Mayor Ron Nirenberg celebrates after learning he has pulled off a victory over challenger Greg Brockhouse in a tight race.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg celebrates after learning he has pulled off a victory over challenger Greg Brockhouse in a tight race. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio made history Saturday. Not happy history, but history nonetheless.

In a development that makes our local politics more like the poisoned well of Washington, for the first time outside independent political action committees played a major role in the mayor’s race, spending upwards of $500,000.

Among the outside players were the Texas Organizing Project, the prominent liberal group that last year took the lead in collecting 144,000 signatures to successfully pressure City Council into passing an ordinance requiring most businesses to provide sick pay for their workers. TOP sat out the first round of voting, but spent more than $64,000 on field workers for Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s runoff campaign.

Another liberal group, Progress Texas, spent at least $113,000 backing Nirenberg, mostly for advertising.

But political action committees for the city’s police and fire unions played a far larger role on behalf of Councilman Greg Brockhouse, whose campaign was seriously underfunded for a campaign in a city of 1.6 million.

The challenger had managed to raise a paltry $82,000 for the first round of voting, to add to the $15,000 he had banked as a councilman at the beginning of the year. By comparison, Nirenberg raised $284,000 to go on top of the $278,000 he had in the bank as of Jan. 1.

Without more than $200,000 spent by political action committees of the police and fire unions during the first round, together with a strong membership get-out-the vote effort by the firefighters, it’s likely Brockhouse would not have made the runoff.

Trailing Nirenberg by only 3 points heading into the runoff, Brockhouse was able to do much better, raising $115,000 in a few weeks. Nirenberg nearly tripled that amount with $330,000.

Nirenberg eked out a slim victory, with a lukewarm coalition of business leaders and liberal groups.

Business leaders held several grievances against him, ranging from opposing the hosting of the Republican National Convention to voting for the sick-leave ordinance.

Meanwhile, liberal groups such as the Texas Organizing Project declined to endorse Nirenberg in the first round because he had voted against opposing a failed effort in the Legislature to bar cities from requiring sick leave.

Both the business leaders and TOP came to conclude that Brockhouse would be worse. Nirenberg’s reliance on those two groups to hold onto office presents one of many challenges for his second term.

The pressure on Brockhouse would be simpler. Despite his protests to the contrary, Brockhouse would have completely owed his office to the public safety unions. The contract given to the police union two years ago is projected to push public safety costs above the two-thirds of the general fund that they already command.

Having held out for two more years without a raise, the fire union leaders would lose face if they didn’t do better than the police. Brockhouse would be expected to dance with them, and, in the face of the demonstrated power of the union, it would require extraordinary political courage for his council colleagues not to join him.

The price tag would be magnified by a provision in the police contract that would give them new benefits given the firefighters.

One of the advantages of outside political action committees is that, because they aren’t on the ballot, they don’t have to worry much about hurting their reputations by slinging misleading mud.

That was evident with mailings by the police union that charged Nirenberg with “accepting more than $3 million in campaign cash” from “City Hall lobbyists and Fat Cats.”

But, as noted above, Nirenberg didn’t come close to raising $3 million for his campaign — an almost impossible task given the $1,000 limit on contributions from individuals and PACs.

The reference was to money raised last year to fight three charter amendments, for which the fire union spent more than $1 million gathering petition signatures and campaigning.

But the business leaders who put up serious cash to oppose the measures were not doing it out of love for Nirenberg. They were doing it because the measures were bad for business. The worst — which was defeated — would have made it vastly easier for voters to force elections to overturn ordinances passed by city council.

Unlike current referendum provisions in the charter, it would have included tax rates and rate increases approved by council for CPS Energy and SAWS.

What’s more, it would have made zoning changes subject to referendums, meaning any business wouldn’t be able to get financing to build on rezoned land until after a waiting period for signatures to be gathered and possibly for an election.

These and other provisions would have caused serious harm to the city’s bond rating, making bond issues significantly more expensive. No wonder the “fat cats” fought it.

Under current law, outside PACs on both sides are able to fund campaigns without disclosing their spending on the same city web site and under the same deadlines that candidates have to file. According to the city attorney’s office, there is no reason City Council can’t require that any individual, business, or political action committee that spends more than, say, $1,000 on a city campaign to file a report with the city.

City Council should enact such an ordinance. It wouldn’t keep special interests from pumping cash into campaigns and running sleazy ads, but it would at least make it easier to track who is doing it.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.