Justin Holley on his front porch.
Justin Holley is "seriously considering" running in May 2019 to represent City Council District 1. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A long road lies ahead for the City of San Antonio’s May 2019 general election – when voters will select Council members and a mayor – but at least one prospective candidate to represent District 1 has already emerged.

Justin Holley, partner and vice president of local hotel management company ABH Hospitality, appointed a campaign treasurer Thursday morning, officially kicking off the exploratory and fundraising phase of his campaign.

“I have a strong feeling of responsibility [to give] back to the community,” Holley, 46, told the Rivard Report. “I never wanted to be a politician [until] now.”

As chairman of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association board and a member of Visit San Antonio board, he has recently worked on plans for a proposed hotel tax and short-term rental regulations. He has also criticized City Council for not publicly discussing a bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention.

“Fiscally, I’m very conservative. … I don’t believe in frivolous spending,” he said, adding he does not identify with any political party. As a gay man, however, he considers himself socially liberal. “Government is there to protect its citizens. Everyone should be treated equally.”

Holley, a Wisconsin native who moved to San Antonio about 17 years ago, submitted his resignation from the Visit San Antonio board in the spring and Hotel and Lodging Association board Wednesday night in order to “seriously consider” entering the race for the seat currently held by two-term Councilman Roberto Treviño, he said. The district includes downtown from Southtown and Lavaca in the south and stretches north around Loop 410 near Castle Hills. It is loosely bordered by U.S. Highway 281 to the east and Interstate 10 to the west.

Local jazz musician Henry Brun, who serves on the City’s Arts Commission and the Visit San Antonio board, filed the paperwork at the City Clerk’s office to be Holley’s treasurer. The deadline to file an official application to be on the May 4 ballot will likely be set for early 2019. Treviño also sits on the Visit San Antonio board.

“I have no idea what I’ve gotten into,” Brun quipped. It’s his first time serving as a campaign treasurer. “I try not to side with anybody [politically], but I don’t feel like I’m straying too far away from my philosophy because I’m supporting a champion of the arts.

“Given the ample time that we have ahead of us, this is the time for [Holley] to really see what the constituency wants,” he added. “It’s not that I disagree with anything [Treviño] is doing. In this case, a friend [Holley] reached out for support.”

Treviño, a 47-year-old licensed architect and pilot, was first appointed to an interim seat by Council in December 2014 to serve out the term of Diego Bernal, who became state representative for District 123. Treviño went on to win the 2015 election with a 66 percent margin.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) facilitates the discussion and speaks with local artist Bill Fitzgibbons.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) facilitates a discussion during a public meeting about a proposed 7 Eleven gas station on the Westside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But the councilman faced tough competition in the 2017 election, during which five challengers ran against him, resulting in a runoff between him and local technology lawyer Michael Montaño. Treviño won the runoff with almost 52 percent of the vote.

Issues of neighborhood preservation dominated much of the conversation during the runoff, as did constituent engagement. District 1 is experiencing increased growth and development as urban core neighborhoods are becoming more and more appealing during the so-called “decade of downtown.”

Some residents bearing the brunt of that growth feel disengaged and “neglected” by their Council office, Holley said, sitting in his home in Woodlawn Lake. He purchased his great aunt’s 1920s home in 2016, renovated it, and moved in last year. “We’ve got to get back to a culture of service,” he said.

Justin Holley, hotelier and prospective City Council District 1 candidate, on his laptop in his home office.
Justin Holley, hotelier and prospective City Council District 1 candidate, works on his laptop in his home office. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Asked to respond to that concern Thursday, Treviño cited the dozens of public meetings and engagement opportunities he and his office have facilitate throughout his tenure on Council. He has led discussions on new rules for zoning and development aimed at preserving the character of inner-city neighborhoods, helped lead forums about Alamo Plaza’s redevelopment as a tri-chair of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, facilitated the Alameda Theater renovation partnership with Texas Public Radio, helped bring more Spanish translation services to the City, expanded the Under 1 Roof program, and he continues to work on short-term rental ordinance proposals, sidewalk and downtown lighting plans, the Symphony Task Force, and a new Renters Advisory Committee.

“We’re engaged in just about every issue,” Treviño said. “And not just in District 1, [they] truly [have] citywide impacts too.

“No one has ever tried to solve sidewalks,” he added. “Now we’re on that path, so to speak.”

But it’s not just residents who feel neglected, Holley said, it’s also the tourism industry as a whole.

In early May, Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced San Antonio would not pursue a bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention – a result of City Council’s discussion in a private meeting regarding the convention’s economic impact. The announcement came after a previously undisclosed decision not to pursue the bid was exposed by a tweet from Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager and former San Antonio media strategist.

Treviño and others opposed the convention bid, citing Trump’s policies and attitude toward Mexican immigrants and vulnerable populations.

“The fiscal benefit of hosting the current administration’s Republican National Convention in San Antonio does not outweigh the tremendous respect we have for our cultural heritage,” Treviño said during the annual State of the Center City speech.

Holley said then and now that Visit San Antonio and the tourism industry at-large should have been notified and consulted before the decision was made. San Antonio sent a discriminatory message that “we don’t want the Republicans here,” he said.

“That’s an over-simplified statement,” Treviño told the Rivard Report. “Much more went into that decision … people that were involved know that. We’re focused on protecting people in the community and protecting [their] dignity.”

The hospitality sector is one of the largest in the city, Holley said, a $13.6 billion industry employing one in eight people in San Antonio – so industry leaders should be included. It annually generates about $80 million in the form of the hotel occupancy tax, which goes to public art and preservation.

To ensure San Antonio’s success, Holley said, “we have to make sure that industries that are generating revenue for the city are firing on all cylinders.

“What’s good for a local is great for a tourist,” Holley said, and vice versa. “This is the first city that I felt accepted in.”

That is another reason why he would strongly oppose the “bathroom bill” and similar legislation at the state level. Almost all current City Council members have voiced the same stance, including Treviño.

“Texas will be viewed as closed for business” if a law requiring transgender people to use bathroom for the sex on their birth certificates is passed, Holley said. 

Holley also agrees with most of Council that the three charter amendments the local firefighters union placed on the November ballot are bad for the City.

“If those get enacted, it’s going to put San Antonio into a dark period,” he said.

Holley grew up in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, and attended culinary school before pursuing a hospitality and tourism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. After graduating in December 1994, he found work as a general manager for La Quinta, where he worked for 12 years and eventually became the company’s youngest vice president at 27. 

He was laid off in 2006 and took one year off to travel to Europe, Alaska, and Rome and complete mission work in Africa.

When he returned, he wanted to go back to being a general manager, but said he was deemed overqualified in several instances. He eventually found work at the near Eastside Staybridge Suites, became a brand manager, met his business partner, and decided it was time to start anew with ABH Hospitalities. The company manages eight hotels for ownership groups including Holiday Inn and La Quinta locations in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Buda.

His strategy, should this “exploratory period” show that he should run, he said, is to simply “spend time with the people.”

“I see a voter like a Trip Advisor review,” he said. “Make sure it’s the best review possible – everything has to be about [constituents]. It’s their taxpayer dollars that are paying for everything.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...