Ivy Taylor will always have her place in the history books as the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of San Antonio, and of any U.S. city with more than one million people. She also is only the second woman after Lila Cockrell (1975-81, 1989-91) to hold the office here.
Taylor also was a good ambassador abroad for a city that needs to think more globally. She traveled widely, first to Bonn, Germany for the 2015 UNESCO World Heritage Committee where the Alamo and Spanish-colonial Missions were named a World Heritage site, and later to Mexico and Namibia.
It was a source of pride for many of us to be represented nationally and abroad by an African-American woman. The politics of race and gender have never defined Taylor, and at home she appealed to a broad range of voters, notably in the suburban districts.
What, beyond those attributes, will history say about Taylor’s two years and 11 months as mayor? Her definitive defeat in the June 10 runoff election at the hands of District 8 City Councilman and now Mayor-elect Ron Nirenberg consigns her to the short list of San Antonio’s one-term mayors.
Taylor has the skills, experience, and devotion to public service to regroup and find new ways to play a meaningful role in the life of this city. She was an effective councilwoman and a calming compromise candidate to serve as the interim mayor after the departure of Mayor Julián Castro three years ago.
Taylor can start that process by approaching Nirenberg in chambers this week and congratulating him on his victory, which she did not do on election night or in the days afterward. Defeat is best endured with grace.
Dr. William E. “Bill” Thornton, an oral surgeon, was the last single-term mayor, serving from 1995-97 before being ousted by Howard Peak who, like Taylor, was a former city planner and, at the time, the two-term District 9 councilman. You have to go back to John Gatti (1971-73) and Charles L. Becker (1973-75) to find any other single-term mayors who held office after HemisFair ’68.
Single-term mayors have enough time in office to lose the confidence of voters, but not enough time to build a lasting legacy. Taylor, however, had one advantage over the others that preceded her. She was elected by her fellow council colleagues in 2014 to complete the unexpired third term of then-Mayor Castro, who resigned the office to become HUD secretary in the Obama administration. She became mayor after a campaign that only had to reach nine voters.
That gave Taylor nearly one full year in office as the city’s caretaker mayor. Then she changed her mind and reversed a public pledge not to seek the mayor’s job in the 2015 election cycle. While she defeated then-State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in a runoff, some of her fellow council members, including Nirenberg, never forgot that broken pledge.
There was no shortage of substantive issues or political drama during Taylor’s nearly three-year run in office. Driven by Rackspace and its multitude of spinoffs and former Rackers, tech became a measurable economic sector and a palpable political force in urban politics. As more new jobs were created and startups helped spark greater downtown revitalization, Tech Bloc was born and successfully forced Taylor and conservative supporters to reverse their anti-rideshare posture.
Placating the Police Union
Taylor will certainly be remembered for intervening in the contentious and deadlocked negotiations with the police union and forcing through a new contract, one that gave union officials much of what they hoped for while undermining the position of City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her negotiating team.
The deal violated the unanimous agreement forged by Mayor Castro and the City Council that included Taylor, to hold public safety spending to 66% of the general fund budget, the highest rate of spending of any major Texas city. Sometime in the course of the current five-year contract, the mayor and Council will have to wrestle with that unpleasant eventuality – especially if the fire union is awarded a similar contract.
Robust city growth, including future annexation, might negate the need for an eventual tax increase, but it’s hard to see where officials will find the money to fill several hundred police officer vacancies. Everyone agrees the fast-growing, ever-sprawling city would be a safer place with those jobs filled, but meeting the financial demands of the new contract was made possible, in part, by keeping jobs unfilled.
One election footnote: People in this city hold uniformed officers in high regard, but the unions don’t have much luck telling people how to vote. Once again big spending on negative media by the police union failed to sway voters.
Dealing with the recalcitrant fire union, meanwhile, will be left to Nirenberg and the new Council. The police contract experience might serve as an object lesson: San Antonio is governed by a city manager form of government, which is to say by professionals beyond the immediate reach of fickle voters. When officeholders meddle at the expense of the professionals it is the taxpayer who foots the bill.
In a morning-after-election email, Taylor thanked supporters and ticked off some of her accomplishments while in office. First was the May 6 passage by huge margins of the $850 million bond, the biggest capital investment in the city’s history by 40% or more.
The multi-billion dollar Vista Ridge water agreement did pass during Taylor’s time as mayor, and she deserves credit for standing behind the SAWS agreement in the face of considerable community opposition. More humane policies toward the homeless were implemented, and a push to eliminate or at least reduce veteran homelessness went into effect.
Taylor was less effective on other fronts. Despite being the city’s first black mayor and a longtime Eastside resident, she stopped short of taking on the police union over the issue of unarmed black men fatally shot in encounters with local law enforcement. That issue has not flared of late, but it will again. The cultural changes in the department that San Antonio Police Chief William McManus pushed for last year can’t be implemented without a mayor and Council firmly in his camp.
Taylor also injected her faith into politics at a mayoral debate when she answered a question about the roots of poverty by saying, “To me, it’s broken people … people not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore not being in a good relationship with their families and their communities … and not being productive members of society.
“I think that’s the ultimate answer. [But] that’s not something that I work on from my position as mayor of the community.”
The last sentence might condition the first sentence, but it can’t erase the fact that Taylor’s religious beliefs at times trumped her secular thinking. That also was evident in her inability to embrace the LGBTQIA community. San Antonio’s inner city churches are filled with the faithful on Sundays, yet many of those devout churchgoers suffer the consequences of economic segregation as much as their less spiritually-minded neighbors. They need fair and equitable governance, and access to education and other resources to help make up for decades of indifference, not another sermon.
The Mandate for Mayor-elect Nirenberg
Nirenberg’s five-point margin in the early voting stunned Taylor supporters, and his nine-point margin after all the votes were counted constituted a mandate. What accounts for such a significant and unpredicted victory will be the subject of debate in both camps for some time.
Taylor has never enjoyed campaigning. She values her private time with husband Rodney and daughter Morgan, in contrast to so many political figures who feed off public life from sunup to sundown and beyond. It was refreshing to experience a mayor who went home for dinner with her family.
Nirenberg draws strength from family, too, but he campaigned relentlessly, confident when very few of us gave him much chance of winning.
As Taylor’s elected term progressed, she became more assertive, controlling the council agenda, intervening in negotiations with the police union and pushing through a vote to absolve her of an ethics violation. More recently, she unilaterally voided City staff’s recommended winner of the lucrative, 10-year, $100 million river barge contract.
Nirenberg’s promise to tackle real problems, like traffic and crime, resonated more than Taylor’s attack campaign. In a city where only 13% of registered voters went to the polls, enough voters were progressives who viewed Taylor as a mayor without a vision, a mayor who, from the day she killed the streetcar deal, represented an end to a progressive era that began with Hardberger and grew to become SA2020 and the Decade of Downtown under Castro.
Unlike Hardberger or Castro, two mayors of genuine accomplishment who Taylor disparaged in her last months in office, she will not be remembered as a mayor who had a vision and carried it through to fruition. But she can take great pride in achieving what no one before her has done in a predominantly Hispanic city: winning citywide election as an African-American. Hopefully, another quarter century will not pass before voters elevate another woman to the mayor’s office.
Nirenberg’s challenge will be to take the SA Tomorrow plan, which Taylor launched as her signature long-term planning initiative, and make it an action plan. How good a job he does will determine whether he wins enough years in office to create a lasting legacy.