Environmental activist Mario Bravo was elected to San Antonio’s City Council with a wave of new progressive candidates in 2021.

As those newcomers gear up to run for a second term, however, Bravo is considered the most vulnerable, drawing a handful of opponents with impressive résumés and connections in the community.

City Council issued a vote of no-confidence against Bravo in November for berating a colleague before a budget vote, but he said in an interview this month that he’s assembling staff and raising money for a reelection campaign.

“I never for one minute thought about not running for reelection,” said Bravo, who has contracted with Austin-based Stanford Campaigns, which specializes in opposition research, for help with his race.

The filing period for candidates in the city’s May 6 municipal elections begins Jan. 18 and closes Feb. 17. 

Three candidates have already declared their intentions to run in District 1, which encompasses much of downtown: Jeremy Roberts, a digital marketing executive who chaired the city’s Small Business Advisory Commission (SBAC), Dellview Area Neighborhood Association President Ernest Salinas and education consultant Sukh Kaur.

“I think we can do better,” Roberts said of the incumbent in a recent interview.

“My main concern is inactivity,” he said. “There’s a lot of conversation, but not enough action.”

Working behind the scenes

Bravo took office in 2021 after upsetting another outspoken progressive, three-term incumbent Roberto Treviño, in a runoff. On the council Bravo has been a passionate advocate for environmental causes and supported moving money away from the San Antonio Police Department to fund other public safety initiatives. 

Bravo has yet to vote in favor of a city budget. He abstained from last year’s vote after none of his last-minute amendments was included. He voted against the budget in 2022 after his bid to create a climate mitigation fund was defeated.

To date, Bravo has filed one Council Consideration Request, on Nov. 28, to create a task force to evaluate the city’s short-term rental ordinance.

Instead of CCRs, which are the most common way for council members to propose policy, Bravo said, “I’ve been doing more work behind the scenes.”

For example, Bravo said he worked extensively with CPS Energy to stop an exodus of high- and mid-level executives and to change a “toxic culture” that existed at the municipally owned utility when he took office.

“I’ve gotten engaged with the board members, with their CEO, and was able to convince them to do a series of independent expert evaluations and get a series of recommendations on how they could run their organization,” Bravo said. “They ended up contracting with five different firms to do that. I think that’s a big win for the long-term management of the utility.”

Bravo also pointed to his creation of a working group to look at the city’s tree mitigation fund, which plants trees to make up for ones that have been cut down.

Representatives from the San Antonio River Authority and The Nature Conservancy, among others, advised on strategies to offer the maximum benefit from the program, providing guidance that was used in a presentation at a recent council discussion on resiliency and sustainability.

“That doesn’t require a CCR, right?” said Bravo, a former policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s helping educate the staff, it’s giving them guidance, and then we can formalize that direction throughout the B session just by the conversations that we have.”

Other efforts to influence policy from the outside haven’t been as successful.

This fall Bravo led an effort to redirect surplus CPS Energy revenue into a climate mitigation and home weatherization program, despite Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s clear desire to use the money to offer a rebate to ratepayers.

While many of his council colleagues agreed with Bravo about wanting to use the money for broader environmental initiatives, the rebate plan ultimately was included in the budget after an effort to delay the discussion died on a tied vote.

“I appreciate his work on that because it was it would have been money well spent for our community,” said Dee Dee Belmares, a climate organizer for the progressive group Public Citizen who worked with Bravo on his proposal for the CPS Energy revenue. She said City Council had been “pretty quiet” on climate issues before he joined the dais in 2021.

But days after the budget vote in September, reports surfaced that Bravo had lobbed a series of deeply personal attacks outside of council chambers at Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), whose abstention paved the way for the rebate proposal. The city investigated the incident, and Bravo was temporarily removed from his committee assignments.

A business background

Bravo’s opponents have said little about the incident with Sandoval but focused instead on a setting different priorities for District 1.

“The fact that the rest of the city is growing and downtown is doing exactly the same is a problem for me,” said Roberts, who counts economic development and addressing homelessness among his top concerns.

“There are pockets of downtown that have really started to grow and thrive, but one block away from those areas … there are areas that are still the same as they were 30 years ago — nothing’s changed,” he said.

Roberts works as a marketing executive for Adobe and teaches business courses at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. He lives in the Greater Harmony Hills Neighborhood, which was moved into District 1 as a result of redistricting this year.

This year the SBAC he chaired helped craft the city’s plan to distribute federal pandemic relief to small businesses. It did so with heavy influence from the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where Roberts sits on the board of directors.

The commission also advised on the city’s plans to help small businesses hurt by the city’s construction projects — a long-simmering issue that Bravo also has sought to address.

“I’ve been advocating for these businesses on our St. Mary’s Strip. I’ve been advocating for these businesses on Broadway … it’s fallen on deaf ears,” Bravo told the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee on Friday. “City staff have done nothing but put up obstacles, make excuses,” he said.

Roberts said he believed his business background and his work on the commission would help him address the construction challenges and problems that have long dogged the city’s small-business community.

“Being able to see all the different moving pieces — from how to work with the city, how to work with committees, how to work with outside organizations … has really showed me a path forward and how we can get things done quickly,” said Roberts, whose campaign will be run by San Antonio political strategist Laura Barberena.

The SBAC’s proposal was criticized by some council members at Friday’s committee meeting for not doing enough to provide direct relief to businesses.

‘We need to protect our communities’

Salinas has been a vocal critic of the city’s handling of people who are homeless, in particular under Bravo’s predecessor.

Though Bravo made good on his promise to end an encampment Treviño welcomed on his office’s property, Salinas said he was disappointed by Bravo’s approach to policing.

“We need to protect our communities,” said Salinas, who has served as president of the Dellview Area Neighborhood Association since 2017. “We need to hire more police officers.”

Bravo voted against a collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Department this year, saying that it didn’t do enough to improve relationships between police and a community that’s fearful of law enforcement.

Salinas, a self-described conservative, is retired after 31 years at USAA, where he worked in community relations. He also sits on the city’s Code Enforcement Task Force.

Under the newly drawn maps, District 1 supported Democrat Beto O’Rourke for governor with roughly 73% of its vote in the November midterm, according to data provided by the progressive firm Flagship Campaigns.

An early entrance

Kaur got an early jump on the race, launching her campaign at Curry Boys BBQ on the St. Mary’s Strip in October. To date, she said she’s raised $35,000.

Kaur runs her own education consulting company, EDreimagined, which helps schools implement charter programs.

She said she was inspired to run for office after participating in Leadership San Antonio, a leadership development program created by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Latina Leadership Institute.

“That really opened my eyes to all the issues truly affecting our city and all of the people doing really great work,” Kaur said of the leadership programs.

Of the council bid, “I just thought, OK, this is something I care about. … Am I going to be a part of it or just sit around and complain that the City Council doesn’t do enough for education and other issues I care about?” she said.

Kaur is also a yoga instructor, Realtor and commercial developer with a project currently in the works in Southtown. She grew up in Maryland, attended Rice University in Houston and participated in Teach For America. She lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.