Ivalis Meza Gonzalez, who left her job as his chief of staff to run for county judge, wasn’t Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s first endorsement. He also was among the first elected officials to jump on Beto O’Rourke’s campaign wagon for governor.

Nirenberg spoke forcefully for the Democratic candidate last November when O’Rourke made San Antonio one of his first campaign stops the day after he announced his run against Gov. Greg Abbott. 

For Nirenberg to endorse a major candidate in a partisan race is to make history. As far as I can tell, he is the first San Antonio mayor to do so since San Antonio voters approved the nonpartisan council-manager form of government in 1951.

But Nirenberg didn’t make that history with his endorsement of O’Rourke. He did it in 2020, when he endorsed Julián Castro as a fellow San Antonian in the Democratic presidential primary. After Castro dropped out, Nirenberg didn’t endorse anyone else.

In October of that year, he endorsed Gina Ortiz Jones in her bid to replace Congressman Will Hurd, who had two years earlier beaten Ortiz Jones in a close race. Ortiz Jones would lose to Republican Tony Gonzales. 

Nirenberg explained his reason for endorsing O’Rourke in his brief talk at the campaign rally. 

“We thank you for being a friend to our city,” he told O’Rourke. “We have a lot of work to do up in Austin, don’t we? We’ve been pulling together to get through and here we are today to support somebody who we know is going to work with us instead of against us.”

Abbott has, indeed, been no friend of the city — or any of Texas’ major cities, for that matter. 

While Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff put together a stellar panel of medical specialists and epidemiologists to guide the city in its response to COVID-19, the governor overrode their efforts with patently political executive orders tying the hands of local jurisdictions.

Abbott, under pressure from his right flank in the Republican primary, has gone along with the state’s Republican leadership to push a number of measures opposed by mostly Democratic cities. He has signed legislation placing caps on property tax revenues. He has opposed efforts at police reform, while supporting a law opposed by many urban police chiefs doing away with gun licensing provisions. 

Most recently Abbott has even interfered with city planning. He pressured the Texas Transportation Commission to block San Antonio’s plan to make a section of Broadway more appropriate for a street that has become lined with museums, parks and high-density apartments — a plan for which millions have already been spent by the public and private sectors and which voters overwhelmingly approved in a bond election without any concern being raised by the commission. 

But should we be worried about retribution?

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a leader in the San Antonio state delegation, doesn’t think so.

“The governor can’t put his foot on the throat of our city any more than he already has,” he said. 

Martinez Fischer has a point, though Abbott still has the ability to surprise. Still, for the San Antonio mayor to back an opponent to a well-entrenched governor is a bit stunning.  

Almost as stunning is the fact that he hasn’t really stunned anyone with his endorsements. There was a time, not too long ago, when a mayor would have faced loud criticism for partisan endorsements. Nirenberg himself appeared to have concerns about being seen as partisan when he first ran for City Council just nine years ago.

At that time, he was seen as an underdog to Rolando Briones, an engineer who had a much larger campaign war chest and endorsements from Joaquin Castro and a number of other local politicians, both Democrat and Republican. Briones ran, somewhat unconvincingly, as a conservative Republican, implying Nirenberg was a liberal Democrat. Nirenberg protested that he was an independent.

That Nirenberg is now comfortable endorsing a series of Democrats shows not only that he has evolved, but also that the city and the state have evolved.

The city is, like most American cities, more and more Democratic. In Bexar County, Biden beat Donald Trump by 18 percentage points in 2020. So for a mayor to endorse a Democratic candidate is not as divisive as it once was. 

Meanwhile, the Texas Republican primary, a low-turnout affair (like the Democratic primary) that attracts more hard-line voters, has produced candidates farther to the right and more willing to strip cities of their powers. Currently they are pushing legislation to ban cities, counties and school districts from hiring lobbyists.

So Nirenberg is right to want to fight back. But given his endorsement track record, which may well go from 0-2 to 0-4 this year, there may be a better way.

For example, instead of drawing limited attention by simply endorsing an opponent of the governor or other Republican state officials such as the lieutenant governor and the attorney general, he could join forces with other big-city mayors to draw up a list of particulars and aggressively make a case to urban voters exactly what’s at stake in the November election.

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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.