Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) participate in their final debate in the 2019 mayoral race.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) participate in their final debate in the 2019 mayoral race. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Campaign fundraising efforts are off to a sluggish start ahead of San Antonio’s May 1 municipal election, but that won’t dampen a renewed political rivalry between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and former Councilman Greg Brockhouse.

“[Nirenberg] is crushing small businesses with the economic shutdown,” Brockhouse wrote in a recent campaign email asking for financial contributions. “He is wasting taxpayer dollars. He is raising taxes. He is pushing a hard-left agenda when we need to be taking care of all our citizens, regardless of party or politics.”

The former District 6 councilman’s message is similar to the one he broadcast during the 2019 election, when he nearly thwarted Nirenberg’s second term, losing by slightly more than a 2 percentage-point margin (2,690 votes).

“I wouldn’t characterize it as a rematch,” Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report. He filed for reelection Friday. “We have 18 months of work [behind us since the election, much of it during] a pandemic that we’re still managing, and the public just went through a pretty gruesome election cycle. I’m not going to elevate [the idea that this is a horse race] before the election is officially kicked off.”

Brockhouse hasn’t filed for the office or formally launched his campaign, but he said he plans to do so this month. Five other candidates – local roofer Ray Basaldua, attorney Frank Adam Muniz, educator Tim Atwood, businesswoman Denise Gutierrez-Homer, and retired teacher Gary Allen –have filed applications to be on the ballot.

According to campaign finance reports filed this month, Nirenberg’s and Brockhouse’s fundraising efforts are far behind where they were in 2019.

Nirenberg started 2021 with $61,000 in his campaign account. Brockhouse hadn’t raised any money, save for a $17,000 loan.

In 2019, Nirenberg had nearly $279,000 on hand compared with Brockhouse’s $15,000 at the time.

Brockhouse said part of his hesitancy to start fundraising last year during the holidays was due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended so many families across the city, he said.

An advertisement for Greg Brockhouse’s mayoral campaign. Credit: Courtesy / Greg Brockhouse Campaign

“It’s a different world for campaigning, and it puts an emphasis on digital campaigning and making sure you’re not putting lives in jeopardy to get a vote,” Brockhouse said. “There’s a lot of common sense that comes with that – I’m not gonna have a party when I announce my campaign.”

San Antonio’s recovery from the pandemic has been Nirenberg’s focus for the past year, the mayor said, “and it will remain that way.”

Recovery

San Antonio was a different place two years ago. The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the economy and hundreds of thousands of residents are out of work. Add to that, a summer of civil unrest and protests against police brutality has culminated in thousands of petition signatures aimed at stripping the local police union of its power to negotiate a labor contract with the City.

Nirenberg closed out 2020 on a high note as all three sales tax initiatives he backed – a job training and scholarship program, continued Pre-K 4 SA, and future funding for mass transit – passed in November with overwhelming margins.

The workforce development program will be key to San Antonio’s economic recovery, Nirenberg said. The four-year, $154 million SA Ready to Work program is aimed at returning as many as 40,000 workers who lost their jobs or are underemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic to the job market as well as alleviating persistent generational poverty in San Antonio.

“We’ve taken a very methodical approach” to short- and long-term recovery, Nirenberg said. “San Antonio is as poised as any [city] to come back stronger in 2021, and it’s because we’ve focused on ensuring we respond to the pandemic with health [considerations] first.”

But San Antonio’s use of federal relief funds has also been directed toward mitigating the impacts, he said, “starting with housing, ensuring people have access to digital infrastructure and broadband internet, food security, small business relief, and then ultimately workforce [development].”

Brockhouse launched minor attacks on the workforce initiative (and VIA Metropolitan Transit) in the fall, and he still has doubts about the efficacy of the program. It focuses on training some workers while thousands more small business owners and restaurant and hotel workers are left behind, he said.

“Let’s talk about the hotel, tourism, and restaurant industries that are devastated – those [have] largely been ignored,” Brockhouse said. Hospitality and service industry workers can apply for the program, he said, but that doesn’t help the small businesses that are shuttered in the meantime.

It’s unclear how much of the onus voters will put on elected officials for the coronavirus-caused economic crisis, but Brockhouse said Nirenberg will have to take some of the blame if he wants any of the credit.

“Having a TV commercial every day is pretty strong,” Brockhouse said, noting the near-nightly COVID-19 updates broadcasted on television and online that feature Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “But at the same [time], then you have to take full accountability for everything. … You can’t just take the positive and ignore this devastation that happened.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speak during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in July 2020. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

No one could have predicted the pandemic, Nirenberg said, but it showed San Antonio that there are more people on the brink of crisis than commonly understood. That was fully demonstrated at the drive-thru San Antonio Food Bank distributions that drew thousands to the Alamodome early in the pandemic.

“If thousands of San Antonio families … weren’t so close to the brink of catastrophe long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, we wouldn’t have to think about things like investing so heavily in workforce development [now],” he said. “We have to. Otherwise, we’re just repeating the same mistakes that have been made for generations.”

Police reform

It’s still unclear if a petition effort known as Fix SAPD, which would ask voters to repeal a state law (Chapter 174) that allows for contract negotiation, gathered enough signatures to make it on the May ballot. But it is clear that police reform will be a key topic of discussion during the mayoral and some council district races as contract negotiations are set to start next month.

During a Black Lives Matter protest organized in June after the police killing of George Floyd, Nirenberg assured those gathered that police reform was coming and to hold him accountable.

“I’m the mayor of this goddamn city, and we’re going to make change together, OK?” he told them.

Nirenberg plans on keeping that promise by supporting a new police contract that removes problematic disciplinary rules and procedures that lets fired cops get their jobs back.

He declined to say whether he would support the repeal of Chapter 174 if that were to be on the ballot. “My role is to ensure a fair negotiating process. If it appears on the ballot, it will be up to the will of the voters,” Nirenberg said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg in June asked Black Lives Matter protesters to hold him to account as they work together on solutions. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Another way to keep that promise of change is to better fund housing, public health, and opportunities for economic mobility, he said.

Last summer, City Manager Erik Walsh launched a five-step process to “review foundational issues” within the police department, determine the expectations and role of the department, collect community input, find funding for new mechanisms, and ultimately develop a report – by April this year– that outlines a new model to achieve public safety that goes beyond police and fire departments.

“Community dialogue about how we create healthy communities, how we support healthy communities, and how that relates to policing is absolutely what the city manager is focused on,” Nirenberg said. “There are things that fall outside the collective bargaining agreement that are part of the dialogue that we will continue [to pursue]. … I don’t support defunding the police, and that was never on the table.”

For instance, the City shifted 20 civilian positions, equaling $1.3 million, from the San Antonio Police Department to the new Violence Prevention Section within the health department.

Brockhouse, who worked as a consultant for both police and firefighters unions before he was elected and received campaign funding from them, is expected to get the unions’ endorsements again.

Nirenberg’s signals of support to the protesters – attending the June event, kneeling in recognition of Black Lives Matter – puts the mayor in a difficult position with those groups in May if he doesn’t follow through with action, Brockhouse said.

Brockhouse agrees that changes need to be made in the police contract, but “upending the entire contract is ridiculous. …We need to be supportive of police officers and their families.”

The increased funding for mental health initiatives and safety-net services that activists are calling for “could be obtained by cutting other wasteful spending,” Brockhouse said. “I mean, there’s a shit ton of wasteful spending in the city budget, you can reallocate resources from other areas. [It doesn’t] have to come from the police budget.”

On that, Nirenberg agrees. He noted that the previous negotiations with both the police and fire unions focused on reining in ballooning health care costs that were increasing faster than City revenues.

“We were systematically defunding other services in order to pay for the contract,” Nirenberg said. “We’ve rebalanced that now. … Now we can start properly growing [other budgets].”

Brockhouse said he expects his opponents to again criticize his close relationships with the police and fire unions, for which he does not apologize. He also expects a similar barrage of personal attacks.

Brockhouse faced allegations of domestic violence stemming from 2006 and 2009 incidents with an ex-wife and his current wife. While his wife at first denied the latter incident occurred, she later admitted that she had called the police to their home as she was suffering from postpartum depression.

“Their attacks aren’t going to be about the issues, the attacks will be about me,” Brockhouse said. “Because there’s not a mountain of success” that Nirenberg can point to over the last two years.

It’s difficult to remember, pre-pandemic days, but several major initiatives were launched or approved, Nirenberg said.

“The first thing the City Council did together was pass a homestead exemption back in June of 2019,” he said. “It seems like a decade ago. … We ratified the Climate Action Adaptation Plan. We launched Alamo Promise in this term. … The fire union saga was finally put to an end.

“The fact that we’ve been able to so nimbly navigate through this pandemic is a credit to the collaboration and teamwork, across district boundaries, across jurisdictions, across sectors. It has been important.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org