Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.
Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.
That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.
Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.
Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.
Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.
Nearly 3,500 people have died from COVID-19 in Bexar County since March 2020, and the combined confirmed and probable number of people afflicted with the virus here is more than 217,000, about one in every 10 residents, according to City figures. The rate of vaccinations locally compares favorably with other Texas metro areas as the rate of infection finally subsides and the economy, schools, and society begin to reopen.
Voters sent an even earlier signal of support for Nirenberg when they turned out in record numbers for the November 2020 general election and overwhelmingly passed three ballot initiatives that represented investments in early childhood education, workforce development, and public transportation.
Nirenberg now has $154 million to implement a five-year workforce development plan whose goal is to give 40,000 workers impacted by the pandemic the education and skills they need to move into higher-paying jobs in health care, advanced manufacturing, and cybersecurity – jobs that are now unfilled.
The passage of Proposition A is a green light for the City to fashion its next five-year bond cycle with an expanded portfolio of investment targets, including affordable housing, technology upgrades, and closing the city’s digital divide.
The narrow defeat of Proposition B, which likely would have passed had it been on the November ballot, should fortify City Council’s determination to win serious reforms to police disciplinary procedures and accountability standards before approving any new contract.
Combining these opportunities with City Council’s pivot two years ago to apply an “equity lens” to all major investments should allow Nirenberg to address poverty in San Antonio with more lasting effect than any of his predecessors. One challenge will be for the city to maximize the size of the 2022-27 bond in one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. The 2017 bond was set at $850 million, which some thought was too conservative, and since then both the San Antonio and Northside Independent School Districts have passed bond issues exceeding $1 billion.
Nirenberg may be the first mayor in contemporary times to actually accomplish the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, but such success has eluded those who have come before him with greater passion for the project. Navigating state politics and finances, and the ever-present tensions among the many interest groups, will require a sustained commitment to the project and more than a little luck.
For Nirenberg now, the immediate challenge is to jump start the local economy in every possible way. Unemployment is still at 6.5%, two percentage points above the rate in March 2020, according to Workforce Solutions Alamo. Federal stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, a dramatic increase in supplemental food distributions, and a hold on evictions and delinquent utility bills all mask a grim reality: tens of thousands of households in the metro area are in dire straits.
Nirenberg’s first term in office seemed to keep him on the defense, and he narrowly averted a runoff loss to Brockhouse in his bid for a second term, even though his opponent was one-term city councilman with an unremarkable record and beset by domestic abuse allegations. All of that is in the rearview mirror now.
Nirenberg enters his third term with an unequivocal mandate to finish leading the city out of the pandemic and to shape a recovery that benefits all communities. The best way to do that? Create more good jobs.