When Greg Brockhouse gave up his seat on San Antonio’s City Council to challenge Mayor Ron Nirenberg, he said he wanted to return City Hall “to the people.”
He criticized Nirenberg for so-called “backroom deals” and characterized the mayor as being part of “the machine” while portraying himself as the anti-establishment candidate. That message, and other campaign themes, resonated with 49 percent of voters.
In a way, it also resonated with Nirenberg, who vowed to correct what he called a false narrative and strengthen his collaboration with the new City Council as he starts his next two-year term.
“The biggest wakeup call has been … a realization that we can be on the right track, we can make great progress, we can tackle significant challenges that have been unaddressed for a generation and do all the right things – but also leave the impression that we’ve left out the people,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report in an interview this week.
“That, to me, is the first order priority – that I return to my roots of being the people’s mayor. I’m not a piece of the bureaucracy. I am the person they’ve selected to represent them when they’re not present in the halls of government.”
Nirenberg said he will create a high-ranking position within his office for public engagement, and make other staff changes. For Nirenberg, getting public support is a critical to pushing forward his plans to produce meaningful results on transportation, affordable housing, climate change mitigation, and other initiatives in his second term.
“I want [residents] to see me on their doorstep more than they see me on their TV,” he said. “That’s going to be my focus these next few years.”
A criticism that Brockhouse and others directed at Nirenberg was his perceived lack of achievements. Large planning efforts were launched or refined under Nirenberg’s leadership and crime rates took a nosedive, but critics said he lacked a ready list of accomplishments he could point to.
Nirenberg rejects that narrative. His opponent merely made it seem like he wasn’t accomplishing anything, he said.
“The irony in that is if we spent our time accounting for the low-hanging fruit that we’ve already pulled, our list would be long and you would be bored,” Nirenberg said. “There’s so much that we have accomplished. Our challenge has been to better communicate that with the community we serve.”
He wants to make sure that residents see him, and the City as a whole, actually working toward and achieving goals.
“We’re going to be in your face about it,” he said.
If Brockhouse was able to capitalize on the feeling a lot of San Antonians had that municipal government is disconnected from the people, Nirenberg said his second term is going to be about regaining trust with outreach and education.
“I’ve always resisted the notion that the staff have to be present in the community, but I’ve realized over the last couple years that it’s really necessary,” he said. “And it’s important for the staff to see – up close and personal – the people who they work for.”
Nirenberg’s highest priorities are long-term and remain the same: getting Connect SA and a comprehensive transportation plan approved by voters, ratifying a climate action plan, implementing the affordable housing policy, and strengthening the workforce with better access to education.
In addition to being “the people’s mayor,” he also wants to be the “mobility mayor,” in terms of both physical and socioeconomic mobility. “The workforce development piece is huge and you’re going to see a sharp focus on that in my office.”
But his short-term goals – his punch list – will get plenty of attention, too, he said.
Those include refining the equity budget; getting a labor contract with the firefighters union; adding more police officers to the streets; changing the city charter regarding election dates, term limits, and the ethics review board; and finding or renovating a sustainable home for Ella Austin Community Center.
With his principal antagonist off the council dais, Nirenberg said he – and the rest of City Council – can get on with working towards a better city rather than stall on “contrived conflict.”
“I’ll be spending a lot more time with [Council members] on the issues,” Nirenberg said.
Still, he has some relationships to repair among Council members who won re-election – and relationships to build with the new ones. Before the election, several Council members expressed disappointment with what they perceived as Nirenberg’s lack of engagement with them.
“We would read about Ron’s plan in the newspaper before we heard from him,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) told the Rivard Report. “But I don’t begrudge him anything over the past two years … it took a little while for this Council to coalesce and gel.”
Although Pelaez had been frustrated with trying to communicate with the mayor, he said “he’s gotten a lot better in the second year.” What matters more is that Nirenberg’s plans and goals are born of optimism and “forward looking,” Pelaez said.
At the heart of the mayor’s role on Council is leadership, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, but it should be through “collaboration and being as inclusive as possible.”
“Do I wish I had more meetings with Ron Nirenberg? Yes,” he said. “I will continue to try to communicate more often.”
His interactions with the mayor have improved, Treviño said, specifically because they’ve had more face-to-face communications.
And that ties into the work of healing a city after one of the most divisive runoff elections in recent memory, Treviño added. “The city needs to unify.”
Starting next Wednesday, June 19, City Council will feature three new Councilwomen: Jada Andrews-Sullivan in District 2, Adriana Rocha Garcia in District 4, and Melissa Cabello Havrda in District 6. It’s the second time in San Antonio’s history that City Council will be majority-female.
It’s a group that Nirenberg is generally aligned with ideologically. The same was true of the previous Council, which many considered among the city’s most progressive in recent memory.
“Now that we’re into our second term in these roles, we have an opportunity to delve deeper and have more collaboration,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who easily won her second term in May. “We’re getting into our groove.”
Although the new Council has yet to officially meet, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said she feels a level of “cohesiveness” in the group she hasn’t felt before. Leadership to achieve the Council’s goals may not have to come from the mayor, she added.
“I think it would likely be led by the six [women on Council] and hopefully the mayor will also come along,” said Gonzales, who was re-elected to serve her fourth and final term. “We’ll see.”
Regardless, without the distraction of political fighting between Nirenberg and Brockhouse, she said, Council can get back to work.
With the contentious mayoral election behind them, the mayor’s staff and departing City Council members are working to transition the new members into their duties; orientation meetings began right away.
“I think people are tired of conflict, especially contrived conflict,” Nirenberg said. “I think the mood of the country is indication of that. … We make our greatest strides when we’re working together. And that’s what I’ve always represented and I’m glad to have what seems to be a unified council and a more even-tempered one, too.”
And a majority-female one.
“[That is] really exciting,” he said. “I think it’s going to be great for the city.”