With Biblical quotations, shared memories of first meetings, and personal testimonials, the 10 members of City Council and City Manager Sheryl Sculley paid homage to Mayor Julián Castro and his accomplishments in five years in office and wished him Godspeed on his way to a new life and work in Washington D.C.
The ceremonial well wishes were delivered over the first 90 minutes of Tuesday’s special meeting of the City Council to elect an interim mayor to serve out the one-year unexpired mayoral term resulting from Castro’s resignation later in the meeting. Around noon, District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor was elected mayor after two rounds of competitive voting reduced four candidates to two, followed by District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez’s gracious concession speech which precluded a third round of voting and a possible stalemate.
Mayor Castro will be sworn in as Secretary of Housing & Urban Development on Monday and take his place in the Obama administration for the last two years of the president’s second term in the White House.
The testimonials, delivered one by one from the Council dais, were heartfelt, touched on important policy accomplishments and personal relationships, and concluded with a ceremonial presentation of the mayoral chair for Castro to take with him to Washington D.C.
The first two rows of seats in Council chambers were reserved for Mayor Castro’s extended family and friends, and the atmosphere ahead of the 9 a.m. meeting was electric with anticipation. A number of students were in attendance, too, to witness the day’s historic events – Castro’s last meeting as mayor and the unprecedented election of an interim mayor.
Evamay Watts, the chief financial officer of the Ella Austin Community Center, presented Mayor Castro with an office weather station so he could check the San Antonio weather from his Washington office.
“Trust me, I’ll be checking the weather in SA often,” Castro quipped, adding that he would return to San Antonio, to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary in 2018 and again on Sept. 25, 2020, the culminating date of his trademark SA2020 initiative.
Kate Rogers, vice president for corporate communications with H-E-B and the chair of the Mayor’s Fitness Council, spoke of the many public health, wellness, and recreational programs launched during the Castro era and presented the mayor with a framed commemoration of the many initiatives.
“As you know, in 2010 San Antonio was on the top of a lot of lists that Mayor Castro said we didn’t want to be on the top of,” Roger said, noting that the city’s obesity rate had fallen from 35 percent to 28 percent by 2013, according to Metro Health.
She ticked off some of the successful initiatives launched: Síclovía, enhanced greenways, exercise classes in the parks, a citywide company wellness program that has attracted 115,000 participants, the Fitness Council’s student ambassador program, and the FitCity.com website.
Excerpts from remarks by Mayor Castro, Council members and the city manager follow.
“Today we have a very unique City Council meeting to elect a new mayor and then to appoint a replacement to the vacant council position,” Mayor Castro said at the outset. Reviewing the agenda, he added, “We have several items related to the outgoing mayor, me.” That drew the first laughter of a celebratory morning.
“Let me say how much I’ve appreciated all the support I have garnered over last five years in my role as mayor trying to improve the quality of life in San Antonio,” Castro said. “My brother Joaquín and I chose to come back here because there really was no choice.”
Castro said he grew up in the 1980s, watching then-Mayor Henry Cisneros usher in his own era of transformation in the city.
“As a young person I saw the possibilities of what could be,” Castro said. “We’ve come a long way in last five years. Today we are a more prosperous city. We are a city on the way to getting more educated.”
Even as the city has grown and changed, Castro said it has retained its unique character and sense of community, something he said could not be found in many other big cities.
“My hope is that the next mayor and the next generation of mayors going forward … will continue to foster that sense of community,” he said.
Taking a jab at the outdated 1951 City Charter that limits pay for the mayor and Council members to token sums, he drew another laugh when he praised the caliber of Council members, thanked them for their service, and told the audience the officeholders were worth “every dollar you pay them, and then some.”
“They deserve to be compensated fairly for what they do,” Castro said. “They do a tremendous amount of work on behalf of you and our city in a professional way, and in a way that moves our city forward.”
Castro then thanked Sheryl Sculley.
Citing her accomplishments in managing city finances and the budget and elevating the City’s high credit rating, Castro told her, “You’ve also managed the personality and politics masterfully.”
Finally, Castro thanked his own staff, his family, and citizens.
“One of the great things about politics is that it gives you license to meet people, to get to know people, to hear their stories, to make friends,” Castro said. “That has been one of the greatest joys of my life…I’ve only been at this for 13 years, but it feels like a lifetime. I want to express deep gratitude to everyone who has supported me over the years.”
The audience, which included many City employees, delivered a rousing standing ovation, and Council members then spoke individually.
District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran:
She called Castro’s last day as mayor “a bittersweet day, a melancholy day.”
She was the first to quote the Bible, turning to Proverbs 29:18. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor:
She said she first heard of Castro in 1998 when she took a job with the City and found a Stanford portfolio in her office desk, which another City employee said must have been left there “by one of the interns.” Castro, of course, was that intern from Stanford.
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales:
She praised Castro’s commitment to education, saying, “Young people say when they grow up they want to be like Julián Castro. Thank you for being the perfect role model for our kids. Our country needs leaders like you.”
District 7 Councilman Chris Medina:
Medina, who holds the seat once held by Castro, said, “I remember when I was first elected that people said if you can get half the stuff done that Julián did, you will be all right.”
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg:
“Few people would argue when I say that our city is in a renaissance … you have certainly elevated the conversation. San Antonio used to be about yesteryear … today it’s all about the future.”
District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal:
“The San Antonio we have today is drastically different than the San Antonio we had when you were elected,” Bernal said, noting that he was a “somewhat anti-establishment civil rights lawyer” when Castro convinced him he could make a difference on Council.
Bernal and Castro have known each other since they were 11 years old and first met on the playground of Tafolla Middle School.
“Some say I am the Robin to your Batman,” Bernal said, drawing laughs. “But I say I am the Jiminy Cricket to your Pinocchio.”
Bernal offered perhaps the most touching moment of the morning when he recalled the untimely death of his father in the Rio Grande Valley in 2012. Mayor Castro and Councilman Rey Saldaña drove four hours to pay their respects to him and his family, he said, and then made the long drive back.
District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña:
He said Rosario’s restaurant in Southtown, a favorite Castro lunch haunt, “won’t be the same without you.”
Saldaña said he was at City Hall Monday evening when he noticed Castro’s car still there. He found him seated in his dark office amid packed boxes going through momentos he was leaving for others.
“It was great to see him basking in satisfaction, in a hard day’s work, but really it was 13 years work,” Saldaña said. “His greatest accomplishment was to create hope in young people.”
That, of course, included Saldaña, who followed Castro to Stanford and then public service in his hometown. Paying Castro a final tribute, Saldaña said, “Politicians think of the next election. Leaders think of the next generation.”
District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher
He said Castro handled criticism with the same quiet aplomb he handled praise.
“What I’ve really admired about you is the way you stay above the fray,” Gallagher said, “and the way you’ve been able to get along with city staff and this interesting group of people on the dais.”
District 9 Councilman Joe Krier
He, too, quoted the Bible, specifically a contemporary translation of Exodus 18:21, which states in the King James Bible:
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.”
“You have been one of those kinds of leaders,” Krier said. “You, like me, are a believer that San Antonio is a city where we can disagree in an agreeable way.”
Krier called Castro, “One of the best economic development salesman in the city in the last 30 years.”
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez:
“We could be here all day talking about the accomplishments of the last five years through which you have led us,” Lopez said. “Great leaders leave great legacies … SA2020 is certainly one of those.”
City manager Sheryl Sculley:
She listed some of the major issues of the Castro era: The divisive debate over CPS Energy’s canceled plan to expand the South Texas Plant nuclear facility, SA2020, the 2012 bond program, and Pre-K 4 SA.
“Everyone told us it couldn’t be done,” Sculley said, adding that the results to date have exceeded the most optimistic expectations.
She went on to recall six balanced budgets she worked on with Castro-led Councils, economic development reforms, the recent opening of Café Commerce, the Mayor’s Fitness Council, water policy issues, and the Decade of Downtown, including residential housing starts, the Hemisfair redevelopment project, the expansion of the H-E-B headquarters campus and continuing historic preservation.
“I think of one more ‘H word’ and that is how you’ve conducted yourself in such a humble way,” Sculley said.
*Featrued/top image: City staff and Council members lead the Council chambers in standing ovation in praise of outgoing Mayor Julián Castro. Photo by Scott Ball.