Tuesday was a big night for the children of San Antonio. In an era of no new taxes, in a culture where the “haves” too often turn their backs on the “have-nots,”  a majority of voters said yes to Mayor Julián Castro, yes to Pre-K 4 SA, and yes to investing in the power and promise of early childhood education.

The first glimmer of hope came like an unexpected rain on parched land shortly after 7 p.m. when early vote results stunningly showed outsized suburban voter turnouts had not given an edge to opponents. This was one for the record books. For: 129,753 (50.02%), Against: 129, 666 (49.98%).

Could it have been any closer? Yes, in theory. It could have been one one-hundredth of a percentage point closer, or even tied. Everyone just stared as the numbers first appeared on the big screen at the iconic restaurant La Fonda on Main and on cell phones clutched closely in the tight crowd of supporters. Cheers grew louder as an ebullient Mayor Castro, wife Erica, and sleepy daughter Carina Victoria appeared, along with City Manager Sheryl Sculley, City Councilmen Diego Bernal and Rey Saldaña, Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell,  and a host of other city and community leaders deeply invested in the initiative.

A scant 87 votes separated the two sides. If anyone ever suggests one person’s vote does not count, remember this Tuesday night in San Antonio.

Diego Bernal, Julian Castro and Erica Castro on election night
District 4 City Councilman Rey Saldaña, District 1 City Councilman Diego Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro and his wife Erica, Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell, District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, and SAISD Foundation Chairwoman Carri Baker-Wells. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“The last few days, we were sweating bullets,” Castro told supporters, “but tonight we are going to win.”

Castro had to be experiencing extraordinary emotions, his twin brother headed to Washington to take the seat once filled by Henry B. Gonzalez and then his son, Charles Gonzalez. As a high profile co-chairman of President Obama’s re-election campaign, the Mayor would watch electoral votes inexorably mounting in the president’s favor until victory was assured. At home, he would see the biggest political risk of his four-years in office pay huge dividends.

The cheers that punctuated Castro’s  every sentence seemed like exhalations of deep tensions that had mounted in the closing days as supporters and opponents alike felt the race tightening, perhaps turning. Tuesday night, such anxieties seemed misplaced.

“Here in San Antonio, we are not thinking about the next two years, we are thinking about the next 20 years,” Castro declared. “We are going to be a 21st century city, and we won’t take a back seat to anyone. San Antonio means business when it comes to economic prosperity and when it comes to the education of our children.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley hug
City Manager Sheryl Sculley hugs a staffer after early voting numbers reveal support, by a narrow margin, of Pre-K 4 SA. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Tuesday was, indeed, a big night for our Mayor. Castro now has been tested in the crucible of national prime time politics, yet apparently  has chosen to decline invitations to join President Obama’s second term administration. He will, instead,  stay the course in his hometown, according to those who know him best. As state Rep. Joaquín Castro prepares to trade his office in Austin for one at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, his twin brother will stay home and see though his ambitious SA2020 agenda. If true, that is big news for a city with 20th century problems and 21st century ambitions.

Still, all that is for later. Tonight, across San Antonio, a remarkably broad coalition — progressives at City Hall, pragmatic business leaders, and inner city, community-based organizations  came together to back Castro and his vision for investing in an ambitious, city-run program to identify thousands of at-risk 4-year-olds, even before they enter school, and incubate them in all-day pre-kindergarten programs that aim to set them on course to successful education outcomes.

It’s a bold gambit.  Conviction and courage, two qualities not evident in Texas politics these days, guided Castro and his team who did the unthinkable and proposed citizens endorse a tax increase.

“The people of this city believe in Julián, and we are not waiting for Austin or Washington to fix our problems,” said Christian Archer, of Adelante Strategy Group, who has managed  the campaigns of both Castros and the Pre-K 4 SA initiative. “The Mayor took a big risk, asking people to approve a new tax in this environment. It’s a great reflection of the Mayor’s records of hard work over the last four years.”

For opponents, their inability to defeat Castros’ initiative might reflect, above all, the lack of credible alternatives. Opponents seemed to communicate indifference toward inner city youth and the epidemic of dropouts and failed education outcomes. Opposition seemed focused more on assertions the City was the wrong entity to oversee such a program, or that logistical complexities and program costs would be its undoing. In the end, voters sided with Castro and his conviction that urgent measures are required to change the status quo.

With all but two of the city 522 precincts counted, the final vote was 194, 334 ( 53.49%) for Pre-K 4SA, and        168,970 (46.51%) against it.

Voting line at the Central Library 4
Voting line at the Central Library on election day. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

With victory, the hard work now begins of proving to taxpayers, including those who opposed Pre-K 4 SA, that the city’s leadership can deliver.

“We will work with the superintendents to make this program work,” said City Manager Sheryl Sculley, “I don’t want to be a superintendent. This a voluntary program, and districts do not have to participate unless they want to.”

She and others in the City hope they do.

“We want to complement and supplement the school districts and help them succeed and do better where they need to do more,” Sculley said. “This community has so much going for it. Now, we have even more reason to feel optimistic.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.