When Mario Bravo defeated incumbent Roberto Treviño in the runoff election for the District 1 council seat Saturday night, he did so after overcoming powerful political winds.

Bravo, a project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, eked out a victory with 54% of the vote in unofficial results. Turnout was relatively low, with only 7,533 ballots submitted – a far cry from the 12,569 ballots cast in the general election on May 1, when Treviño secured 45% of the vote over Bravo’s 34%.

The incumbent had held office since 2014 and had raised nearly twice what Bravo had in the month leading up to the June runoff, with roughly $63,000 to Bravo’s $35,000. Treviño won his last reelection in 2019 by a landslide, with nearly 60% of the vote against a field of eight challengers. He also enjoyed the endorsement of former District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal.

Despite those factors, former council members representing the district and neighborhood group leaders said they suspected it would be a close race between the two self-styled progressives.

“In recent years when we’ve seen an incumbent get beat, it’s because the opponent spent a lot of time block-walking and going house-to-house,” said former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who was elected to the council at large in 1975 and reelected by the newly created downtown district’s voters in 1977 and 1979. “Mario is a hard campaigner with a lot of energy.”

Cisneros, whose wife, Mary Alice Cisneros, also served as the District 1 council member for two terms beginning in 2007, said a big challenge for any officeholder in the district is that it encompasses some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods.

“I always found it difficult to represent both of those with equal effectiveness,” he said.

District 1 encompasses all of downtown and stretches up to Loop 410. It includes the Five Points area and part of King William.

Bravo campaigned as a “practical reformer” who is pro-business and has progressive bona fides. In addition to the environmental group that he works for, he is a former board member for the voter-mobilization group MOVE Texas.

“I went straight to the people,” Bravo said Sunday, emphasizing his extensive door-to-door outreach on basic constituent services and his advocacy for property tax reform and relief. He also said widespread frustration with CPS Energy after February’s winter storm gave new relevance to his criticism that City Council had not adequately provided oversight to the utility.

“I already had a proven track record of working to reform CPS Energy,” he said, pointing to his time as chairman of the utility’s Environmental Stakeholders Group before he resigned. He said his efforts before and after that time pushed CPS Energy to begin video-streaming its board meetings and allowing public comments, among other changes.

Bernal (D-San Antonio) said it was “clear that a majority of people wanted some sort of change.”

“This is a grassroots position that also has a citywide policy purview,” he said of the seat. “As much as you want people to understand and appreciate the big swings you’re taking from a citywide level, that doesn’t mean that they still don’t have their own front door, neighborhood-level concerns they also want dealt with.”

An example, he said, is Treviño’s attempts to address homelessness in the city. Treviño allowed people experiencing homelessness to sleep outside his field office. He also had staffers help these individuals obtain state identification and connect them with social services.

But their presence was a consistent source of irritation for residents in the Dellview neighborhood, many of whom told media that they felt it made the neighborhood less safe. In the May 1 election, voters in the neighborhood backed Bravo by double-digit margins. Bravo continued to emphasize the neighborhood’s dissatisfaction in debates and forums leading up to the runoff.

“I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Mary Johnson, president of the Monte Vista Terrace Neighborhood Association.

She and other local observers also pointed to what appeared to be a growing rift between Treviño and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Treviño opposed Nirenberg’s SA Ready to Work initiative when it was still a proposal, criticizing the program as a long-term venture that would come at the expense of more immediate relief for residents and businesses affected by the pandemic. The measure passed in November with the approval of nearly 77% of voters.

In March, Nirenberg removed Treviño from a pair of key leadership positions he held overseeing the $450 million overhaul of Alamo Plaza, replacing him with District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran. Treviño had denounced the project after a state panel blocked efforts to relocate the Cenotaph, a 1930s-era monument to the Alamo defenders.

Despite these differences, many neighborhood groups the San Antonio Report spoke to said they felt the two candidates would be functionally the same.

Tobin Hill Association Vice President Anisa Schell said Treviño had been helpful to their association, especially in the last eight months, but that both candidates seemed “aligned with the issues and values” of the district.

“Personally, I didn’t feel like I could be against either candidate,” she said.

Treviño’s concession statement Sunday morning congratulated Bravo on his victory. Treviño reflected on his time in office as an “ally for those who have felt left in the shadows in our society.” He highlighted his work on an emergency housing assistance program, as well as a push to provide funding for food and beverage workers during the pandemic, among other efforts.

Treviño’s office said on Sunday that he was unavailable for further comment.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.