As a candidate for the office two years ago, Manny Pelaez thought it would be “fun” to represent District 8 on City Council.
“We make it look fun,” Pelaez said of his Council colleagues. “It’s very rewarding … but there’s a lot of painful, horrible days.”
From helping the community deal with violence, death, animal cruelty, and even possible measles outbreaks – the job takes a toll.
That said, he looks forward to winning a second term to finish what he started in terms of reducing traffic jams, adding sidewalks, and focusing more on securing the city’s digital assets and preventing domestic violence.
“There’s still a lot of work to do and I’m going to need more than one term to get it done,” Pelaez, who is a practicing labor attorney, told the Rivard Report. “I always had dreams of being really helpful to people.”
With the advantage of incumbency, Pelaez has raised nearly 10 times as much money as Gonzales-Wolfe and more than 11 times what Valdivia raised, according to campaign finance reports that cover Jan. 1 to March 25.
Voters might remember Valdivia from the 2017 Council election, when he ran against Pelaez for Ron Nirenberg’s former seat, when he ran as the Libertarian candidate for Senate District 19 last year to replace Carlos Uresti, and as a registered write-in candidate for president in 2016.
Pelaez welcomes the competition. “If I wasn’t on the ballot, I’d probably vote for Frankie,” Pelaez said.
Still, Pelaez believes he’s the most qualified to carry on constituent priorities. District 8 is the fastest-growing in the City of San Antonio, home to the South Texas Medical Center, University of Texas at San Antonio’s main campus, USAA, Ernest and Young, Hulu, and more. Northwest San Antonio also has the “best damn school districts in town,” he said, attracting families to the area. But that growth brings with it a string of challenges. Traffic congestion is high on each candidate’s list of District 8’s challenges.
District 8 is growing fast and is “changing most quickly also,” Pelaez said. City Council recently approved a study aimed at improving how the Bexar County Appraisal District puts values on homes. Pelaez authored the original plan to initiate the study.
“It’s brave of every single one of my council colleagues [to support the study],” Pelaez said. “It pits them against the taxing authorities who are quite comfortable leaving appraisals alone. It shakes the apple cart.”
Pelaez served as the general counsel for the Bexar County Battered Women and Children’s Shelter for a decade and also worked as an attorney for Toyota Motor Manufacturing. He’s the first to admit he likes having tough conversations, whether it’s advocating for better data to inform more effective domestic violence policies or pushing for the creation of Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee, which he chairs.
Next on his list of priorities is the City’s cybersecurity measures.
“If I get back up there [to City Hall], we’re going to be having a conversation about whether or not we are ready [for a cyberattack],” Pelaez said, referring to City operations, SAWS, and CPS Energy.
Cyber and physical disaster preparedness would be two of his top priorities if re-elected, he said.
Gonzales-Wolfe’s seat at the table
Gonzales-Wolfe and Valdivia both cited the classic criticism of incumbents: There should be more constituent engagement.
To improve communication between the district office and the community, Gonzales-Wolfe wants to set up an ambitious community council with about 50 representatives from each of the 53 voting precincts in the district with a residential population. She also wants to establish a more interactive portal to allow voices to be heard within the City.
“I’d rather be known as a candidate that tried and failed than just talk,” she said. “I want to truly give the seat in District 8 back to the community.”
Her other top priorities include easing traffic congestion, fostering better transportation connectivity to downtown, and providing incentives to small, local businesses proportional to the incentives given to attract larger companies.
Gonzales-Wolfe grew up behind Mission San José from “extremely humble beginnings,” she said. She’s lived in District 8 for about 20 years and first got involved in politics by volunteering for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996, she said.
“I’ve helped other candidates for a long time in hopes that they represent my voice at the table,” she said. “I’m no longer patiently waiting. I’m now demanding a seat.”
The seat would come with difficult days, Gonzales-Wolfe said, noting that City Council’s recent controversial decision to remove Chick-fil-A from the airport concessionaire contract would have hit close to home for her if she had been on the Council dais.
As a “proud transgender woman,” she also understands the “delicate balance, because I’m a woman of faith myself.”
Gonzales-Wolfe said she probably would have voted alongside the mayor and others to remove the business, but not for the same reasons Pelaez did. He cited Chick-fil-A’s reputation for supporting anti-LGBTQIA institutions and accusations of discrimination. Pelaez later said he regretted his vote and for citing inaccurate information about the company.
Gonzales-Wolfe said she would have approached the matter differently, noting that while she might make the personal choice to not eat at Chick-fil-A, as a Council member she would be representing an entire district. She also acknowledged that the fast food chain has taken measures to improve its corporate culture and hiring practices – and should not be discriminated against because of its religious beliefs.
Gonzales-Wolfe wants to see more local options at the airport and would have voted against it for that reason. “I want to promote small businesses and culture in our city,” she said.
Like anyone on City Council, she said, she can’t “check her identity at the door” before serving as a representative, but stressed that her gender identity is not her defining characteristic.
“I’m not running to be the transgender Council person, I’m running as Frankie who is trying to make a difference in the community,” she said.
Valdivia’s Libertarian values
Valdivia is well aware that his presidential bid may have turned off some voters. Some people might say “here’s a nut job,” he said, laughing, but “I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.”
The people he met, the things he learned, Valdivia said, “led me to a career in politics … and after volunteering at the District 8 office [under then-Councilman Nirenberg], it felt natural to run for City Government.”
In addition to addressing traffic congestion, Valdivia also advocates property tax relief and mitigating homelessness. By bringing Libertarian values to City Hall – smaller, more efficient government and the “right to live our lives as we see fit” – he said the City can stop spending money on Council member’s pet projects so it can instead afford tax relief for homeowners.
City Council is studying implementing a homestead exemption, but previous attempts at reducing the City property tax rate by two Council members stalled soon after they were proposed.
Valdivia, a Tuscon, Arizona, native who moved around a lot with his parents, would like to see San Antonio launch a homelessness program similar to that of Albuquerque.
He wants to see a more proactive approach to constituent engagement and have all of District 8’s discretionary budget be decided by participatory budgeting, in which residents could decide the priorities and projects. District 9 and District 8 have previously experimented with this tool, but at a smaller scale.
As for Chick-fil-A, “I don’t think I would have voted to kick them out.”
The controversy demonstrates that the City’s bidding and contracting process needs an overhaul, he said. “Council could have nipped this in the bud with transparent policies,” he said.
Valdivia was appointed to the City’s Neighborhood Improvements Advisory Committee by Pelaez, but left less than a year later to run for the Senate seat. Pelaez said that and his serial campaigns are examples of a “seriousness problem” on Valdivia’s part. “Running for office is his hobby,” Pelaez said.
Valdivia largely dismisses criticism of his political ambitions because he said his previous campaigns are his way of becoming “more than just a spectator.”
Early voting runs April 22 through April 30. Election day is May 4.