Headed into a runoff in the spring of 2019, Ron Nirenberg faced a problem.
The first-term San Antonio mayor had enjoyed a largely centrist reputation in his four years representing District 8 on City Council — an image that helped him successfully wage a long-shot bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017.
Two years into the role, however, the business community was unhappy over a paid sick leave proposal being pushed through big cities across the state, including San Antonio. Social conservatives were outraged over members of the City Council’s highly publicized effort to keep Chick-fil-A out of the San Antonio airport because of the chain’s association with anti-LGBTQ groups. At the same time, major Republican political donors were upset with Nirenberg for shutting down their efforts to bring the 2020 Republican National Convention to San Antonio.
Despite appealing to a broad political base in previous races, Nirenberg was pushed into a runoff by conservative Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who took 45% of the vote. With the backing of the city’s firefighters and police unions, Brockhouse labeled Nirenberg “anti-business.”
Though political advisors at the time urged Nirenberg to mend ties with more conservative voters on the North Side, they said the mayor was too stung by the deteriorating relationships, which included deeply personal attacks lobbed at his family after the Chick-fil-A debacle.
“Our recommendation was that he should go back out to those communities to build back relationships in that area,” said Nirenberg’s chief of staff at the time, Trey Jacobson. “But because he was so emotionally impacted by it, he didn’t have the inclination to deal with those politics at all.”
Instead, Nirenberg went to work wooing different allies.
Through a series of private meetings with environmental groups, union leaders and social justice advocates, he cobbled together enough support to win the runoff. Nirenberg received endorsements from the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and labor groups whose grassroots efforts helped him defeat Brockhouse by fewer than 3,000 votes.
“Ron originally ran as a conservative-minded District 8 leader, and it turns out he’s a liberal, left-leaning politician, in policy and in action,” Brockhouse said in an interview this month. “But that’s where the city was moving, so he fit the moment and that worked to his advantage.”
Nirenberg dispatched Brockhouse easily in a rematch in 2021.
Headed into his final reelection race Nirenberg now faces criticism from some progressive activists who say he hasn’t lived up to the promises he made to them in 2019. He’s also drawing criticism from residents across the city who complain he hasn’t moved the needle on crime, as promised in his race against Taylor.
Examples of both perspectives were on full display at Thursday’s City Council vote to once again consider police reforms in the May election.
Nirenberg has declined to say whether he supports a charter amendment backed by TOP and other progressive organizations that seeks to decriminalize marijuana and abortion, as well as restrict the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants by police. Thursday’s vote to include the amendment on the May ballot was merely procedural, but it drew dozens of speakers from the community.
One outspoken opponent said he wanted to physically fight Nirenberg if council allowed residents to vote on the proposal in May. It did, unanimously and without discussion, although three council members walked away from the dais to signal their disapproval.
Still, Nirenberg, age 45, appears well-positioned to become the city’s longest-serving mayor since Henry Cisneros.
An internal memo from the Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners shared with the San Antonio Report showed his favorability at 58% at the end of 2022.
Multiple groups aiming to install more business-friendly candidates on the San Antonio City Council plan to wait until at least 2025 to take aim at the mayor’s office, according to a source familiar with the efforts. And despite some ambitious council colleagues eyeing Nirenberg’s seat, filing closed Friday evening without any of them signing up to challenge him. Eight other candidates filed to run for mayor.
“We take nothing for granted, and I’m planning to run a very aggressive campaign,” Nirenberg said in an interview Friday. “But yes,” he added, “I’m bolstered by the fact that the majority of voters believe San Antonio is on the right track.”
Back in business
After his 2019 reelection Nirenberg largely stopped speaking to local chamber groups, according to members of the business community. But allies of the mayor say his steady leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic helped him regain their respect.
Nirenberg addressed the city almost nightly alongside then-Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and assembled a task force of medical professionals and business people to design the city’s safety protocols.
“While people may not have agreed with some of those protocols, I do think that they respected the process,” said Jim Greenwood, a former Valero executive who served as Nirenberg’s chief of staff after the 2019 election. “He worked really hard to not bring partisan politics in San Antonio at a time when it seemed like every city was doing the opposite.”
If colleagues were thinking about running for mayor before the end of his tenure, Nirenberg’s high visibility during the pandemic solidified their decisions to wait.
“When you think about his brand … he has that name recognition,” said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who is often mentioned as a potential future mayoral candidate. “I think that it would be best to continue working with him for another two years and see what his plans are to finish up strong.”
Nirenberg has also benefited from changing politics that would make it difficult for more conservative candidates to get elected citywide in San Antonio. The 2021 municipal election ushered in a new group of progressives to the council, including members who were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5).
“At the beginning of his term there were a lot of naysayers in the business community, who would lament, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the most liberal City Council ever,'” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). “… We’ve got new City Council members who make Ron Nirenberg, just by comparison, look a lot more reasonable.”
Asked about the status of his relationship with the business community on Friday, Nirenberg downplayed past conflicts.
“In previous election cycles there’s been some culture war politics, and I’m glad that we’ve overcome that and been able to focus on the work at hand,” he said.
He noted that the business community has had plenty of recent wins at City Hall, for example, the work of a committee Nirenberg created in 2017 to modernize the airport is now starting to come to fruition with the addition of a new terminal. Last year Nirenberg also shepherded through a controversial rebate program for CPS Energy customers, which faced pushback from colleagues who called it a giveaway for big business.
Of the accomplishments he’s most proud of, including a fledgling workforce development program and a free community college program, Nirenberg said the city’s biggest employers have been closely involved.
“While [those initiatives] come across to many as being ‘progressive,’ I think most [business leaders] agree that that’s the path San Antonio has got to take in order for it to be a competitive city for the jobs of tomorrow,” Greenwood said.
‘Hold me accountable’
Nirenberg’s relationships with progressives remain more complicated.
Shortly after he was elected mayor, Nirenberg pleased environmentalists by supporting the Paris climate agreement. He also counts CPS Energy’s planned phaseout of its coal plants among the city’s top achievements under his tenure.
“Decades from now we’ll look back at this time and see … this is history-making,” said Anita Ledbetter, executive director of Build San Antonio Green. “[Nirenberg] has really helped improve the quality of life of the people of San Antonio for generations to come in his work trying to protect and enhance our air quality.”
Headed into the 2019 runoff, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center director Graciela Sánchez said a “nervous” Nirenberg reached out to progressive leaders for support. Leaders from TOP said he called them the day after the runoff was set.
The progressive leaders countered by asking to meet with a larger group of 20 to 30 activists from abortion rights, environmental and social justice groups that ultimately helped him in the race against Brockhouse.
Since then Sánchez said she and others who met with Nirenberg have been underwhelmed by his commitment to their issues.
Nirenberg steered clear of taking a public stance on the police accountability initiatives progressives pushed on the ballot in 2021 and likely will again in 2023. TOP did not endorse Nirenberg in 2021, and its members haven’t discussed whether to get involved in the mayor’s race this May.
“He was the first mayor to get elected that did not court the police union or have their endorsement, which was super big,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of the police reform group ACT 4 SA and a leader in both ballot initiatives.
But Tomas pointed to Nirenberg’s impassioned comments at a 2020 protest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, where he told protesters to hold him accountable for police brutality in San Antonio.
“Every time we’ve tried to hold him accountable, tried to bring forward policing initiatives … he’s never on our side,” said Tomas. “I think he’s so comfortable in his seat now that he’s not willing to push as boldly as he should.”
Asked whether his political views had shifted since he was first elected, Nirenberg said, “The work and the agenda that I campaigned on, from my first campaign for council, to my first campaign for mayor, to my last campaign for mayor, has not changed.”
“Jobs, affordability and public safety are the highlights,” he added.
A final campaign
San Antonio’s elected officials are limited to four two-year terms, and Nirenberg has so far given few hints of what he might do once his time at City Hall is over.
A graduate of Trinity University, he was the general manager of the university’s radio station before running for council and entered office with a mostly theoretical knowledge of politics, from having worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“He had the intellectual background to understand big changes that would really transform the city,” said former Mayor Phil Hardberger. “What he didn’t have, though, was experience.”
Since then, Nirenberg’s political mentors say he’s grown into one of the city’s strongest leaders, known for a compassionate approach that was only deepened by his experience governing through the pandemic.
“I think he’s already one of San Antonio’s better mayors looking at the historical picture,” said Hardberger. “You can depend upon if there’s a humanitarian view of an action to be taken, he’s going to be for it.”
Compared to past mayors like Hardberger, whose legacy achievements included major development projects, critics and allies agree Nirenberg’s legacy could be less tangible but equally durable.
“What I’m most proud of — of the work that I’ve done in this office and for the better part of the last 10 years at City Hall — is really ensuring that we are a city that’s creating economic mobility for everyone,” said Nirenberg, whose voter-approved job training program caught attention from the Biden administration.
“Ensuring that San Antonio is a place where every family can thrive is what I’ve devoted the last decade to,” he said. “And I hope that that’s what will be noted in the time I’ve spent here.”