The politics of 2012 seem like a long time ago now as we assess the year 2014 in San Antonio, a year with two distinct periods: The last months of the Mayor Castro Period, and then the post-Mayor Castro Period.
There is an argument to be made – and I am making it – that Julián Castro’s decision to resign as mayor to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration has proven to be a serious setback for San Antonio.
Castro’s decision to pursue opportunity and political ambition in Washington, D.C., has left his hometown unsettled politically and has slowed the city’s momentum, taking San Antonio off an ambitious course first set by Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-09) and continued and accelerated by Castro during his five years in office.
His decision interrupted what should have been a historic, eight-year run in office. That run would have ushered San Antonio into a celebration of its 300th birthday in 2018 and moved it closer to the year 2020, a year that will come to serve as a measure of how much the city has really progressed.
2012 is when Castro hit the campaign trail on behalf of President Obama and his bid for a second term in the White House, and it’s when Castro drew the eyes and ears of the nation in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. When speculation was published on the Rivard Report that he could be Washington-bound in a second-term Obama administration, Castro took to Twitter to definitively splash cold water on such conjecture:
“@Rivardreport That’s an easy one, Bob. I’ll be mayor through May 2017, if the voters will have me. Zero interest in Washington.”
That tweet was sent out April 26, 2012. By May 23, 2014, Castro was standing alongside President Obama at the White House as the freshly nominated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Rumors have since swirled about Castro’s ambition to be the vice presidential candidate on the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket, probably with former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whatever the future holds for him, it seems it will be in national politics. Texas remains a one-party state with no prospects for near-term change. Whether his move to Washington in 2014 proves to be a good one for his own political trajectory remains to be seen.
But it’s not too early to judge its impact on his home town. San Antonio has suffered in the wake of his departure. Continuing political instability is at the root of the problem.
Musical Chairs and Interim Appointments
Castro and the newly elected members of the 2009 City Council enjoyed the prospect of eight years in office, thanks to a November 2008 vote to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms, an initiative led by Castro’s predecessor, Mayor Hardberger.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Only interim Mayor Ivy Taylor, formerly the District 2 Council member, and District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez remain in office from the Class of 2009.
Taylor, Lopez, District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña, and District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina are the only four members left from the 2011 City Council. Medina’s leave of absence this year to fulfill reserve military obligations led to the interim appointment of Mari Aguirre Rodriguez.
Both District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier and District 10 Councilmember Mike Gallagher gained their Council seats as interim appointees. Both have since been elected.
Since Castro has resigned and Taylor was elected interim mayor, two interim Council members, Keith Toney and now Alan Warrick II, have held the District 2 seat.
District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal has resigned to run for the House seat held by state Rep. Mike Villarreal in the Texas Legislature, while Villarreal was first to declare himself a candidate for mayor in the May 9, 2015 city elections. Roberto Treviño, yet another interim appointment, now holds Bernal’s seat.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, soundly defeated by Republican Sen. Dan Patrick in the November lieutenant governor’s race, has since announced she will resign from the Texas Senate to challenge Villarreal in the mayor’s race. Like Castro, Van de Putte told voters earlier last year that her “place was in the Senate,” and that she was not planning a mayoral run, but that pledge also has been taken back.
With the Feb. 28 filing deadline for city elections still two months away, it remains to be seen whether Mayor Taylor will keep her pledge not to run for a full term as mayor, or if she, too, will reverse that commitment.
Van de Putte’s about-face led two longtime state representatives in the local delegation, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer and Rep. José Menéndez, to both declare their candidacy for the District 26 Senate seat, a race that inevitably will mean another state House seat that will need to be filled.
Never in contemporary San Antonio history have so many officeholders taken their oath of office without voter approval. I don’t know of anyone who thinks all these falling dominoes have strengthened City Council or will strengthen the Bexar County legislative delegation. Most, in fact, see both bodies being weakened by all the unplanned changes and interim appointments. Politics has superceeded governance.
One fact is indisputable: Relaxing term limits has not led a majority of elected officeholders to maximize their time in office and impact in the job.
The decision by Mayor Taylor and the City Council to withdraw political and financial support for VIA’s street car project only one week after Castro left town is the best example of the city’s elected leaders suddenly reversing course without any public debate preceding their decision. Whatever your stand on this particular transit option might have been, it’s hard to see the move as anything other than capitulation in the face of loud, but not necessarily deep, opposition.
The same could be said for Council’s mismanagement of the rideshare debate. Influenced by Council chambers spilling over with cabbies, the Council took one look at a wildly popular and appealing 21st century transit option that could greatly reduce drunken driving and chose to impose last century rules and regulations designed for a traditional taxi industry.
It was as if City Council were regulating Netflix so it wouldn’t harm Blockbuster, ignoring the inevitabilities of technology advances and the free market.
The most important issue left hanging as 2014 gives way to 2015 is the interrupted collective bargaining talks between the city and the police union and the lack of any talks between the city and the firefighters union. Castro used his strength as mayor to keep individual council members from sidebar meetings and talks with union officials, and to keep the Council squarely behind City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff as negotiations proceeded. That unanimity has dissolved over time, with individual Council members charting their own courses, and even interim appointed members pursuing their individual inclinations.
For all the name-calling from the unions and the attendant media hype, the simple fact remains that the unions’ rapidly rising health care and benefits costs are a ticking time bomb in the city’s budget. After years of warnings from Sculley, who has won this city a rare AAA bond rating, a politically secure Castro agreed to do something about it as the Sept. 30 expiration of the five-year contact neared.
The only way forward is for union members to start paying health care premiums like the rest of the country’s insured workers, and work to reduce unnecessary costs by agreeing to a better-managed plan. Until that happens, no amount of individual politicking, sensational headlines, or third-party interventions will fix the problem. Demands for pay raises that equal or exceed anticipated premium payments is a shell game, and won’t do anything to alleviate budget pressures.
Until San Antonio gets an elected mayor and 10 elected Council members who can unite on important policy matters in an atmosphere of stable governance, the city is not going to regain the momentum it enjoyed for most of the last decade.
The May elections are only five months away now, and the momentum the city has lost since Castro resigned can be regained, but only with the right leadership. If you are not registered to vote, if you care about the future trajectory of San Antonio, now is the time to get that done to ensure your vote counts in May.
What happens in the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature matters enormously, too, particularly in the realm of public education funding, which is why every registered voter who lives in Senate District 26 or House District 123 should go to the polls and vote in the Jan. 6 special election.
On May 23 of this year, I published a column headlined, Goodbye, Julián. San Antonio Will Miss Its Mayor. This is the last line of that column:
“We hope San Antonio will look back in a few years and say we did okay without you, that we sustained the momentum and continued forward as a city on the rise.”
*Featured/top image: Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro talks with friends and citizens before the mayoral election. Photo by Scott Ball.