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A councilman facing a better-financed incumbent in a runoff. A challenger claiming inaction and loss of citywide prosperity in a mayor’s first elected term. The runoff between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse bears striking similarities to Nirenberg’s successful upset of incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2017.
While Nirenberg now faces criticisms from Brockhouse similar to ones he leveled against Taylor, this election features its own wrinkles and behind-the-scenes forces shaping the race.
In his first term, Nirenberg has spearheaded long-term planning initiatives to tackle some of the city’s highest hurdles: affordable housing, transportation, and climate change. These efforts have taken most of his attention since his election – but the fire union-backed charter changes, two of which were approved by voters, also occupied much of his time in 2018.
Nirenberg’s critics say he hasn’t gotten enough tangible work done – and that the planning efforts underway will lead to more government spending and regulation.
Taylor was a planner, too. She worked on the Vista Ridge water pipeline, new rideshare regulations, and oversaw talks with the police union that resulted in a hard-fought labor contract, but much of her time before and after she was elected was spent on the SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan.
“Both incumbents thought they were stronger than they were,” said political consultant Matt Mackowiak, who worked on Taylor’s campaign and is assisting Brockhouse this time around.
Two years ago, it was Nirenberg who was challenging an incumbent with relatively little to show for accomplishments, said Colin Strother, a political consultant who led Taylor’s campaign.
She launched a major planning initiative, SA Tomorrow, but had trouble articulating how her vision would impact the average voter, Strother said. Nirenberg is perhaps better at that articulation, he said, but “the parallels are remarkable.”
Incumbents have the advantage of name recognition and power, he said, but “the very nature of incumbency is you try to maintain.”
In 2017, Taylor was the top vote-getter in the first round of balloting, pulling 42 percent of the vote to Nirenberg’s 37 percent in a 14-candidate race that featured a third high-profile candidate: then-Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Manuel Medina. But in the runoff, Nirenberg grabbed 54.6 percent of the vote to hand Taylor a stunning loss.
This time, the incumbent again got the most first-round votes, with Nirenberg outpolling Brockhouse by just over 3 percentage points.
The incumbent message is often “everything is OK” and “we’re working on it” and “stay with me,” Strother said. “Meanwhile, you have someone [a challenger] playing to people’s fears and concerns. … It’s an easier sell, and you only need one example to prove a negative. You have to be perfect to defend a positive.”
Many see the unexpectedly controversial vote on an airport concessionaire contract that excluded Chick-fil-A as a lucky get for Brockhouse, who was one of four Council members to vote against it and has put it atop a long list of what he calls Nirenberg’s “anti-faith, anti-business” votes. Other political observers, however, say Brockhouse’s campaign is the culmination of the firefighters union’s war against City Hall – which is why his campaign is more about attacking Nirenberg’s vision than coming up with his own.
During Taylor’s tenure as mayor, the City reached a labor deal with the police union, and that group endorsed her. This time, the police union is joining the firefighters to support Brockhouse – as is the firefighters union, which has yet to strike its own deal. With no resolution on a labor contract in sight, the fire union president has said that part of the union’s strategy is to get Brockhouse, who used to work for the union as a political consultant, elected mayor.
Nirenberg’s campaign warns that Brockhouse as mayor would be the union’s “puppet.” Brockhouse embraces the public safety union’s support but says he is beholden to no other special interest group than the citizens.
When Brockhouse announced his candidacy in February, it did not seem that the first-term District 6 councilman could pose much of a threat to Nirenberg. Then came the Chick-fil-A vote. And while Brockhouse seemed to dodge any lasting damage from reports of past domestic violence issues, he threw hard punches at the incumbent during a series of mayoral debates.
“There was a real clear-cut policy difference between Taylor and Nirenberg in that runoff,” said Henry Flores, a political science professor and researcher at St. Mary’s University. “In this runoff it seems to be all personality and character.”
Nirenberg will likely have to choose between advice to double down on attacking Brockhouse’s character – on domestic violence allegations and child support issues – or swing the narrative to be about the issues.
“Voters aren’t dumb,” Flores said. “They get bored of elections … they’re just too busy or they don’t have time. On [election day] they’re going to vote their pocketbook and cut through all the personal stuff.”
“Look at President Trump,” he added. “He had incredible character flaws but it seemed like nobody cared. … As long as Brockhouse can detract from the [policy] issues, I think he’s got a chance.”
Morgan said Nirenberg’s campaign efforts will make it clear to voters – especially his traditional middle-ground and progressive base – that Brockhouse would demolish what they hold near and dear.
Some constituencies backing affordable housing and transportation initiatives, the LGBTQIA community, and environmental groups have criticized Nirenberg for not being as aggressive as they’d like in his long-term planning efforts and policies. Under Brockhouse, Morgan said, those will become weaker or disappear.
“The mayor has built an incredibly strong foundation for all this stuff,” he said, likening the planning efforts to the foundation of a house. “[Brockhouse] doesn’t want a remodel – he wants to burn it down to the ground.”
Adoption of the climate action plan has been delayed, to the ire of environmentalists who have a perception that it will be watered down to favor the business community.
Nirenberg claimed his stance on Chick-fil-A was purely economic, to the ire of LGBTQIA advocates who know the mayor is an ally, Flores said, but Nirenberg declined to cite the fast food chain’s ties to conversion therapy groups as cause to remove it from the airport contract.
There might be a legal reason to do so, but it sent a “wishy-washy” message to the community, Flores said. His advice to Nirenberg: “Take a definitive stand for a particular position and be clear about it. … Don’t hide.”
While Nirenberg needled Taylor on details surrounding the Vista Ridge project, the police union contract, and other issues, he didn’t propose a mass undoing of SA Tomorrow or other initiatives. He criticized Taylor for stalling the momentum that started under former mayors Julián Castro and Phil Hardberger.
“For Councilman Nirenberg, it was more about unfulfilled potential,” Morgan said.
While Brockhouse tries to make a similar “wrong direction” argument that Nirenberg used against Taylor, Morgan said, “They were true two years ago and far less so now.”
Morgan said there’s room for growth in Nirenberg’s runoff numbers by painting a clear picture of what could be lost under a Brockhouse regime.
“There are numerous constituent groups we expect to be more motivated in the runoff now that it’s crystal clear what and how much is at stake,” Morgan said.
Taylor substantially outraised Nirenberg in campaign funding in 2017. He had about $208,000 on hand heading into the May 2017 election compared with Taylor’s $400,000. Campaign reports three days before the runoff showed Taylor had more than $71,000, compared with Nirenberg’s more than $45,000.
This year, Brockhouse’s campaign funding has trailed Nirenberg’s by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nirenberg had about $268,000 more on hand than his opponent 30 days before the May 4 election and $76,500 more in the reporting period from March 26 to April 24.
But a key difference between the 2017 race and now is that the challenger has the strong backing of the fire union. The union, which did not endorse Taylor or Nirenberg in 2017, has spent about $71,000 largely in support of Brockhouse since Jan. 1, mounting social media campaigns and other advertising.
Strother, who now works for the fire union, said its political action committee doesn’t plan on raising or spending much more during the runoff but will maintain social media and block walking efforts.
Mackowiak said he isn’t worried about funding for Brockhouse’s campaign. “It’s always easier to fundraise when you overperform, which we did.”
“The heavy organizational efforts of the two public safety unions,” Flores said, is the biggest factor in this race that was not as large in 2017. “All that money and manpower and woman power … mailers from both unions are going to the same houses. They’re outmailing Nirenberg 2-to-1.”
And police and firefighters are part of the basic City services that citizens care about most, he said. “They care about potholes, street lamps, police protection, and fire response times.”
So at the polls, it’s hard not to listen to police and firefighters unions, he said. “They carry a lot of weight.”