All politics are local starting today with the scheduled afternoon announcement by Mayor Ivy Taylor that she will seek a second full term in office. Voters are exhausted at the moment, understandably, and the May 2017 City Election is still six months away. The timing of Taylor’s Sunday press conference suggests her advisors know she will soon have an opponent or opponents and the incumbent team wants to be first out of the gate.

Many City Hall watchers expect both Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) to run against Taylor. Both are smart, dedicated to their jobs, and have represented their districts well. Both are young and have bright political futures if they remain in public service. Nirenberg is 39, Saldaña is 30.

In a year when a seemingly endless presidential primary season and election attracted all the attention, energy, and money, it will be difficult for Nirenberg or Saldaña to mount credible, well-financed and well-organized campaigns in such a relatively short time period. And anyone challenging Taylor will have to make the case with voters that there are very real and important differences with the mayor on the issues and the future trajectory of the city.

Mayor Taylor, who is only 46 years old, has served in city government since 2009, first as a three-term council representative in District 2, and then in July 2014 winning appointment to the vacant mayor’s seat in a unanimous vote by City Council after pledging not to seek a full term in office after she completed the unexpired term of former Mayor Julián Castro who resigned to join the Obama administration.

A campaign flyer announcing the re-election event of Mayor Ivy Taylor.
A campaign flyer announcing the re-election event of Mayor Ivy Taylor. Credit: Courtesy / Mayor Ivy Taylor Campaign

Taylor changed her mind and decided to run for a full term as mayor in 2015, a switch that drew very little public pushback. She will have held the office for three years by the time people vote next May. Along the way she has secured a lot of commitments, endorsements, and contributions. Few establishment business leaders see anything in her public record that merits abandoning her to support a challenger.

If there is a case to be made by opponents, it’s that Taylor’s SA Tomorrow plan, launched in anticipation of San Antonio growing by more than one million people and hundreds more square miles over the next 25 years, lacks the necessary specifics to truly change the trajectory of the city. Many people are eager to see the city accelerate efforts to incentivize the building of a denser urban core and limiting sprawl and all its eventual costs.

There also is a case to be made by Hispanic civic leaders that a credible campaign should be made to elect a strong Hispanic mayor with crossover appeal to lead the city that, more than any other in U.S., self identifies as the country’s most Mexican-American metro area.

On the other hand, Taylor is the first African-American mayor of San Antonio, only its second female mayor, and the only female African-American mayor in a U.S. city with a population of more than one million people.

There are compelling narratives on all sides, which also will inject energy into the mayor’s race.

It’s certainly in the interest of all voters, regardless of one’s preferred candidate, for San Antonio to experience a robust and competitive mayor’s race. Citizens need to know where candidates stand on critically important issues like economic development and job growth, curbing sprawl and protecting the environment, air quality and the Edwards Aquifer, developing local and regional mass transit, and making San Antonio a more competitive smart job city that retains and attracts talented, educated workers essential to a 21st century economy and cityscape.

In other words, we need to hear about each candidate’s vision and their commitment to more than aspirational platitudes. We need to hear specifics: How are we going to actually curb sprawl if we don’t have regulations with teeth? How are we going to solve the mind-numbing traffic bottleneck between here and Austin? How are we going to work to reduce economic segregation and support efforts to improve K-12 public education outcomes and graduate more college ready students? What is the city’s smartest strategy for growing its professional sports profile?

It’s a lot to ask of someone who is paid only $65,000 a year, which is what the mayor makes, more or less. Now that we have lived for a few years with a somewhat updated city charter and we actually have modest salaries for elected officials, it would be nice to discuss pay raises for the City Council members and the mayor so we can attract strong candidates to serve in the years ahead.

Can’t we pay our mayor the salary earned by a high school principal in the inner city public schools? Can’t we pay council members enough to place their families squarely in the middle class? Nothing says “small town” more than an unwillingness to pay a smart, educated person a fair wage for a full-time job.

Perhaps the biggest issue crying for more public attention is the growth pattern that puts San Antonio and Austin on track to become one super metropolitan area by 2040. Both cities are among the fastest growing in the U.S. and both rank high in job growth and attracting Millennials. Yet both city governments act as if they are growing independently of one another. Leaders in the two cities are cordial, but no one would mistake our relations with Austin as strategic.

(From left) Rad Weaver and Red McCombs stand for a portrait at McCombs Enterprises.
(From left) Rad Weaver and Red McCombs stand for a portrait at McCombs Enterprises. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I recently had occasion to sit with B.J. “Red” McCombs and his business associate and mentee James “Rad” Weaver, who also is the recently named chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. In 30 years I’ve never had a conversation with McCombs that wasn’t far-reaching and insightful. Once he makes his opinion on the University of Texas football coach known he inevitably starts looking out over the horizon and talking long-term.

On this day, McCombs expressed concern that too much of the regional conversation is Austin versus San Antonio rather than Austin and San Antonio. He was one of several business leaders who lamented to me the lost opportunity two decades ago to develop a single international airport between the two cities. Now, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is growing robustly while San Antonio International Airport struggles to expand its portfolio of nonstop flights.

McCombs is not one to throw in the towel. While the idea for a shared airport did not come to fruition, there is plenty else the leaders in the two cities and all the cities in between can accomplish if they come together and act strategically.

The on-again, off-again conversation about rail service between San Antonio and Austin is just that: talk. Wouldn’t the leaders in any other two-city metro area convene a powerhouse task force of civic and business leaders to make real long-term commitments to smart growth with the financing mechanisms to support such growth? Wouldn’t such public sector investment spur significant private sector investment? Doesn’t the Texas Legislature have some responsibility to support such planning?

It seems as if San Antonio and Austin are on track to become a single U.S. Census metropolitan statistical area by 2040, or the equivalent of one super MSA. The IH-35 corridor, once home to a lot of grazing cattle and outlet stores, is now filling in rapidly as San Marcos, New Braunfels, and Schertz grow in population and jobs.

The bad news is we are wholly unprepared to solve the problems that come with that kind of growth. Worsening sprawl and congestion are all on the horizon. That seems like something that anyone who wants to be mayor of San Antonio ought to be thinking and talking about.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.