Mayor Ron Nirenberg presents the flags of San Antonio's Sister Cities.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg on stage at the Tricentennial Founder's Gala, a few hours after San Antonio City Council declined to pursue the 2020 Republican National Convention. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio needs to be a city that bids. The only way to become more competitive, to hone our strengths, and work on our weaknesses, is to show up at the starting line and compete with every other U.S. city in the race.

We should give it all we got, every time. No city can win a race it does not enter. Momentum, that invisible property that combines mass and velocity, is something no city should take for granted. San Antonio has had momentum for nearly 15 years now, but it can vanish quickly.

This year, after a false start and stumble at the starting line, San Antonio recovered its footing nicely in its Tricentennial year. The museum exhibitions, the countless celebrations, Commemorative Week with all its splendor, and now the San Pedro Creek opening – San Antonio knows how to honor its history.

It’s the future that now merits attention. Some elected leaders and boosters like to call San Antonio the nation’s seventh largest city. Others are more realistic: We are a Top 25 metro market with a corresponding median income. Austin, by contrast, trails us in size, yet it enjoys the sixth highest median income.

The message is clear: If we want to build a smart jobs economy and align with leading edge cities, we must become more competitive. It’s hard to see how that happens if we are not competing at every opportunity.

San Antonio fared better than expected in the competition for Tesla’s multi-billion battery factory that eventually went to Reno, Nevada. Our economic development team ran the race to the end and finished ahead of most. The winning city in that instance makes the point that not every economic development opportunity goes to the coolest urban destinations.

That’s why San Antonio should play to win, and even when we lose, take away something. When we do run, we are scouted by those looking in from the outside. People unfamiliar with 21st-century San Antonio who visit now, like the 70,000 Final Four visitors, return home with a newfound appreciation  of a city on the rise.

A large crowd gathers at the March Madness Music Festival to watch the Chicago Loyola University and Michigan University game during the 2018 NCAA Final Four.
A crowd gathers at the March Madness Music Festival to watch the Loyola University-Chicago and University of Michigan game during the 2018 NCAA Final Four. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

That brings me to the 15,000 media people who would have come to San Antonio to cover a Republican National Convention had we bid, and won, to host it. While politics would be the main dish, served with considerable indigestion, there would be lots of sides offered up nationally about the city: its attractive ethnic diversity, the culinary scene, the San Antonio River and one of the great urban linear parks, World Heritage Missions, the Pearl, Southtown, a resurgent downtown, and our trademark friendliness.

Those stories will never be written. Even if blood-red Texas might never be selected by the RNC – Trump’s 2020 Re-election Campaign Manager Brad Parscale and his denigrating Twitter outbursts notwithstanding – San Antonio would have found a place in all the stories leading up to the decision by the bid selection committee. We would have been compared to the competition.

Dallas – Big D – is hosting the National Rifle Association’s national convention as I write, a gathering of tens of thousands of NRA members who heard President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Friday, while thousands of protestors participated outside. The city didn’t burn, and the First and Second Amendments were both left standing strong. The economic benefits are undeniable.

San Antonio, like Dallas, has much to offer, and while both cities have critical shortcomings, so do all cities. We show well. We can bid from a position of strength, especially if we stay fit and ready, shaped by constant competition.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg made two mistakes in leading a City Council to decide not to bid for the 2020 Republican convention, in my view. One is being less than transparent in the months-long process, and two, reaching a final decision behind closed doors last week. I can understand the lack of disclosure when the city was first approached in December. After all, cities often keep their interest confidential for as long as possible.

The opportunity to bid was an open secret by April, and that should have led to a robust public conversation. Democracy by open letter to the mayor is not ideal, even when the letter writers are powerful business leaders. Other business leaders undoubtedly do not want the convention here. We will never know because we never publicly debated the opportunity on its merits.

Technically, it appears the mayor and City Council did not vote behind closed doors last Thursday; if so, no laws were broken. The spirit of the law, however, was ignored. The mayor and council did reach a decision, so even if hands and voices were not raised, something happened and the public and the press could not see or hear any of it. No one should feel good about that meeting, regardless of your politics.

Trump is an extraordinarily divisive figure, and what he has said about Mexico, its people, and those of Mexican heritage on this side of the border leaves many in San Antonio shaking their heads. Yet we live in a city known for its open arms. Are we going to put limits on that now and only welcome some people some of the time?

Nearly half the country’s voters chose Trump as president, and many who voted for him have made it clear that while they might not admire Trump personally or for the way he comports himself, he does represent their political views on issues. Many of those voters felt voiceless before the election, and if they happen to be San Antonio residents, they probably find themselves feeling voiceless once again.

It will surprise no one who reads this column that I align politically with people who respect and have an affection for Mexico, its history, and its culture. I do not want to see a wall divide us, or an interruption in free trade, and I want to see comprehensive immigration reform. I align with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s (R-Texas) view that the right mix of manpower and technology promises a more secure border than billions of dollars of steel plates. You can’t tunnel under technology.

What happens in Washington during any given administration or what the president sends out on Twitter, of course, does not define San Antonio. It should not stop San Antonio from notching another first by successfully hosting a major political convention.

Hundreds of people gather in front of the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse to protest the Trump administration's decision to end DACA.
Hundreds of people gather in front of the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse in San Antonio to protest the Trump administration’s push to end DACA in September 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Everyone who feels deeply wounded by Trump, and there are many in this city who do, would have had ample opportunity to share their feelings up close with the president, his family, and party leaders in town. They would have made their point before a global media audience. A Republican convention staged here would give the most reactionary members of the party a close-up appreciation of the dignity and value of our city’s Hispanic majority.

Our chances of winning any political convention have always been slim. We are, unfortunately, not a two-party swing state. Still, we should not limit ourselves to pursuing the sure thing. City leaders need to take risks. Losing is okay. We could have bid for Amazon without offering a ridiculous incentive package. We could have bid for the RNC with the caveat that it had to be financed exclusively with private sector funds.

Instead we are left on the sidelines, a spectator city. San Antonio deserves its spot on the starting line. When the next race comes along, and it will, let’s enter and give it all we got.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.