In nearly every way you can describe a neighborhood – from socioeconomics and demographics to politics and religion – the 55 square miles that make up City Council District 8 could be one of the most diverse areas of San Antonio.

It’s not only home to San Antonio’s healthcare and research powerhouses UTSAUT Health San Antonio, and the Medical Center, and some of the city’s largest employers, such as USAA, Valero, and NuStar, but also to Camp Bullis, Fiesta Texas, La Cantera, The Rim, enormous school districts, and the fastest growing population in the city.

San Antonio's District 8 lines in 2017.
San Antonio’s District 8 lines in 2017. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

“Everything you can find in the city of San Antonio is in District 8,” said Ron Nirenberg, the district’s councilman since 2013, who is vacating his seat in an effort to replace incumbent Ivy Taylor as mayor in the May 6 municipal election.

“And, speaking politically, that’s why District 8 has produced so many people who have gone on to state leadership – because it takes that kind of vision to manage the district. As District 8 goes, so goes San Antonio,” he said, “which is also why it’s important we elect someone who doesn’t need a whole lot of sleep.”

Nirenberg declined to endorse any candidate.

Councilman and Mayoral candidate Ron Nirenberg specifically calls out transportation as a large problem in San Antonio.
District 8 Councilman and mayoral candidate Ron Nirenberg. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

During his own tenure as councilman, Nirenberg tackled several causes in the district. He said he is most proud of creating a coalition of public and private partners to save the Bracken bat cave from development.

“Though not critical for District 8, it was important for the city,” he added. “It provided a model we had to operate under for a lot of growth-related issues.”

Nirenberg also worked to complete the Hausman Road project, the largest voter-approved roadway project in city history, rallied for City ethics reform and transparency issues, and worked on the UTSA-Medical Center master plan and services for refugees who primarily reside in this part of the city.

At a candidate forum and debate April 14, presented by the Muslim Children Education & Civic Center in conjunction with the SA Muslim Vote initiative, moderator Sakib Shaikh opened the forum with the words, “It doesn’t matter what our faith is, we’re here as concerned citizens of San Antonio.”

The Muslim Children Education and Civic Center
The Muslim Children Education and Civic Center Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Five of the six candidates present answered questions from about a dozen citizens on hot-button district topics including public transportation and traffic on I-10, delayed road construction projects, zoning and permitting bureaucracies, beautification and tree preservation, and bringing more arts and culture to the district.

Six candidates are vying for the District 8 council seat:

Manuel “Manny” Pelaez, 43, is a labor attorney who has served as a trustee for VIA Metropolitan Transit and was appointed to serve on the SAWS Rate Advisory Commission. He chaired the 2008 bond committee on drainage. Pelaez is married with two children.

Anthony “Tony” Valdivia, 39, is a product management manager at USAA and served as a special projects coordinator for Nirenberg. He owns a real estate business, is married, and has two daughters.

San Antonio's District 8 lines in 2017.
San Antonio’s District 8 lines in 2017. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Cynthia Brehm, 59, is retired from a 30-year career in marketing and advertising and a military spouse whose husband is currently deployed. She volunteers for various organizations including The Fisher House at Fort Hood.

Paul Martin, 64, is a business owner, U.S. Army veteran, and retired Navy Reserve commander. He is the managing partner and chief investment officer of Martin Capital Advisors, a registered investment advisor based in San Antonio.

Pat Stout, 72, is the owner of a travel agency and has served on various chambers of commerce.

Shane Hinze, 26, is a full-time student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He did not attend the April 14 debate, nor did he respond to e-mails from the Rivard Report.

The question that drew the most applause came from Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, who said he was speaking on behalf of the refugee community in San Antonio. Nearly 8,000 refugees reside in the city, almost all of them in District 8.

“We have a bill in the Senate of Texas, SB 4, which is prepared to turn our cities into instruments of oppression,” he said of the anti-sanctuary city bill. “Profiling, arresting, willy-nilly, members of this community … What are you going to do as someone whose job it is to protect our communities and who [has] the power to do so? You cannot say this is a Washington issue. This is a San Antonio issue.”

A member of the audience, who also appeared to be speaking for immigrants, followed with, “Are we not Americans?”

At the forum, Pelaez, who has raised more than $41,000 for his campaign, vowed to “stand with you and fight fights. You are Texans,” while Valdivia told the crowd, “The fear this refugee community has breaks my heart.” Valdivia is backed by more than $2,600 in campaign contributions.

A battle between the two candidates has been waged ever since Valdivia and the San Antonio Express News questioned Pelaez’s residency in District 8 in February.

“Perhaps if Mr. Pelaez released a lease agreement and bank statements showing transfer of funds from the tenant to himself [for his home in District 9] during the months in question, that would resolve the issue,” Valdivia said.

“I live in District 8, and I am an integrated member of the District 8 community,” Pelaez responded. “My opponents have brought up a non-existent residency issue to distract from the experience and expertise I bring to the table.”

Both candidates agree that traffic is one of the biggest crises facing the district, and that there are high-tech solutions in use elsewhere that could relieve the current congestion.

“I will work with every stakeholder to finally give the traffic crisis the priority it merits,” Pelaez said in describing the first of this three primary goals as councilman. “I will bring to bear my experience and expertise in the area of intelligent traffic systems, traffic dispersion modeling, and infrastructure to develop resilient solutions that are realistic, multimodal, and cost-effective.”

Valdivia said his goals are to hold the City accountable for how tax dollars are spent and to ensure all citizens have a voice in their local government.

“For me, one of the important issues is encouraging civic engagement and volunteerism,” he added. “I believe that as we get citizens looking out for each other it will directly impact issues such as crime, safety, and poverty.”

Other candidates during the forum addressed the persistent traffic question in a variety of ways. While Martin said, “It’s a big challenge – I don’t have any solutions, but it is an interest of mine,” Stout suggested calibrating traffic lights better. Brehm called for 7-foot tarps to cover the scenes of accidents and prevent the rubber-necking that slows traffic.

Toward the end of the debate, an audience member questioned Brehm about posts to her Facebook page in 2015 that reportedly called for Syrian refugees to be sent back. She denied it, claiming her statements were taken out of context.

Shaikh said he was pleased with the turnout for the center’s first-ever forum, and that the location “didn’t deter people from seeing the bigger picture, that of a mosque being a legitimate place to discuss affairs of the city.”

It was helpful for mosque members too, he said. “… The Muslim community primarily tunes into politics during the national election and doesn’t pay much attention to local politics, which oftentimes has the most direct impact on their lives.

“Seeing the candidates in person absolutely is the best way for individuals to gauge their depth of knowledge and authenticity.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.