Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Robert Rivard discuss the biggest challenges facing San Antonio during a conversation at the Pearl Stable.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard will discuss the biggest challenges facing San Antonio during a conversation at the Pearl Stable on Wednesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When Mayor Ron Nirenberg takes the Pearl Stable stage Wednesday morning, Sept. 18, for the Rivard Report‘s annual “Conversation With the Mayor,” he will find it hard not to notice a few former occupants of the office seated prominently at the front of the audience.

I will serve as moderator for the one-on-one discussion. City Manager Erik Walsh, not yet well known to many in the city, will introduce the mayor. Walsh has just seen City Council unanimously approve the $2.9 billion 2020 budget, his first since the Texas Legislature limited the future taxing authority of cities and forced other revenue losses.

Audience members can pose their own pointed questions to the second-term mayor, who barely escaped an unexpectedly strong challenge from first-term City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) that extended into a June runoff election. Brockhouse was unaccomplished as an officeholder, known principally for his weekly objections from the council dais to the Nirenberg agenda. He was dogged throughout the long campaign by evidence of domestic violence, yet he came close to unseating Nirenberg.

Nirenberg is the first to acknowledge that the election was a wakeup call, one that led to serious introspection about his future as mayor and his calling to public service.

“I might have taken things for granted without that challenge, so it turned out to be important to go through a very difficult election,” Nirenberg said last week. “I view it as a blessing, critical to my success going forward. This opportunity I have as mayor is very temporary, dependent on the mood of voters and how they perceive my job performance. Things can turn quickly.

“It has forced me to reassess how well we are communicating our agenda, where our energy and priorities are focused, and how important it is for me going forward to be as close to the people I serve as possible, even if only 15 percent of the voting public participates in an election.”

The program will be an opportunity for Nirenberg, at least subconsciously, to reflect on former mayors who are credited with transforming a growing city while in office, and to measure his own aspirations and political skills against his predecessors.

Former Mayors Henry Cisneros, Nelson Wolff, and Phil Hardberger will be there to listen to Nirenberg and to pay respect to former Mayor Lila Cockrell, who died Aug. 29. She was a pioneer in public service whose lasting legacy is only now gaining a full appreciation in this city.

The yearbook photo of Lila Mae Banks (Cockrell) during her time at Southern Methodist University.

The breakfast program will open with a minute of silence accompanied by a slide show to honor her memory. Cisneros, of course, delivered an eloquent eulogy at Cockrell’s Sept. 5 funeral at Laurel Heights Methodist Church.

Sprawling San Antonio, often cited as the fastest growing U.S. city, has become an increasingly diversified, complicated, and politically and geographically divided metropolis. Even San Antonio’s most successful mayors of the past would be challenged to govern now.

Beyond the city’s growth are its fault lines. The highly polarized state of national politics has ultimately drifted from Washington to statehouses and now encompasses cities. Some of the day’s most divisive issues are at once national and local: racism, income disparity, public health and family issues, guns, immigration, climate change, and the environment.

There is no shortage of local issues on the City agenda to explore. One is San Antonio’s epidemic of domestic violence, an issue that only became a topic of public awareness and debate during the mayoral election.

“I am proud it has become an issue we are addressing,” Nirenberg said, citing an anecdote about a woman who appeared at last week’s Citizens to be Heard session to offer testimony of her abusive home situation.

“She was being abused and wasn’t getting help from the criminal justice system and she wanted City Council to help her,” Nirenberg said. “It shows that people know we are on their side and ready to do something about it.”

For all the challenges Walsh and his team faced in forging the new budget, an unexpected $7.8 million windfall from CPS Energy’s monthly payments to the City softened the impact. The payment allowed Walsh to boost City reserves, critical to San Antonio’s credit rating, and provide project support in all 10 Council districts.

The short-term relief will not impact what will happen next year when state-mandated tax caps pose a longer-term challenge.

Another major question mark is the outcome of arbitration between the City and the firefighters union scheduled for the first two weeks of December. The result will be a new labor contract handed down by a three-person arbitration panel that will not be subject to approval by the City or union, although it could become the subject of litigation by either party.

ConnectSA, the City’s framework for improving mobility and mass transit; the Housing Task Force report; the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan; and the Lower Broadway redesign also will be addressed Wednesday. 

Nirenberg has the opportunity to serve eight years as mayor, if he can keep the confidence of voters. Wednesday will be an opportunity for people to gauge how effectively he is faring as a second-term mayor.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.