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It was a strange city election: The mayor’s race came in second.

The total vote on Proposition B, which would have stripped the police union of its collective bargaining rights, drew 1,318 more votes than the mayoral contest.

OK, it wasn’t an exciting mayor’s race. It featured Mayor Ron Nirenberg, former Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who lost his bid two years ago and was quiet enough to lose name recognition since, and a dozen other candidates who averaged 824.5 votes apiece.

Brockhouse lacked some assets from two years ago, when he pushed Nirenberg into a runoff and lost by only 2 percent. One asset was some culture-war issues that brought out evangelical Christians in higher-than-normal numbers. Another was the roughly $500,000 spent by the police and fire unions to help Brockhouse. 

Neither union endorsed in this race and Brockhouse was hampered by an anemic budget. He ran fairly openly as a Republican in the nonpartisan race, admitting early on that he was going after San Antonio’s Trump voters. 

It was a strange strategy given that Trump lost Bexar County by 18 percent to Joe Biden, and almost certainly by a larger margin in the more liberal City of San Antonio. It’s more than past time for Republican San Antonio politicians to give up on the notion that a conservative can win a mayor’s race. Like the vast majority of U.S. cities, San Antonio votes blue.

Brockhouse tried the Karl Rove strategy of attacking Nirenberg on his strength, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nirenberg, working together with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, had early on appointed a stellar team of scientists to provide guidance for dealing with the novel virus. At the same time Nirenberg and Wolff appointed a panel of business leaders to strategize on how to minimize the economic effects. They made it clear, however, that issues such as shutting down businesses would be determined (as much as the governor allowed) by the scientific panel.

Nirenberg and Wolff made nightly media appearances together with health officials, giving updates together with a combination of directives and encouragement. Brockhouse, confined by his lack of public office to the gallery, repeatedly accused Nirenberg of being a “fearmonger” and of causing great harm to the local economy.

The “fearmonger” label fell flat. To be a fearmonger you have to raise your voice, to harangue – two things of which the nearly monotonal Nirenberg appears to be constitutionally incapable. 

Another strange thing about the election: headlines about “record turnout.” They mainly focused on the early vote, which did set records for a municipal election, just as they did for last fall’s election. But early voting has been growing more popular for years and COVID-19 juiced the trend. That and San Antonio’s rapid population growth naturally increase the early vote.

In the end, the turnout was what these days is sadly considered quite good at 17.3 percent. That’s considerably better than the 11.5 percent turnout of two years ago, which jumped to 15.4 percent in the runoff. 

Those numbers are, unfortunately, not nationally abnormal. A 2016 study by Portland State University found that half of the nation’s 30 most populous cities regularly have turnouts of less than 20 percent. (At least we are better than Dallas, which ranks last in the study.)

San Antonio hit its modern high water mark in 1981 when a contest between young Henry Cisneros and John Steen – a stalwart of the Old Order who had been president of the fabled Good Government League, chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, King Antonio, and city councilman – drew a turnout of 42 percent. After a vigorous and at times heated campaign, Cisneros won with 62 percent of the vote by increasing Hispanic turnout by about 50 percent and capturing nearly 100 percent of it while also winning about 40 percent of the Anglo vote. 

That, of course, was a historic, one-time event. Cisneros was an unusually attractive candidate who appealed to an Hispanic population that hadn’t been able to elect a Spanish-surnamed mayor in more than a century. Cisneros was like John F. Kennedy for Catholics in 1960.

We have come a long way since 1981, having elected several Hispanic mayors and a majority of council members of color ever since. But we also have a turnout level in which a ballot proposition draws more votes than all the mayoral candidates.

It was a paper-thin win for the police union, which campaigned hard to hold on to its collective bargaining rights. One of its arguments was that the issues of police discipline that have racked the nation can be settled at the bargaining table. But in current contract negotiations the union has vigorously fought City proposals to weaken the controversial power of arbitrators to overrule punishments handed down by the police chief. 

That standoff is likely to continue. At a recent “accountability session” staged by the influential COPS/Metro organization, candidates were asked to commit to a number of positions, including several regarding police discipline. A key one was this:  “Would the candidates “commit to only voting in support of a police contract that does the following: Ensures that the chief can hold officers accountable and that arbitrators will only have the ability to rule on the facts of the case, and not be able to overturn officer disciplinary action?”

Saying yes were the mayor, three incumbent council members who won reelection Saturday, both candidates in two runoffs, and the candidates who led in two other runoffs. That’s eight of the 11 council members. The other three, for districts 8, 9, and 10, did not participate in the COPS/Metro event.

Nirenberg has made a number of statements indicating he intends to stand firm. He and other council members should read the Proposition B result as supporting that position. Virtually everyone in the 48.8 percent who voted to take away bargaining rights supports making it easier to fire bad cops. And many in the 51.2 percent voting against the proposition agree that arbitrators should have less power, but didn’t want to strip the union of collective bargaining. 

For those of us who live in the San Antonio Independent School District, there was another important battle on the ballot. The union known as the San Antonio Alliance for Teachers and Support Personnel, fielded, funded, and worked hard for a slate of four candidates who, had they all won, would have taken control of the seven-member board of trustees.

The union has been hostile to many actions initiated by the current board and the dynamic superintendent they hired, Pedro Martinez. It is very possible both Martinez and highly regarded board President Patti Radle would have been replaced if the union had swept the seats. 

As it turned out, only one of the union-backed candidates was successful, and it wasn’t the one who is the husband of the union president and a member of its executive council. The sole winner was Sarah Sorensen, who defeated an excellent board member, Steve Lecholop. It’s possible she will make a very good replacement. A union-backed candidate with broader concerns has much to contribute. 

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.