Former mayor Phil Hardberger gives a speech as International Citizen of the Year.
Former Mayor Phil Hardberger speaks at the World Affairs Council of San Antonio dinner, where he was honored as the group's International Citizen of the Year. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Phil Hardberger is best known as a lawyer, former judge, and former two-term mayor. But he’s also a noted traveler and adventurer, having sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and recreated Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic on its 50th anniversary.

The World Affairs Council of San Antonio honored Hardberger as its 2019 International Citizen of the Year at an event Thursday at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center. More than 600 people attended the annual dinner.

World Affairs Council members, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and City Manager Sheryl Sculley praised Hardberger as someone who’s long promoted civic pride, community spirit, and a positive global perspective.

The council presented Hardberger with a replica of a traditional Chola dynasty bronze sculpture from Chennai, India. When he was mayor, Hardberger signed a sister-city agreement between San Antonio and Chennai in 2008.

Hardberger said the World Affairs Council’s mission has never been more relevant: “The world is one big neighborhood whether we like it or not.”

Hardberger said he appreciates how organizations such as the World Affairs Council informs people, in a nonpartisan way, what is happening in other countries. That, he added, helps people develop a wider perspective.

“If we do not have knowledge, we cannot have valuable opinions. We cannot have a roadmap to what we should be doing,” he said. “We must listen to the voices of the world. We must have friendly eyes, we must have friendly ears.”

Hardberger said challenges stemming from such things as environmental problems – melting Arctic ice and pollution, for example – affect all people.

“So much of what happens in our lives is universal far more than we think,” he said.

He said regardless of what someone thinks about climate change or its chief cause, it’s important to acknowledge it is happening “and we have to deal with it on a national and international basis. We’re all neighbors. We have to work together.”

Hardberger said the United States is at a crossroads, and Americans must determine whether they want to be fully engaged in the global community.

“There is a difference between being bicultural and being international,” he added.

He recalled having a View-Master, the now-vintage device for viewing small 3-D photos on film, ranging from animals to foreign landscapes. The device helped open the world for him.

“You see what’s out there beyond the flat fields of West Texas,” Hardberger said of his native stomping grounds.

Earlier in the evening, Mayor Ron Nirenberg took to the podium, calling Hardberger a consummate leader.

“He’s a statesman, a servant leader, and you will simply not find a more honorable human being,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg pointed to Hardberger’s accomplishments as mayor from 2005 to 2009, such as expansion of the San Antonio River and local parks and green spaces, and welcoming thousands of victims fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

Nirenberg said none of these accomplishments would have been possible without help from City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whom Hardberger recruited to San Antonio. Sculley is retiring this month following 13-plus years as city manager and bid a formal farewell to the City Council earlier Thursday.

Sculley received a standing ovation as the approached the stage to introduce Hardberger. She recalled the first phone conversation she had with him shortly after he defeated then-Councilman Julián Castro in a mayoral runoff.

Sculley was the assistant city manager in Phoenix and San Antonio was looking for a new city manager. Sculley said she was instantly impressed with Hardberger’s vision for San Antonio.

“Hmm, I thought, I need to meet this mayor,” she said.

The theme of global affairs continued with the evening’s keynote speaker, Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio and a regular panelist on Fox News.

Keynote speaker Mara Liasson (left) speaks with moderator Robert Rivard.
Keynote speaker Mara Liasson (left) speaks with moderator Robert Rivard, editor and publisher of the Rivard Report. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Discussing President Donald Trump’s approach to domestic and foreign issues, she said that he has succeeded in dominating the national conversation with his use of Twitter, attacks on the media, and battles with political opponents.

“But that’s not the same as winning the argument,” she said.

In her conversation with moderator Robert Rivard, editor and publisher of the Rivard Report, Liasson looked ahead to Congressional action on Trump’s emergency declaration, which he hopes will secure funding needed to build a border wall. But House Democrats could vote early as Friday on a proposed resolution by U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) to terminate the declaration.

However, Liasson said, the president’s agenda could still prevail despite sustaining losses in Congress or through legal challenges to his declaration.

“The dirty little secret is that Congress has emasculated itself and wrote a national emergency law that gives the president tremendous leeway about how to define an emergency,” she said.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.