When Rebecca Viagran won the District 3 City Council seat in 2013, the former Brooks Air Force Base had been closed just two years and Julián Castro was mayor.
Having served the maximum four terms mandated by the city charter, Viagran relinquished the reins of District 3 in June.
Her tenure was marked by significant economic development on the South Side, especially the fast-growing campus at the former Air Force base, now a mixed-use community governed by an 11-member board of directors appointed by the mayor and City Council. During her time on council, commercial truck and bus manufacturer Navistar brought a plant to San Antonio, ultimately investing more than $275 million. Viagran also helped secure a World Heritage designation for the San Antonio missions, the first — and so far only — landmarks to get the distinction in Texas.
Viagran was succeeded by her sister, Phyllis Viagran, who won a runoff election last month to secure the seat.
The former city councilwoman will continue her civic involvement as the vice chair of the Alamo Management Committee and tri-chair of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee; Mayor Ron Nirenberg appointed Viagran to those committees in March.
The San Antonio Report spoke with Viagran about her time on council and her future plans, which include a long-awaited vacation with a group of friends to Central America. She shared some of her high points and lessons learned during her time representing District 3.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
San Antonio Report: How have you been doing, now that you’re officially done with City Council?
Rebecca Viagran: I feel like I need a lot of rest. Because it is absolutely a transition. Because for eight years straight, this has been a 24/7 identity and something that you’re so passionate about and you care so much about. To then automatically just go, ‘OK, no more,’ it is very much a transition process and way of letting go. And trusting that whatever needs to happen in the future is going to be able to happen.
But I don’t think it’s [difficult to transition] just in an elected position. I think anywhere you’ve worked for eight or however many years, it’s a transition. And I would even go so far as saying a mourning process that you have to go through. Because you’re no longer getting in all the emails. It’s amazing how fast the phone calls stop coming, the text messages stop coming. So it really is a new way of learning to do things. I’ve already likened it to how we’re learning how to do things in a new way post-shutdown and post-pandemic. I’m learning how to work in this new life, post-council.
SA Report: Eight years in office is a long time. When you look back, what do you consider to be your crowning achievement?
RV: I always think of a couple of things as my crowning achievements. One is to see the increase of residents, civic engagement, and participation. We had an over 51% increase in voter participation from when I first got in in 2013, to my last election in 2019. More homeowners associations came online, more residents participated in neighborhood association meetings and different events that we had. And because they saw their voices were being heard and that I was taking action on requests they had, they were getting more engaged, more involved. I think that’s my crowning achievement, being able to see the level of civic engagement increase over 50% here in District 3.
Next, of course, the World Heritage designation. And the respectful transformation and resurgence that is happening throughout this World Heritage area.
And then No. 3 is the number of jobs and opportunities that are coming to District 3, like the medical school on the South Side of San Antonio. I’m so proud of that because that was only in people’s dreams. People never believed that a university could come on the South Side, let alone a medical school now. So those three things, I think, are my proudest [accomplishments] of these eight years.
SA Report: Why was it so hard for people to believe that a university or a medical school could be located on the South Side?
RV: Because of redlining in the past and racism. Remember, we only got single-member districts in the ’70s. Everything before then was at-large positions, no term limits. And then term limits came in later on, even after single-member districts came on board. So people may think, ‘Oh, the ’70s. That was so long ago.’ But when you think about generational change, that’s not really a long time ago.
Think about the different landfills that were put here. I mean, we have an oil refinery still here on the South Side. And [we did not have] the investment in the education that we needed to. It’s basically because of redlining and racism and segregation that’s happened in the city. But you had to have believers and investors. And I believe I was one of the loudest believers and advocates at the city to say, ‘Hey, come and check us out over here. We have the people. We have some of the largest disposable income in the city. And we’re ready.’ I mean, we didn’t even have a lot of banks on this side of town until maybe 10, 15 years ago. So there has been a lot of investment that’s had to be put in here.
SA Report: So you had to defy the status quo and find others willing to do the same?
RV: We had to make believers of others and other investors. And being born and raised on the South Side — it’s doable. We have the people, we have the resources, we have the gumption and the heart, the work ethic to get things done. I also wanted to let my residents know that they’re absolutely worth it.
There was one thing you may or may not have heard: ‘Oh, the North Side has it? Why doesn’t the South Side have it?’ I don’t want that to be the saying. I want the saying to be, ‘Well, Midtown in Manhattan has this. Why can’t the South Side have this?’ I want our residents’ mentality to be, ‘Well, if these world-class cities can have it, why can’t the South Side have it?’
I want to look at these world-class cities that have created dynamic things that we should have, too. And I think that’s where we’re moving towards.
SA Report: You said you were proud to serve on a female-majority City Council. Why was that important?
RV: It was a big deal for me because one of the narratives and the story that it told to people — to young girls in particular — is that it can be done.
And that when women come together, we can work and get things done very quickly. And I think a very powerful example of that was standing up the vaccination hub on the South Side. It was mainly all women who put this together.
And it is a big deal, because I don’t believe we would have had the conversation around racism as a public health crisis. We would not have had the gender pay resolution. We would not have had the mental health, public health perspective, and equity conversation that we now have intrinsically at the city … but for women being there and having their perspective there.
I believe those issues, and the Status of Women report issues, would not have become essential and critical and now integral as part of the decision-making processes at the City of San Antonio.
SA Report: What’s next for you?
RV: I am going to be working with Texas A&M University San Antonio, in Workforce Development and Community Partnerships. It’s an inaugural director position.
There is a lot of opportunity when it comes to workforce development. We’ve already seen that here with our Ready to Work San Antonio initiative. People don’t necessarily see higher education as an area of workforce development, but there’s opportunity. And I think it’s just a new realm of having to do things, and [university President Cynthia Teniente-Matson] sees that. She wants me to be her point person when it comes to building relationships and creative opportunities for workforce development in San Antonio and the region.
SA Report: Do you see yourself seeking another elected office in the future?
RV: I always keep things on the table. And I would love to serve in another elected capacity someday. But I love a local office, because you get so much done and because it’s nonpartisan. You don’t have to live pigeon-holed in one area or another. You can work across the board and you get so much done. You have money, you have plans, and then you get to execute. And the voices of the people are really heard. That’s where you get the most done at the local level.
SA Report: So that just leaves running for mayor, right?
RV: Yeah, it does. Which is a great opportunity, too.