Anti-abortion groups had failed to prevent a package of police reforms from appearing on San Antonio’s May ballot when local political strategist Kelton Morgan received a call from a different opponent ready to join the fight against the ballot proposition: a concerned member of the business community.

Within days of that mid-March call, Morgan had commissioned a benchmarking poll that would interview residents for more than 30 minutes about the unusually wide-ranging ballot initiative Proposition A.

The survey, conducted by Austin-based Republican pollster Baselice & Associates Inc., showed that in the final week of March, Prop A was winning 52% to 35% among likely municipal election voters, with 13% undecided. 

While respondents were most enthusiastic about the abortion and marijuana decriminalization provisions, the provision allowing cops to cite offenders for certain low-level crimes instead of arresting them was also viewed favorably by 61% of people. 

One surprising finding emerged, however. Once respondents learned one of the offenses included in cite-and-release was theft of property or belongings up to $750, 64% said they would absolutely not support the proposal. They responded similarly when told it included criminal mischief resulting in damages up to $750, and graffiti resulting in damages up to $2,500.

“The key messaging point was that it just completely banned arrest for any of that,” said Morgan. “We had a clear road map ahead of us: We had to change the conversation from abortion to crime.”

Prop A opponents did precisely that, and the measure failed decisively on May 6, with 72% of voters rejecting it.

Despite the city attorney’s office deeming most of the proposition unenforceable under state law, voters’ mailboxes were flooded with material from both campaigns, but Prop A’s proponents were swamped by the police union’s spending and messaging that painted Prop A as an effort to decriminalize theft and vandalism.

Unlike in past charter amendment campaigns that were dominated by social activists, the measure drew criticism from an unusual lineup of high-profile opponents, including a majority of the City Council.

A turning point

Mayor Ron Nirenberg came out against Proposition A in a KSAT interview on April 4, the same night business leaders publicly launched their own opposition effort through a new political action committee. Attendees at the private fundraiser at Club Giraud that evening were abuzz about receiving a boost from the mayor, whose interview aired during their event.

By then, results of a new poll were being circulated showing Prop A failing by 17 percentage points, said Mohammad Rasool, a political consultant who worked for the police reform group ACT 4 SA, which led the effort to pass the measure. 

“[That] is actually the moment where it felt like we were fighting the strongest headwinds,” Rasool recalled of the night Nirenberg opposed the measure on the heels of the unfavorable poll. “Ron was basically regurgitating … their talking points.”

Prop A aimed to decriminalize marijuana and abortion, severely limit no-knock warrants, ban chokeholds, expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes and establish a “justice director” position within the city’s administration.  

Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, said proponents weren’t expecting cite-and-release to become the centerpiece of the police union’s nearly $2 million attack against the measure. Internal polling conducted as the proposal was being crafted found that the least popular element of Prop A was a ban on police use of chokeholds — but even that polled at 51% in support.

Act 4 SA’s campaign, which was largely funded by the Texas Organizing Project, felt confident about the overall proposal based on polling showing overwhelming concern about access to abortion, Tomas said — even as political action committees started forming to defeat the measure.

And that was a worry for the police union early on in the campaign, said Jason Sanchez, treasurer of the police union and its PAC.

“There are a lot of people out there [who support] the right to an abortion,” Sanchez said. “What percentage of people [in San Antonio are] diehard, do-anything for one of the items on [Prop A]? That was the biggest question mark in my mind.”

Yet passionate, negative responses from elected officials, business leaders and developers quickly dominated the conversation around a proposal held up as the defining issue for progressive candidates in the municipal election.

Only three council members came out in support of Prop A: Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), Teri Castillo (D5) and Rosie Castro (D7). Besides Councilman Mario Bravo (D1), who chose not to weigh in, seven other council members pushed for rejection.

Just one candidate in two open council races — in District 7 and District 10 — supported Proposition A, and one candidate, Sandragrace Martinez, disavowed her early support after receiving overwhelmingly negative feedback while door-knocking for her campaign.

“With all elected officials, there’s this balance … you’re a politician or a public servant. That’s the spectrum,” Rasool said. “[On Prop A] people kind of outed themselves on where they stand on that spectrum.”

‘Many of us do agree’

To opponents of the measure, Prop A’s failure has the added benefit of protecting plans to hold another charter amendment election soon, one that would give council members pay raises and remove a term limit for the city manager, moves Nirenberg has said in the past he supports.

City Charter amendments cannot occur more frequently than every two years.

Nirenberg said those issues didn’t play a role in his decision to oppose Prop A. It was largely based on concerns about crime and that the main provisions wouldn’t have been enforceable, he said.

While he understood the “spirit” of Prop A, Nirenberg said he thinks it may weaken the police reform movement in the long run.

“Buried within Prop A were important messages that many of us do agree with,” Nirenberg said. “The protection of women’s reproductive rights, the reduction of incarceration for low-level marijuana possession … those are issues where we do want to see reform happen at the right level of government.”

But now, he said, state legislators and lobbyists can point to these election results and say, “Well, 3 out of 4 voters didn’t want that. And that’s the really disappointing part of this whole thing.”

What Nirenberg regrets is that more voters didn’t show up to the polls. Turnout in Bexar County was about 13%. In an email shared with the San Antonio Report requesting the number of registered voters within city limits, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said there were 758,811 active registrations in San Antonio, putting citywide turnout close to 19%.

“The reason why we have [the] leadership in Austin that we do is because 50% of this state does not vote,” Nirenberg said. “And the reason why people don’t vote is because they don’t believe that their vote matters or that it’s worth their time.

“… On both sides of the aisle, I can draw a straight line [between] these kinds of tactics and the loss of voter enthusiasm when it comes to making changes in the polls through elected representatives.”

A second loss

Mosquitoes feasted on the ankles and calves of Prop A supporters in the backyard of a house in Southtown as May 6 drew to a close. The mood was subdued, despite the pizza and refreshments. Still, there was laughter and heckling as they watched pundits discuss the early voting results released after polls closed.

Tomas lamented the fierce opposition from the police union and elected officials and what she called the “misinformation” campaign about cite-and-release. “They just found the one thing that they could scare folks with, right? Fear sometimes drives folks to vote against their own interests,” she said.

Volunteers and supporters of ACT 4 SA react as early voting totals are released Saturday evening
Volunteers and supporters of ACT 4 SA react as early voting totals are released on the evening of May 6 after the polls closed. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

It was somewhat reminiscent of Proposition B’s defeat in 2021. That measure, placed on the ballot by another police reform group, would have stripped the union of its power to collectively bargain for its contract. It was defeated with 51% of the vote against.

But Nirenberg did not take a public stance on Prop B and reformers weren’t at the same spending disadvantage they were this cycle. In 2021, the union spent about $850,000 to defeat Prop B while Fix SAPD, of which Tomas was a deputy director, spent about $950,000.

After its narrow victory, the San Antonio Police Officers Association set up a restricted fund within its budget to save money for future referendum fights, Sanchez said.

The union might decide to do that again, he said. “It would be reckless to not anticipate” another fight.

The future of police reform

Prop B’s near-victory gave city leaders the political cover they needed to make substantial strides in ending the contractual loopholes that allowed fired cops to get their jobs back.

But there’s no clear segue for reformers after the resounding defeat of Prop A.

Tomas said she doesn’t regret combining all six charter changes into one proposition, which was the basis for possible legal battles had Prop A passed, but she didn’t rule out placing them separately on future ballots.

“That would be expensive,” she said.

It takes significant funding and human power to collect tens of thousands of petition signatures for ballot initiatives.

The nonprofit “still has lots of initiatives that we’re pushing around public safety and policing, and a lot of our partners are working on criminal justice reform, too,” she said. “It’s about continuing those conversations.”

San Antonians aren’t yet familiar with the benefits of restorative justice measures such as cite-and-release and how mass incarceration contributes to poverty, she said. “We still have to do a lot of public education.”

One possible unintended consequence of both Prop B and Prop A, Rasool said, could be reprisal from conservative groups to undo police reform.

San Antonio could see “more conservative folks driving propositions,” he said. “I could see that pendulum going back the other way.”

Mohammad Rasool.

That wouldn’t necessarily be bad news for progressives, he said. “That would definitely motivate and invigorate our supporters to go out there and make sure that there is a next step and there is something else that needs to be done.”

One of Prop A’s earliest supporters, McKee-Rodriguez, said the election results were a major setback.

“We saw difficulty passing an expanded cite-and-release policy before the proposition,” he told the San Antonio Report on election night. “Any possibility we had of that is kind of squashed just based on the political will of our city.”

Criminal justice reform will likely need to take a different shape, McKee-Rodriguez said. “It might not be a proposition. … I think people understand the plight of the need to end mass incarceration, to reform our policing system and do away with … the way that we respond to low-level crimes.”

Sanchez said the police union agrees that there is a place for restorative justice in the system, but it can’t be mandated across the board.

“Every policeman has compassion. They wouldn’t do the job if they didn’t weigh the pros and cons of the compassion for the victim versus the compassion for the person committing the offense,” he said. “But there’s a long mile between somebody who’s a first-time offender … versus the hardened career criminal.”

There may be room for reforms, but “I think that it’s a longer, harder conversation than just a yes-or-no proposition.”

Still, Nirenberg, who weathered much criticism from Prop A supporters for his role in its demise, said San Antonio is not behind the curve when it comes to public safety.

The city is slated to expand a specialized team that responds to 911 calls related to mental health, add 100 patrol officers to the police force next year, roll out phases of its Violent Crime Reduction Plan and make historic investments in affordable housing, he noted.

“[We have] systems in place that are a quantum leap from where we were 10 years ago,” Nirenberg said. “At this point, making sure that those are performing well, and tweaking them where they aren’t, is going to be where my focus is.”

This story has been updated to clarify voter turnout rates for the May 6 election and to add comment from Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at

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.