Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) called each other failed leaders Tuesday evening in a broadcast debate, two weeks before the start of early voting for the June 10 mayoral and City Council runoff elections.
KSAT-TV live-streamed the hourlong debate from the station studios. A small audience numbering about 30 people gathered at the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce-sponsored watch party at Augie’s Alamo City BBQ.
On Election Day, May 6, only about 5,000 votes separated Taylor and Nirenberg, who finished with 42% and 37%, respectively, with third-place finisher Manuel Medina winning 15% of the vote. A crowded ballot of 11 other candidates totaled 5%.
Only 13% of the city’s registered voters participated in the election.
Tuesday, Taylor labeled herself a consensus-builder who gets results.
Taylor voiced pride in leading initiatives to secure the Vista Ridge long-term water supply project, negotiating a new collective bargaining pact with the local police union, approving the S.A. Tomorrow comprehensive plan, and eliminating homelessness among veterans.
“Let’s continue the momentum we’ve made together,” she said.
Nirenberg called San Antonio a city on the rise, but said Taylor lacks leadership and has failed to address worsening traffic gridlock, a rising crime rate, and violations of ethics codes.
“You deserve a city where elected officials are held to the highest integrity,” Nirenberg said.
KSAT anchor Steve Spriester asked each candidate whether he or she subscribes to a specific political affiliation – conservative or liberal.
Nirenberg called himself an independent, not beholden to special interests. He said he poses three questions before every decision he makes as a council member.
“I ask: Is it ethical? Have we done our homework? Is it in the best interest of the City?” he said.
Taylor said she has worked to bring together all sides of San Antonio on all issues. Nirenberg, she said, has courted and received endorsements from liberal and left-leaning individuals and groups. Former Mayor Julián Castro last week endorsed Nirenberg.
It’s a nonpartisan election, but one shot through with partisan inferences.
Nirenberg shot back, saying he was proud to work with former HUD Secretary and Mayor Castro on many issues. He questioned Taylor’s acceptance of support from former Democratic State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, her runoff opponent in the 2015 mayoral election.
“I’ve really worked hard to bring people together, no matter their political affiliation,” Taylor said.
When asked by Spriester what sets them apart as candidates, Taylor said she has more leadership experience than Nirenberg, from her tenure as the District 2 council member, as mayor, and as a professional urban planner.
“I’m a listener and a collaborator,” she added.
Taylor has taken undeserved credit for many city initiatives, Nirenberg said. He pointed to his work with Taylor in addressing homeless veterans, noting his service as chair of the council’s Quality of Life Committee when the effort began. The initiative took on a formal name, the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.
Yet when the City announced last year that local veteran homelessness had achieved “functional zero,” Taylor held a news conference with Castro, then HUD secretary.
“The mayor is simply dismissing all of that [prior] work,” Nirenberg said, adding he’s ready to “lead San Antonio into the future.”
Both candidates labelled each other as flip-floppers on various issues. Taylor said Nirenberg has changed his stances on annexation and the Vista Ridge water contract to strengthen his political standing with particular voter blocs.
Taylor also made an example of Council’s vote to approve the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan. Back then, Nirenberg, a tri-chair of the plan committee, called for maintaining stronger language in the impervious cover and dark skies ordinances.
Nirenberg won the battle, although the ordinances are not as strong as environmentalists had hoped. The council rejected other provisions that Nirenberg argued would have strengthened the overall plan.
Taylor faulted Nirenberg for not adequately communicating his concerns about the plan so close to the final council vote.
Nirenberg defended his decisions to ask hard questions about the Vista Ridge water project and staff’s proposed annexations.
“I voted for a contract that was fiscally responsible and guaranteed conservation,” Nirenberg said of the original Vista Ridge deal.”If we cannot openly criticize a project of this scale, then there’s dereliction of duty.”
Said Taylor: “[Nirenberg] has used this project as a political football. I believe the project is strong and I don’t shy away from questions.”
Spriester asked about outreach to Medina voters.
Nirenberg said he is reaching out to all voters, adding that Medina’s populist campaign reflected a dissatisfaction that many people have with Taylor’s mayoral tenure.
“Folks who supported Medina very clearly had something on their mind, that we’re not moving in the right direction,” Nirenberg said. “Leadership is coming back to the mayor’s office.”
Taylor said she is courting every voter, talking about what “I’m passionate about – that every person in San Antonio is connected to opportunities for prosperity.”
The discussion moved into questions about ethics, as Nirenberg pounced on Taylor’s ethics violation when she became interim mayor in 2014.
Back then, she technically violated the City’s ethics code when she and her husband Rodney continued receiving income from Section 8 vouchers at properties he was renting out through the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA). The mayor is responsible for appointing SAHA board members.
Taylor had told other City officials and the public that she was unaware of any ethics violation until the San Antonio Express-News reported it. Mayor Taylor and her husband transferred their Section 8 SAHA contracts to the Housing Authority of Bexar County to avoid further conflicts of interest.
“I have not knowingly broken any rules or laws. When any challenge was pointed out to me, I acted swiftly and the Council supported me,” Taylor said at the debate.
Nirenberg said it was “inconceivable” that Taylor was unaware she had been violating the ethics code. The council voted 8-2 to prevent any future attempts to cite similar technicalities as reason for an ethics complaint. Nirenberg and Rey Saldana (D4) cast the dissenting votes.
The City later received an ethics complaint against Taylor, claiming she wrongfully accepted contributions from owners of a local engineering firm who worked on the Vista Ridge negotiations.
Earlier this year, Taylor called for a do-over on the process by which the City sought to choose a new operator for the River Walk barge fleets. She expressed concerns that lobbying efforts “tainted” the process.
Nirenberg said these ethics concerns demonstrated a worrisome “pattern” and a lack of leadership.
“The foundation for any strong city is ethics and integrity,” he added,
Taylor questioned Nirenberg’s connection to former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who as an attorney represented one firm that bid on the river barge contract. Taylor called Hardberger a “political mentor” to Nirenberg.
The mayor also defended her political contributions.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to be repaying favors,” she added.
Taylor and Nirenberg also discussed transportation policies, traffic at the San Antonio International Airport, and economic development. The debate can be watched in its entirety here.
Early voting for the runoffs begins May 30.