Henry Cisneros meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to the luncheon.
Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, meets with Mayor Ron Nirenberg prior to a meeting of the Urban Land Institute in September 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

One of the lessons of Saturday’s city elections – and in my mind, the most important lesson – is that being mayor of a city of more than a million and a half people is one hell of a lot harder than being a City Council member.

All seven council incumbents won with comfortable margins. Mayor Ron Nirenberg was forced into a runoff by a candidate whose only two major endorsements came from the self-interested police and fire unions, which spent considerably more on his race than he was able to raise.

It’s a lesson I suspect Nirenberg has learned.

That lesson, once stated, seems insultingly obvious. But neither the city’s politicians nor its public seem to have fully internalized it. Perhaps that is because our growth has been so rapid that our perceptions haven’t caught up.

Perhaps it is because our 68-year-old council-manager form of government was designed for a much smaller and simpler political organism. It sees city government as analogous to corporate governance, with a board of directors quietly overseeing the work of the body’s CEO, the city manager.

That’s why council members until recently received only $20 a week, with the mayor getting a bonus of $3,000 a year. It wasn’t until four years ago that City Council put forth a timid charter amendment to put council pay at $45,722, which was then the median family income in the city. The mayor got a 35 percent bonus, or $61,725. And the council didn’t even allow the salaries to increase with inflation for fear that the measure would not pass.

Maybe they were right. The measure passed, but with 45 percent of the electorate opposing it.

A big-city mayor must combine both policy and political skills while being excellent at sales. Yet I can think of only two mayors in San Antonio who had previously held elective office other than the entry-level position of City Council member: Nelson Wolff and Phil Hardberger, two of our more successful mayors.

Wolff had been a state representative and a state senator before becoming a city councilman and mayor. He had also been a successful businessman. Hardberger had been a successful lawyer before being elected to a long tenure on the Fourth Court of Appeals. He is our only modern mayor not to have served on council, but his legal skills prepared him for both making a variety of cases to the public and for the fundamental political job of brokering competing demands of various constituencies.

San Antonio’s most powerful and successful mayor of the past 50 years was clearly Henry Cisneros. His only prior elected office was on city council, but he had been aggressively preparing for the mayor’s office since his days at Texas A&M. He earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at A&M and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctorate in public administration from George Washington University. Meanwhile, he served a White House fellowship in the Nixon Administration under Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Elliot Richardson, impressing him with a memo on how the agency could best serve cities.

Before coming home with hopes of becoming San Antonio’s first Hispanic mayor in modern times, he studied the rise of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, compiling what he said was a filing cabinet worth of materials on Jackson.

Similarly, inspired by Cisneros, Julián Castro started focusing on an eventual mayor’s race when he was a student at Stanford University. Ironically, perhaps the key factor in his political education was his loss to Hardberger in 2005. Four years on council had not readied him.

Nirenberg has a bachelor’s in communications from Trinity University and a master’s in the same area from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked for a while at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn, but when he returned to San Antonio he became manager of Trinity’s campus radio station.

As a councilman and as mayor he has been something of a wonk, getting into the weeds on serious policy issues. He has spent much of his first term marshaling public input for such serious challenges as addressing the city’s transportation and housing needs and for playing a role in dealing with climate change. Yet despite his educational background in communications he has not yet shown the personal ability to project passionate salesmanship in pushing his initiatives.

Nirenberg sees his accomplishments in these areas as laying a two-year foundation for an eight-year plan. Yet he won his race against Ivy Taylor by criticizing her lack of accomplishments. It was time, he said, to get the city moving again. To avoid that criticism himself, he needed to get some high-profile “wins” in his first term. He hoped such a victory would be his efforts with other local leaders to come up with a plan to offer free tuition to the city’s community colleges to any high school graduate who couldn’t afford it. Such a plan was announced earlier this year, but the full financing wasn’t finalized, limiting the political impact of the announcement.

Meanwhile, in defense of controversial decisions to decline to seek both the 2020 Republican National Convention and Amazon’s “second headquarters,” Nirenberg parsed his reasoning so carefully that it neither satisfied his critics nor rallied his supporters.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Nirenberg’s being forced into a runoff is that his opponent is even less prepared than he and other San Antonio mayors have been. Greg Brockhouse has not yet completed one term on City Council. He worked in a couple of district offices for council members, but that is not terribly impressive. Nor is his public relations and political consulting work for the police and fire unions, which are providing most of the muscle for his campaign.

With that background, he lost his first race for City Council six years ago and eked out a runoff victory two years ago by only 435 votes. And he’s not exactly running on his meager accomplishments  as councilman.

The kicker: If Brockhouse is elected, in two years San Antonio could easily get another rookie mayor.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.