Many in San Antonio are thinking more about scoring their next Fiesta medal or a ticket to Cornyation than the future of the city. But for Mayor Julián Castro, May looms large. It should prove to be a month of milestones to measure his three years’ in office, and confirm the forward momentum of inner city transformation.

It’s also an Election Year as President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney square off. What does one have to do with the other?  Castro is one of 30 national co-chairs of the Obama re-election campaign. It’s a post he took up in February, and one that already is taking him far from City Hall.

The appointment and Castro’s strong alliance with the Obamas has stirred speculation in San Antonio. Many people believe Castro could be headed toward a new life in Washington, DC, and a Cabinet appointment in a second Obama administration.  That speculation seems uninformed and unrealistic. It isn’t going to happen. Hours after this story was posted Castro took to Twitter ((@juliancastrotx) and had this to say:

“@Rivardreport That’s an easy one, Bob. I’ll be mayor through May 2017, if the voters will have me. Zero interest in Washington.”

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro rallying support for the May 12 bond election. (Photo courtesy of Mayor Julián Castro)

A Cabinet posting in a second term administration is a career capper, not a launching pad. It’s a plum job for someone transitioning to a lucrative law practice or corporate office. But it’s not a springboard to “the next big thing” in public life. You don’t come home from a Cabinet posting to run for governor, and you certainly don’t build momentum for a national campaign from the perch of a federal agency.

Yes, the tat set of power inside the Beltway is intoxicating, but look at it this way: Why would Castro want to retrace the exact steps of another San Antonio mayor, Henry Cisneros, who became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton? If he continue to build a record of accomplishment, Castro’s potential is unlimited and right now he has one of the best imaginable jobs. He has the mandate to lift up and transform his home town, one of the fastest growing cities in America.

Making the most of relaxed term limits

Castro an his inner circle know he has to change a city before he can even think about anything else and they are keeping the focus on San anti even as he hits the national campaign trail for Obama. A lot of political capital was invested by Castro’s predecessor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, to win less restrictive term limits. It’s given Castro opportunity he wouldn’t have had were his first run at the mayor’s office a success Now he leads the most educated, competent City Council to hold office in contemporary San Antonio history. They have eight years to accomplish what a prior generation of leadership could only dream of doing.

Castro has helped define his mayoral legacy with his SA2020 initiative and its 11 ambitious “vision areas” (see the May 19th passage below). It will take every bit of eight years to put San Antonio firmly on the path to becoming a better educated, more prosperous and livable city. Castro’s tweet puts to rest the rumors and speculation. He’s here to stay for all eight years.

It’s not a subject his circle cares to discuss, but Castro knows his future political trajectory doesn’t take him from San Antonio to Washington. The mayor’s best bet is to lead San Antonio into a better future, a record that would position him in a changing state to be the strongest Democrat to win back the governor’s office.  Yes, the governor’s mansion in Austin makes a great springboard for a presidential run.

But first comes May in San Antonio.

Luminaria displaces Cinco de Mayo as the new May 5 celebration

May 5 is going to be a big day and night in San Antonio, and not because this city treats Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican army’s battlefield defeat of occupying French forces in Puebla 150 years ago, as a quasi-official holiday. Heavy rains and a lot of thunder and lightning led officials to cancel the planned March 10 arts festival in HemisFair Park. May 5 was chosen as the makeup date, presumably because the city’s post-Fiesta hangover will have dissipated and people will be ready to party again.

Coming so soon after Fiesta raises a central question: Is Luminaria one more beer blast in a city that already excels in that department? Or does a public celebration of art and artists grow into something even bigger and more meaningful for a city bent on change? The answer will come only when city leaders and organizers step back and ask not what Luminaria is today, but what it might become.

Hundreds of thousands of art supporters and revelers are expected at HemisFair Park for the evening extravaganza. It’s a great opportunity to remind people to vote in the May 12 bond election. Early voting, which begins April 30, will have three more days to run. Passage of the bond will represent the first big step in returning HemisFair Park to the downtown space enriching life and work for locals. More on the bond election below.

Luminaria-Arts Night in San Antonio

Luminaria likely will return next year to a March date. Can San Antonio slowly build it from a single evening into something larger that attracts national attention and comes to symbolize a smarter city? Before the rain washed things out, executive buses carrying young tech entrepreneurs detoured from all points of the compass and their journey to Austin for SXSW and pulled into Rackspace for a pep rally for startups. The program is known, literally, as StartupBus. The timing was a coincidence. Hundreds of ambitious, brainy young people jammed into “The Castle,” Rackspace’s name for its corporate home at a former shopping mall. Shouldn’t we exploit our proximity to Austin and our own unique strengths and attributes and build Luminaria into something that celebrates art, technology and the places the two meet?

More than half the money is to ease traffic congestion

The $596 bond election is a vote for downtown investment, but it favors the suburbs as much as the central city. $337 million, or nearly 57% of the total, will be spent on roads, bridges and sidewalks, a fair amount of that on addressing city sprawl, worsening highway traffic and poorly engineered or underfunded projects where rapid growth has greatly outpaced infrastructure capacity. By contrast, about $116 million, or 19%, will be spent on parks and cultural amenities, including the HemisFair Park funding. Put another way, the opportunity cost of the city addressing stepping so many highway and street improvement projects is the money unavailable to spend on urban renewal and accelerated redevelopment of HemisFair Park. Before state spending was so drastically slashed, some of the bond projects, such as the northern exchange of  Highway 281 and Loop 1604, would have been the work of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Even diehard downtowners should vote for Proposition One, which covers all that road and bridge work, because the improvements are essential to alleviating the city’s worsening traffic congestion, declining air quality, and time lost by people trapped in idling cars. It’s those very projects that ensure passage of the five-year bond, whereas an all-downtown bond probably would be rejected by voters in Districts 8, 9 and 10. Still, it’s painful to see the many things that will not get done, and the many deserving institutions and groups that must settle for nickels on the dollar because so many diverse needs must be meant. It seems like a lot of money overall, but the city could spend $1 billion or more on streets alone were it available. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and team have earned San Antonio a coveted AAA bond rating, which means lower interest rates for taxpayers and inevitably, bond projects that are completed under budget with funds left over to reallocate.

SA2020 celebrates its first birthday

For six months now, SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd has been working to rebrand Castro’s roadmap charting the city’s future as an

Darryl Byrd
Dr. Ruth E. Berggren and Darryl Byrd at a 2010 planning meeting.

initiative that belongs not to the mayor but to the thousands of grass-roots participants who helped envision it. Byrd and others believe it’s important for citizens to own SA2020 and its ambitious goals rather than to have it linked to one elected official. But SA2020 remains in every way the work of Castro, and  the May 19 return of SA2020 to the Tri-point YMCA presents a one-year reckoning of sorts. Showing progress will be essential to building public confidence and making people feel ownership.

SA2020 launched on Sept. 25, 2010 at the Tripoint YMCA, a  remarkable day that saw more than 1,000 fill the Y, and an overflow space at the nearby headquarters of the San Antonio Water System fill with hundreds more. That beginning culminated six months later on March 19 at the Downtown Campus of UTSA with the release of the 135-page final report and Castro addressing an audience of several hundred leaders and activists who participated in the “community visioning effort.”

SA2020 press conference March 19, 2011
Community leaders listen as Mayor Castro releases SA2020 final report at UTSA’s Downtown Campus. (Photo courtesy City of San Antonio)

“We set out to dream it, map it and do it, and this SA2020 effort has been about the first part of that — dreaming it. It is not a list of projects; it’s not even a strategic plan,” Castro said at UTSA. “It is a set of aspirations for our city, the dreams that we have for ourselves, the targets that we have in mind to reach by 2020. And this report is the culmination of that first stage, but in the coming years, the most important part is how we get on the mapping it and the doing it.”

Byrd’s challenge this coming May 19th is to “get on the mapping it and the doing it,” and rekindle the enthusiasm that drove SA2020’s start. The hard part will be channeling that collective energy into an action plan and real world execution to make and measure progress in each of the 11 vision categories. That will require serious commitments from volunteer team leaders and people working with them.

“I hope everybody that was there at the start and all the people who have joined in since then will come out and be with us on May 19,” Byrd told a small group watching the San Antonio River Parade. “SA2020 belongs to all of us.”

Byrd’s right, and he deserves broad support and renewed volunteerism. He also needs visible and active political support from the top. People will need to see Castro fully invested in finishing what he started. That’s why the Twitter pledge from the mayor this evening is so important. SA2020 is a marathon and the mayor is running the whole distance.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.