaming – the registered voter who didn’t vote “is just harmful, it’s simplistic, and it presupposes that people don’t care, and we know that’s not true. … We’ve got to reframe this conversation.”
San Antonians care about their families, jobs, streets, and sidewalks, she said – but what are we doing “to make sure that they feel like they have a voice and that they feel heard?”
“Rather than shaming them, how amazing would it be if we said, ‘Hey, how can I help?’” Cox said – be it a ride to the polls, baby-sitting, or educating a friend on how municipal government works and the role of elected officials.
“They bemoan individual complacency and apathy … but what did we actually do to help get people to the polls?”