Three takeaways from this year’s San Antonio city elections:
1) Redbaiting is out. It worked on neither the North Side in District 9 nor the West Side in District 5.
2) An incumbent who gets 45% in the first round is in trouble. One who gets 17% is toast. District 2 incumbent Jada Andrews-Sullivan lost by 26 percentage points in the runoff after getting just 17% in the first round. Roberto Treviño looked good after getting 45% in the first round to Mario Bravo’s 34%. But it turned out the anti-Treviño vote was too hard to overcome. He was able to boost his share by only 1 percentage point in the runoff, to 46%. Bravo received 54%.
3) Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s plan for boosting voter participation in city elections is a really, really bad idea.
Nirenberg’s proposal sounds at first like a very good idea, so much so that the San Antonio Express-News recently ran a long editorial in enthusiastic support. The mayor says he intends to campaign for the change with a charter amendment in three years, when he hopes to be in his fourth and last term.
The turnout in mayoral and council races was a pathetic 17% this year, relatively high by historical standards. It was considerably less in the runoff. To fix it, the mayor proposes moving the election day from spring to fall and from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years.
In other words, our city government candidates would be listed somewhere near the bottom of long gubernatorial and presidential ballots. That would guarantee higher turnout — somewhere between 40% and 60%. But it would almost certainly lead to worse government.
The reason is that a healthy democracy depends on informed voters. There are enough challenges these days with the advent of social media as a ruthlessly efficient delivery system of misinformation. Imagine if at least half the voters weighing in on City Council candidates had no idea about the candidates or the issues.
One reason people don’t vote in city elections is that they know nothing about City Council candidates and not much about mayoral candidates. City Council is an entry-level position. Very few council candidates have held elected office and have limited public reputations. What’s more, campaign contribution limits of $500 per election cycle make it difficult for them to raise enough funds to reach many more than targeted voters from previous city elections.
Sure they can block walk, but after redistricting later this year or early next year, each district will have a population of about 160,000, roughly the size of Tempe, Arizona, or Eugene, Oregon.
Kelton Morgan, a Republican election consultant in San Antonio, says only candidates with the support of independent PACs without campaign contribution limits will be able to run campaigns funded well enough to reach voters in a general election.
He says that will mean an even greater influence of money in elections than exists now, something that many liberals who support putting city elections on the November ballots oppose.
“As somebody who makes a living off of politics, I’m all for more money in politics,” he said. “It puts food on my table, a bigger car, a bigger bank account. But I still think this is a stupid idea.”
If you want to know what voting for a City Council candidate would be like toward the bottom of a lengthy ballot that includes races for president, House and Senate, attorney general, land commissioner, state senator and representative, sheriff, tax assessor-collector — you get the picture — think about how your eyes glaze over when you get to the section on judges. (Council candidates would be below the judges.)
Admit it. You know nothing about the vast majority of judges on the ballot, so you vote based on the few things you can know: their political party, their sex, in some cases their ethnicity. As I’ve said before, if I know nothing about the candidates but that one guy has an Irish last name, something tribal in my soul leans toward him. But chances are if I knew the miscreant there’s no way I would vote for him.
Another example I’ve used: More than three decades ago, Mayor Henry Cisneros arranged for a January 1989 referendum on a tax to build the Alamodome. January ballots in those days featured only board candidates for the San Antonio River Authority and the then-Edwards Underground Water District, but backers of the Alamodome raised nearly a million dollars to promote the tax and sent the normally tiny turnout soaring.
One result: A prominent incumbent on the Edwards board named Fay Sinkin, a widely admired champion for protecting the Edwards Aquifer, lost to a man who had no water experience and did little campaigning. His only political asset was that he shared the name Charles Rodriguez with a police chief who recently had been much in the news. He was run out of town after being associated with a nasty department scandal.
So what does this year’s City Council race have to do with this issue? Simple. As consultant Morgan notes, being on a ticket that is dominated by Democratic and Republican partisan issues will turn San Antonio’s nonpartisan city election into a partisan affair.
“The most frequently asked question when a candidate block walks,” Morgan said, “is ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’”
Donald Trump carried only one City Council district last November. That was District 9, where challenger Patrick Von Dohlen called incumbent Councilman John Courage “your socialist neighbor.” Von Dohlen was outed as little interested in the nuts and bolts of local government but an extremist on national issues who was supported by an “independent” political action committee — housed at his company’s office — to which he had given thousands of dollars.
But Von Dohlen was an avid Trump supporter, and his fellow Trump supporters have shown themselves willing to overlook a multitude of sins.
Courage easily beat Von Dohlen 54% to 46% in a low-turnout runoff this month that drew many voters who follow city affairs closely. The chances are very good that, had the Courage-Von Dohlen race been on the November ballot, Von Dohlen would have won.
Good for the city? I rest my case.