Huddled in the City Hall meeting room last June, members of the Small Business Advisory Commission (SBAC) made impassioned pleas to defend their work to the City Council’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee.
After months of work crafting a plan for the city to spend $31 million helping small businesses hurt by the pandemic, commission members had received notice that morning that City Council planned to discard much of their proposal, pouring the lion’s share of the money into grants, rather than funding small business infrastructure groups favored by the commission.
“We made a unanimous decision,” said Jane Gonzalez, CEO of Medwheels Inc. and a member of the SBAC, in defense of the commission’s proposal. “… This is the knee-jerk reaction” by City Council to change it.
Instead, council members on the Economic and Workforce Development Committee responded to an 11th-hour push by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SAHCC) to spend more of the money on grants.
“We wanted to put cash in [small businesses owners’] hands to keep people employed, keep the lights on, pay the bills and be able to continue to operate the business,” SAHCC President and CEO Marina Gonzales said in an interview at the group’s headquarters at Port San Antonio last month.
While many of the city’s business groups have struggled to find their footing recently or are undergoing leadership changes, San Antonio’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which named Gonzales as its new president during the height of the pandemic, has become a driving force in city and county government.
“Over the past few years, my perception was that our chambers, especially here locally, had lost some of that direct contact and voice, for our small business community in particular,” Gonzales said.
This year, leaders from the SAHCC said they largely drafted both the city and county’s criteria for how businesses would be chosen for the pandemic relief grants with the help of microlender LiftFund, which will administer the grants. Gonzales and chamber policy director Martin Gutierrez are fixtures at City Hall, finding traction for their pro-business ideas even on a City Council that’s dominated by progressives.
“We’re small business champions, so it was imperative not only during the pandemic, but now coming out of it [as well], with all the funding and support that has come with it, to ensure we’re there as often as we can be, on the committee level, at council and working with city staff as decisions are being made,” Gonzales said.
While the leaders of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce each recently stepped down amid complaints about the organizations’ waning influence, Gonzales is gearing up for a bigger venture.
She and Gutierrez will soon take their lobbying efforts to Austin, where state lawmakers will convene for the 88th Legislature next week.
This time they’ll be targeting a governing body dominated by Republicans on behalf of the SAHCC’s newly christened Texas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Coalition (THCCC), which will represent Hispanic business groups across the state.
“As you saw in this last election cycle, there’s a lot of discussion of the Hispanic vote,” Gonzales said. “We’re trying to come to the table and say, ‘Hey, you want the Hispanic vote? You need to pay attention to what our needs are, and these are the needs of this community.'”
Gonzales is an Austin native who joined the SAHCC with little prior experience in business advocacy. Before joining the chamber, she served as the president and CEO of CASA, which advocates for abused and neglected children in court.
As an undergraduate at St. Mary’s University, Gonzales worked at City Hall in the office of then-Councilman Philip Cortez. She later became Cortez’s chief of staff in the state House of Representatives after receiving a law degree from the University of Michigan.
In an interview leading up to the pandemic relief discussion last June, Gonzales described shifting the chamber’s strategy to match a changing landscape that’s complicated traditional lobbying efforts.
Gonzales said the city now gives more input to citizen-led commissions like the SBAC.
“It can be helpful if we know there’s an opportunity for [an SAHCC] member to serve [on them],” she said. Notably, the SBAC, tasked with creating a framework for the pandemic relief, was chaired by SAHCC board member Jeremy Roberts.
In the upcoming legislative session, Gonzales once again hopes some creativity will help her navigate a landscape that’s perplexed her peers.
Republicans control the Texas House with a 86-64 majority headed into the session, which begins Jan. 10.
Though the conservative wing of the party has an increasingly fractured relationship with business, the GOP was united last fall in trying to win over Hispanic voters, whom its leaders say share many of the party’s socially conservative values.
“I think it’s important to come to the table now, when we have some more leverage,” Gonzales said of the THCCC.
The THCCC will represent the interests of Hispanic chambers in at least 10 cities, including many that can’t afford to send representatives to Austin on their own.
When it comes to advocating for Hispanic businesses at the state capitol, “there seems to be a leadership void up there,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who chairs the council’s Economic and Workforce Development and Intergovernmental Relations committees.
Of Gonzales, Pelaez said, “I think that she’s the right person, I think it’s the right time, and she’s landed in the right space to be able to execute on this.”
Business big and small
Key to the San Antonio Hispanic chamber’s success in effecting local policy has been its ability to frame arguments around the needs of small businesses, which make up about 900 of its roughly 1,100 members.
In Austin, however, the group plans to pursue a much broader agenda.
A draft of the THCCC’s legislative plans shared with the San Antonio Report includes advocating for the preservation of municipally owned utilities, expanding access to health care to low-income Texans and opposing legislation that infringes on local control, among other issues.
It also includes an “economic competitiveness” section that broadly calls for opposing legislation that’s discriminatory. Gonzales gave the example of the state’s failed “bathroom bill” as the type of legislation the group would fight against.
“You may hear that and think, ‘This is a social issue.’ … But that’s when my phone tends to ring the most,” she said. “You get people who see it on the news and don’t understand. … ‘Am I going to have to change my restroom signs? Am I going to have to buy new ones?'”
City leaders in San Antonio have expressed optimism about partnering with the area’s largest employers, many of whom are also members of the SAHCC, to take a tougher stance against legislation that delves into social issues this session.
“Even though she’s advocating for small business, that’s not the only thing she’s advocating for,” said Pelaez, who is helping the coalition raise money for its Austin lobbying efforts.
“It’s very difficult to ignore Frost Bank or H-E-B or Toyota,” he added. “And so I think Marina has the right list of friends behind her backing her up.”
This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the Texas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Coalition being the first group of its kind. The Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce formed in 1975.