Mitigating gentrification, reforming a racist criminal justice system, and creating a safer, more inclusive environment for the LGBTQIA community were three topics discussed at Sunday’s mayoral forum on issues relating to social, economic, gender, and environmental justice.

The forum, hosted at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, provided the opportunity for five of the 14 mayoral candidates on the May 6 ballot to discuss these complex issues more commonly advocated for by various minority groups throughout the city. Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manual Medina did not attend. Taylor, according to a spokesperson, had a scheduling conflict. Medina’s campaign not return requests for comment before publication deadline.

Tales of inequality and discrimination permeated the audience of more than 100 people as each speaker asked the candidates how they’d address each of the challenges and, thus, protect more San Antonio communities.

“These elements [of discrimination] are so deeply embedded that it will require that we dismantle the existing structures, and so then part of our questions today is how do we begin to do that?” said Antonia Castañeda, nationally renowned scholar of Chicano and Chicana history, who prepped the audience and the candidates on San Antonio’s history of inequality.

For years, people of color have had limited access to education, women have struggled with wage gaps, and the needs of the LGBTQIA community have been ignored, she said, giving some examples.

The most enthusiastic applause was heard when Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Gardopia Gardens Founder and President Stephen Lucke advocated for increasing the minimum wage in San Antonio to $15 an hour and enhancing the city’s public transportation system. Both noted long commute times for many families, cutting into the time they are able to spend with their families.

“We have to do a better job with public transportation,” Nirenberg said. “There are too many mothers and fathers – many of them single parents – who are working two and three and four jobs because there’s such a high underemployment rate in San Antonio that are missing out on the opportunity to be with their kids to do homework at night.”

Amy Kastely, an attorney at the Esperanza, said that as the city continues to grow, “working class residents in San Antonio’s Westside, Southside, and Eastside are facing rapid gentrification that is actively encouraged and subsidized by City government with little effort made to avoid displacement.”

Even the City’s most recent efforts to support affordable housing – part of the city’s first-ever housing bond – is exclusive, she said, since affordable housing under the plan will be reserved for those who make at or below the 80% Area Median Income in San Antonio – about $50,000 a year or less for a family of four. According to Kastely, $50,000 is “way above” what many longtime residents make – about $22,000-$30,000 – in targeted neighborhoods.

All of the candidates acknowledged that the issue is not new to the city, and said they’d support freezing longterm residents’ property taxes to protect them from gentrification. As part of the housing bond, the City will not use eminent domain to seize property or displace any families.

Amid the deportations occurring across the nation due to President Donald Trump ramping up immigration enforcement, the candidates were asked how they would ensure that undocumented individuals would not get separated from their families. Indigenous rights activist Antonio Diaz said that issue deeply touched his own family when his son-in-law was deported in 2009 to Honduras, where he remains today. He’s protested the issue many times in the past, and said that if he is elected mayor, he “would not rest until there would be some equality and [just] treatment of all people, regardless where they come from.”

John Martin Velasquez, a clinical psychologist and former faculty member at the University of the Incarnate Word, said he’d try to team up with Harris and Travis counties, which have opposed the ICE holding programs, to fight any laws that would require Bexar County to comply with ICE detainers.

Serial candidate Rhett Smith, a private security officer of more than 30 years, said he has “been disappointed in the leadership and administration in this city that seems reticent and cowardly in the face of such bigotry and prejudice.”

Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.
Graciela Sánchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Earlier in the evening, Esperanza Executive Director Graciela Sánchez pointed out that Taylor did not attend a mayoral forum focused on gentrification during the 2015 election season. The mayor has missed all LGBTQIA-organized forums this time around, Sánchez said. While the Esperanza is not solely an LGBTQIA advocacy organization, one of the organization’s main efforts is to protect and celebrate those communities.

“We see her absence as lacking interest or concerns for our respective communities and our issues,” Sánchez said of Taylor, who opposed the City’s non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) in 2013 because of her “core values and beliefs” as a Christian. The ordinance added sexual and gender identity to the list of classes in the city protected from discrimination.

The candidates Sunday were asked how they would ensure the safety of the local transgender community and how they would enforce the NDO, something many believe could be done in a more robust way. 

Nirenberg said he’d create a council to directly address LGBTQIA issues and would take a firm stance on supporting sensitivity training for government officials and law enforcement officers. Diaz said he too would have a position on his staff to address those issues.

Lucke and Velasquez advocated for more shelters and mental health clinics to address the large population of homeless LGBTQIA youth in San Antonio. Having those spaces, Velasquez said, “addresses the need for people to find sanctuary.”

Other topics of discussion Sunday night included abating environmental hazards, such as common flooding and pollution in poor areas of town, closing the wage gap, improving the lives of women and girls – particularly those of color – and including the community more in the SA Tomorrow implementation process to ensure that all plans coincide with existing neighborhood plans.

Nirenberg said more citizen input and engagement is needed in the SA Tomorrow planning, and he’d “make sure that those [planning] committees that are meant to oversee the plan are balanced and that they don’t just represent industries that are going to benefit, but they represent all of the community and stakeholders that are going to be impacted.”

Candidates also discussed concerns regarding police-community relations, including reviewing police officer conduct more frequently by citizen-led body and eliminating financial incentives for corporations that own privately run, for-profit prisons.

All of the candidates agreed that a biannual review of law enforcement officers is necessary and would improve policing and officers’ relationships with the communities they serve.

Lucke went further and said that truly resolving that issue would entail addressing the fundamental racism against black and brown communities that’s been in place for centuries. 

Representatives from the Esperanza, Domésticas Unidas, Trans Education Network of Texas, PolitiQueers, Southwest Workers Union, MOVE San Antonio, RAICES, Liberty League of San Antonio, and Spectrum at UTSA participated in Sunday’s event, portraying the wide array of social concerns facing our diverse city.

Maria Antonietta Berriozábal, the city’s first Latina to serve on City Council, gave a brief history of San Antonio politics relating to social justice issues at the start of the event. She said that when public policy addresses the lives of those who are the “most resource poor, the one’s who are being left behind in an era of progress,” that policy is more inclusive.

“When we reach out to those at the margins we include everyone in between,” she said. “This way of doing public work may not seem practical when we’re making sure we maintain our Triple A [bond] rating, but nonetheless we are tending to something just as valuable, more valuable. We are tending to the soul of San Antonio, which includes everyone.

“This soul is what gives life to our city,” she continued. “This soul creates community, and in community, there is safety and there is strength.”

Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com