Former District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales finished her fourth and final term this year, leaving her post as one of the few council members to term out of her seat.

During her tenure, she championed budgeting with an “equity lens,” Vision Zero, and home remodeling programs, including the recently launched Shotgun House Rehabilitation Pilot Project, which aims to preserve existing houses in San Antonio. One home has already been fully remodeled using funds from the project. 

Gonzales also advocated for new development in her district, including the redevelopment of Lone Star Brewery. She chaired two City Council committees during her last term, Planning and Land Development and Transportation and Mobility. Gonzales also said in past interviews she’s not done with public office and has considered running for mayor or county judge.

Her years on council were also marked by the birth of all three of her children. Without the support of her council colleagues, staff, family, and friends, she said, she would not have been as effective as either a parent or an elected official. During a recent family trip to Colorado, she shared her thoughts about her past eight years.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

San Antonio Report: Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on your tenure, what would you say you are proudest of?

Shirley Gonzales: I would say the equity budget was the most impactful thing that I’ve done. And if implemented correctly, it really should help address the inequities that we experienced in our city over many, many generations. My concern is that it can become a very bureaucratic process. And we do have to have a council that believes in it and also is willing to implement it. So I think the most impactful thing was the equity budget.

SA Report: What are some things you wished you did differently?

SG: I do wish that we had done more of those events that are really just social and have layered on that all of the services that we provide. My last year, I really wanted to spend more time doing community-wide events, like swimming parties at Elmendorf [Park].

I wish I had done more senior dances and, in those, we could then overlap that with city services. Early on in my tenure, I really wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of the district, which is always going to be street, sidewalks, maintenance. And I didn’t spend enough time doing the more social things and I wish I had done that.

Former City Council member Shirley Gonzales swings at a pitch during a City vs. County softball game in 2016.
Then-City Council member Shirley Gonzales swings at a pitch during a City vs. County softball game in 2016. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The truth is it’s much easier to get somebody to come to a party than it is to get them to come to a town hall meeting. … I always did a town hall every year but it was the same people [attending] and we really didn’t have the big impact like we could if we had fun events.

SA Report: What are some other lessons you learned as a council member?

SG: One thing is, honestly, the limitations. There is this expectation as a council that we can do so many things, but we’re limited by the charter. That’s why we changed the charter to include housing [as an applicable use for bond dollars]. We’re also limited in funds. Even though we have a very large budget of $3 billion, to really have an impact, we need to layer it with other federal dollars and state dollars. 

I really did think that I was going to accomplish more. I thought I would do more than I was able to do — even though I do believe I got some pretty big transformative things done at the city level. We’re also limited by our ability to communicate with our constituents. It’s very hard to get input from our constituents when our districts are just so big, 150,000 [residents] roughly per district. And in District 5 we only had 12 neighborhood associations, and even those were not well attended. It’s very hard to get community feedback.

SA Report: What were some of your favorite memories of your time on City Council?

SG: Every day was amazing, but having had three children [while] on the council, the community was very loving toward me and my children. Many times at events, somebody offered to take my children for a walk, or somebody very willingly offered to push my child on the swing or get entertainment so I could do the work. Senior centers made me blankets every time I had a baby. The people in the community would bring me tamales and cookies and homemade goods to my home or to my business, or to City Hall and my field offices. Every day, we really experienced just really kind people.

When I got into City Council, everybody told me, ‘Oh, you have to have thick skin and it’s a thankless job.’ And I never experienced that. People were really nothing but kind to me and my family and my mother and it was just a really loving community.

SA Report: How did having three children during your tenure impact your leadership style and/or your parenting style? 

SG:  First of all, the idea that, you know, we do need a village … [I had] my mother and my husband and of course people that were paid to help me, like a nanny or a babysitter. But just people that would come in and help me. If I was carrying bags and trying to get them in the car seat, [there was] just the village of people that I had supporting me. 

But it also goes back to one of the things we are absolutely not doing right as a community — and I don’t mean just at the city government level — but we just don’t give enough support to families of young children. Because I was a mom so late in life, I know what it’s like to not have children and work a full-time job and be busy, but it is a million times harder to work while you have young children. And when I talk about support, it is financial, but there needs to be a cultural shift. I think the United States is so focused on productivity and efficiency and we all pride ourselves in being these machines. And the system is really stacked against young families or parents with young children.

Former City Council member Shirley Gonzales (D5) holds her four-month-old son, Zachary Gonzales Barton, during an interview in 2015.
Then-City Council member Shirley Gonzales (D5) holds her 4-month-old son, Zachary Gonzales Barton, during an interview in 2015. Credit: Lea Thompson / San Antonio Report

We need more money for child care services. We need more funding for universal early childhood education. And I think we are making some strides in that locally and at the national level. But that’s not it. It really has to be a culture change, because even though I had support for my children and I had my mother living next door to me and a very supportive husband and partner who was willing to take up a lot of slack, I still felt overwhelmed by having young children. 

SA Report: Is that one of the reasons having a female-majority City Council was important to you? (Between 2019 and 2021, six of the 11 council members and the mayor were women.)

SG: Yes, because even though we didn’t necessarily agree on every policy initiative, most of us could at least relate to each other on the challenges of being a woman and embracing children.

I did have to talk to my colleagues and say, ‘I’m not at the top of my game. This is not going to be the year for me to shine.’ We all had to remain closer to home [this year], but it was a very challenging time. So having the women on the council gave me a little bit more confidence to say, ‘I just need a little bit of help right now. I need a little bit of time right now.’ And everybody knew exactly what I meant.

SA Report: Any other advantages of having more women serving on City Council with you?

SG: [District 4 Councilwoman] Adriana Rocha Garcia mentioned on the dais: the mansplaining. We could sort of call it out to each other. The other thing that we recognized is that we get talked over; people take our ideas. When you’re the only woman in the room and a guy takes your idea, nobody notices. And if you say, ‘Hey, I just said that,’ you don’t have anybody to back you up. Even though we didn’t agree on policy issues, I still tried to always elevate their comments, and I felt like they did that for me too.

SA Report: What legacy do you hope that you have left behind?

SG: The idea of an equity budget actually came from a constituent, so that concept came out of District 5. 

I did a lighting program that went citywide; it came out of District 5. The housing pilot that became the Mayor’s Housing Policy Taskforce, that came out of District 5. Vision Zero came out of District 5. And so many of those projects that were transformative for our city came out of District 5.

I hope the image of District 5 changes. District 5 was always a place that you needed to get out of, to escape from. Especially from the young people, I was hearing, ‘Well, I just want to do whatever I can to get out of here.’ And what I hope people would start to recognize is that we have the most incredible assets.

I hope my legacy is a recognition that we have everything we need, that we are resilient and strong and creative and innovative and District 5 actually is supporting the city in many of these things.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.