Barring a dramatic change of heart on the part of Ron Nirenberg, there will be no mayoral debates before the May 1 City election, when the incumbent mayor will seek a third term in office. His principal challenger, former city Councilman Greg Brockhouse, is eager to debate, but the mayor has said no thank you. Repeatedly.
This week he again said no when KSAT-TV anchor Steve Spriester asked for reconsideration, and he said no in a subsequent conversation with me.
KSAT, the San Antonio Report, and the nonprofit Bexar Facts Poll are community survey partners. The results of the latest poll, now underway, will be ready for publication and broadcast by April 6. Early voting starts April 19, so there is a two-week window for the candidates to meet onstage, respond to the survey’s most significant findings this election season, and lay out their very different visions for the city.
Last week we formally invited Nirenberg and Brockhouse to participate in an April debate livestreamed and recorded for later viewing. There is a long list of candidates on the ballot in addition to Nirenberg and Brockhouse, but we deem only one other one to be mounting a campaign and deserving of a place in the debate. That is conservative Denise Gutierrez-Homer, who came within 1.1 percentage points of edging out Jada Andrews-Sullivan for a spot in the 2019 District 2 runoff against former Councilman Keith Toney. Andrews-Sullivan won the runoff and holds the Eastside council seat today.
Brockhouse and Gutierrez-Homer agreed to the mayoral debate, which came as no surprise. Both are underfunded challengers with minimal campaign organizations seeking every opportunity to make their case for a change at City Hall.
Nirenberg and his campaign manager, attorney Gilberto Ocañas, have their reasons for saying no. They see Brockhouse as a longshot candidate who has been out of office and the public eye for two years and who has no real funding for media buys, mailers, and other traditional campaign tools. They think the negative publicity associated with past reports of domestic abuse and how Brockhouse handled himself when pressed on the matter have cost him significant support, especially from women voters.
Brockhouse would be the first to acknowledge that he has learned from those mistakes and today he says he is mounting a less incendiary, more policy-driven campaign.
Still, there is no love lost between the two, and Nirenberg, believing his leadership throughout the yearlong pandemic has strengthened his hand with voters, has no interest in appearing onstage with Brockhouse and allowing him to be treated as a political equal. The bitter nature of the 2019 campaign still lingers.
Brockhouse, then a first-term councilman, surprised many in the city, including the mayor and his supporters, when he pushed Nirenberg into a runoff in 2019. Turnout was miserable, only 11.5% of eligible voters, as it often is in local races. Brockhouse came within 2 percentage points of unseating Nirenberg in the June 8 runoff when 16% of registered voters were drawn into the race. Many political observers would say the 51%-49% outcome makes a rematch all but inevitable.
While neither campaign has released their own poll results showing how the two might fare come May, Brockhouse acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle against Nirenberg. Gutierrez-Homer could siphon off voters that otherwise might go his way.
And then there is the pandemic. Nirenberg, alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, has shown a very steady hand throughout the pandemic, with a nightly briefing on the spread of COVID-19, hospitalizations, deaths, and now vaccinations. Both Nirenberg and Wolff have stood up to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton as state leaders opted to ignore at times, and downplay at other times, public health guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mandatory mask use, social distancing, and public gatherings and other high-risk activities.
On the other hand, there is widespread public frustration with the winter storm power and water losses that brought the city to frigid standstill in February. People fear the possibility of skyrocketing utility bills. A pandemic of finger-pointing extends from the state’s top leaders to their political appointees at the Public Utility Commission, to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and down to the local level. There is a widespread feeling that no one is taking responsibility for what happened and thus it might very well happen again.
Voters might be inclined to send a message wherever they find a target.
And then there is the future of the city. Are we on the right track to address the city’s many challenges and maximize opportunities? That’s the stuff for debates. Spriester and I looked forward to posing some tough questions to the candidates and letting the public decide who best should be leading San Antonio forward. Debates can be messy, and they can have unexpected outcomes, but they are an important example of democracy and civic engagement at work. Citizens in many other countries will never see political leaders or adversaries publicly debate. We take debates for granted, but we shouldn’t.
At this juncture, the KSAT/San Antonio Report/Bexar Facts team is planning a mayoral forum, where we will pose our questions to Nirenberg, Brockhouse, and Gutierrez-Homer on successive nights in April, with each candidate afforded the same time and opportunity to respond and lay out their platforms without the tension of adversaries offering alternative choices or challenges. Forums lack the drama and immediacy of debates, and they carry no risk, which is why incumbents prefer them.
It’s in the interest of voters to see the candidates debate. Perhaps San Antonio Report readers and KSAT viewers will prove more persuasive than an anchorman and an editor. You can reach the mayor at firstname.lastname@example.org.