Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Robert Rivard discuss the biggest challenges facing San Antonio during a conversation at the Pearl Stable.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow citizens! Only 153 days left until early voting! Control yourselves.

That may seem like a long time, but for anyone who would be mayor it is a sprint. The filing deadline is only 87 days away, less than three months, and the holiday season that begins this week will discount one-third of that.

An organization needs to be built and money needs to be raised. Anyone who is considering a race against Mayor Ron Nirenberg needs to be putting out feelers. So I’ve been checking around among the folks who would have been felt.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A few names inevitably come up. Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) is term-limited out after eight years in office. He recently held a fundraiser, which struck some of his colleagues as strange if he’s not running. He has admitted for some time to mayoral ambitions, but has to consider the timing.

For one thing, he and his wife have a child who is about to turn three … weeks. For another, unseating an incumbent can’t be taken lightly. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t actively been out seeking support.

Nirenberg would be wise to make Saldaña’s decision easier by tapping him for a high-profile assignment that would use his considerable talents while keeping him in the public eye and building citywide contacts. That’s what then-Mayor Henry Cisneros did for out-of-office politician Nelson Wolff by asking him to head up Target 90, the first of the citywide planning programs. Public transportation, an area in which Saldaña has shown strong interest, comes to mind.

Some business leaders are unhappy with Nirenberg over a range of things. He supported requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave for their employees after the liberal Texas Organizing Project gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It didn’t mollify some business leaders that Nirenberg suggested that it would pass overwhelmingly if it went to a vote, and that the Texas Legislature or the courts would very likely nullify it. Last week an appeals court did exactly that to an Austin ordinance similar to the one Nirenberg and the City Council passed here.

Business leaders were also upset at a policy promoted by the City that would have pushed all restaurants and other concessionaires at the airport to adopt a “Labor Peace Agreement” that would push them towards unionization. That still rankles even though the City backed off.

Still, business leaders haven’t been able to find a business-friendly knight who wants the job and would win. The fact is U.S. cities are liberal. Beto O’Rourke carried Bexar County by just under 60 percent and the city by a higher percentage. About as conservative as the business community can hope for was Ivy Taylor, and Nirenberg ousted her after her first full term.

Still, more than a few political observers and one serious potential candidate believe Nirenberg is wounded – especially in the wake of voters approving two of the three city charter amendments the firefighters union managed to put on the ballot.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), the only council member to support the firefighters’ propositions, says he is “giving the mayor’s position a good look. These things come down to timing, even more than the money or the message.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks on behalf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

But it’s safe to say he’s going to run. The fact is, he’s been running for mayor ever since he took office, loudly opposing Nirenberg on every issue that presents itself. That contrast is what he will run on.

Some, likely including Brockhouse, see the fact that two of the three amendments passed as a sign that Nirenberg is seriously wounded in the eyes of the public. They may be right, but it isn’t that clear. One proposition that passed easily was to limit the pay and length of terms for city managers – a populist measure that hit home for the majority of citizens who earn far less than Sheryl Sculley’s $550,000 last year.

But the measure that failed easily was more clearly directed at the public’s attitude toward the mayor and City Council. It would have made it much easier to gather signatures to reverse new ordinances passed by the council. It had a populist thrust to it as well by subjecting any tax increases or CPS Energy or San Antonio Water System rate hikes to public reversal, which the current charter doesn’t permit. If the mayor and his largely supportive council were in big trouble with voters, the measure probably would have passed.

Look for Brockhouse to run a campaign aimed at the suburbs. The City has spent enough time focusing on downtown and the older neighborhoods, and on “equity budgets” that are weighted toward communities that have been underserved in the past.

Campaign money will be a major issue for Brockhouse. Nirenberg raised more than $1 million for the last election and now has the added fundraising advantage of incumbency. Brockhouse can’t count on much support from the business community, which found the proposed charter amendments so distasteful that it provided the bulk of the more than $2 million raised to oppose them.

One person who is very plugged into the business community said leaders tell him, “We don’t like Nirenberg, but we really don’t like Brockhouse.”

So how can Brockhouse raise the minimum of $600,000 or so that experts think is a
conservative minimum to mount a successful campaign in a city of more than 1 million?
We know he’ll have the support of the firefighters union. In a secretly recorded talk at a
firehouse, union President Chris Steele said passing the charter amendments was the first step in electing “our guy,” Brockhouse. But under the City’s campaign finance limits, unions are like individuals and political action committees. They are limited to $1,000 per election cycle to mayoral candidates.

But there is a way around that, a way that has not yet come to San Antonio’s municipal
elections. Under recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, wealthy individuals or corporations and unions can give unlimited amounts to “independent political action committees.” These committees can (and in practice do) praise a favored candidate and, even more, vilify his or her opponent.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.