Ron Nirenberg is still the mayor of San Antonio, but he was the big loser Saturday night. Even though he survived a stunningly close challenge by City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) and lives to run another day in June, more than half the city’s voters said they did not want Nirenberg re-elected.
That’s a humiliating setback for a first-term mayor who himself was a challenger given slim odds of unseating incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017. He did so, of course, by stunning Taylor with a stronger-than-expected finish in the first round of voting and then riding that momentum to finish off a politically weak incumbent in the runoff.
Now the tables threaten to turn as an emboldened Brockhouse woos the 5.7 percent of voters who supported one of the seven other mayoral candidates to help him finish the job. Nirenberg’s best chance of winning is inspiring people who sat out the first round to jump in and vote for him in the runoff.
One of the election law peculiarities is that you do not have to vote in the first round to be eligible to vote in the runoff. Any registered voter in the city is eligible.
With 99.47 percent of precincts counted, Nirenberg finished with 48.68 percent versus 45.55 percent for Brockhouse. The remaining 5.76 percent went to also-ran candidates, most of whom did not even campaign. A handful of votes were voided. A dismal 11.47 percent of registered city voters went to the polls.
Despite the advantages of incumbency, Nirenberg was nearly equaled at the polls by a pro-union councilman in a right-to-work state, a first-termer with no real record of achievement, one who was accused of domestic violence, who has had children with four different women, and has wages garnished to make child support payments. (See correction and clarification below).
That’s a hard comeuppance for someone who has won election three times to office in San Antonio, and is a model family man who prides himself on a scandal-free record.
Analyzing the results at this juncture is mostly guesswork, but one thing is clear: Nirenberg did not inspire a significant base of supporters to turn out and vote. More than 45 percent of the voters who did turn out appeared willing to overlook Brockhouse’s personal failings in order to send a message.
Certainly, the recent furor over the ousting of a proposed Chick-fil-A franchise from a food court at San Antonio International Airport gave social conservatives and some in the business community one more reason to dislike Nirenberg. Many already felt that way after the City failed to bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention, and more recently, after the proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan ruffled feathers and ran into political headwinds.
Saturday’s stunning results were presaged by an air of uncertainty that settled over Nirenberg supporters in the closing days of the campaign: “What’s your prediction in the mayor’s race?”
Looking back, the frequency of that question signaled a widely-held view that Nirenberg and Brockhouse were locked in a race much closer than anyone had once imagined. In the days leading up the final tally, few expressed confidence in predicting a Nirenberg win. Conversation turned to the probability of a runoff, and predictions that such a first-round outcome would leave Nirenberg weakened and Brockhouse emboldened.
In the backs of people’s minds were the passage of two charter amendments last November engineered by the firefighters union, and even earlier, President Donald Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 presidential election.
I wrote earlier in the campaign that my gut told me the incumbents at City Hall would prevail, and so they did in the individual council races. All three open seats are headed to runoffs.
The seven incumbents, however, all won by significant numbers. Councilman John Courage (D9) won with about 54 percent of the vote, but his closest challenger only managed 41 percent. The other incumbents put up landslide numbers.
Not so for the mayor.
In a city with 961,087 registered voters, only about 110,000 showed up to vote during two weeks of early voting and Election Day, with only 3,168 votes, or 3.1 percent, separating Nirenberg and Brockhouse. One way to look at the final result is to say Nirenberg fell only 1.32 percent short of winning outright. The other way of looking at it is that a longshot challenger fought him to a draw and prevented his outright re-election.
Nearly 1 million registered voters in San Antonio need to take the runoff as a second chance to get involved, to do their duty. The runoff gives the majority of registered voters who stayed home the opportunity to turn out in June. It’s an opportunity to use their vote to say what kind of city they want San Antonio to be, and what kind of elected leaders they want in office to represent them here and to the world.
When so many choose to stay home, we citizens are the real losers.
Correction: An earlier version of this column said Brockhouse was taken yo court for child support payments when, in fact, an administrative agreement with the attorney general’s office was reached and child support payments are now made though standard payroll withdrawals from his City Council paycheck. On a second note, he also provided the Rivard Report with documentation showing a good credit record.