Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks briefly with Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) before a meeting to decide on a finalist for the City Manager position.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) before a meeting last month to decide on a finalist for the city manager position. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As a reader, I came to Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick’s Q&A with the nine candidates who want to be mayor of San Antonio with skepticism. Readers of the interviews published Saturday will recognize only a few of the candidates’ names, at best, so there was little reason to expect coherent responses or actionable ideas.

This is Texas, where anyone with a few bucks and a willingness to tilt at windmills can run for elected office. A name on the ballot is no guarantee the individual will campaign for votes, raise money, or develop an agenda.

Here are the nine candidates in the order of their filings: Antonio “Tony” Diaz, John Velasquez, Matt Piña, Ron Nirenberg, Carlos Castanuela, Tim Atwood, Bert Cecconi, Greg Brockhouse, and Michael “Commander” Idrogo.

I was wrong on my initial assumption. Several of the lesser-known candidates, however quixotic their journey, offered articulate expressions of what ails San Antonio.

I also came to the article believing that voters will conclude the best candidate for mayor already has the job. Mayor Ron Nirenberg should be strongly favored to win a second term on May 4, giving him the opportunity to prove a seasoned mayor is almost always more effective than a first-term mayor.

Nothing I read Saturday changed that assumption or my view of the big picture in San Antonio, a city seesawing between tremendous opportunity and serious challenges. If San Antonio is nearing the end of the Decade of Downtown, we might think of the next 10 years as the Decade of Destiny. How San Antonio evolves, or fails to evolve, over that time period will determine whether we belong on the list of thriving cities or end up on the list of also-rans, defined more by weaknesses than strengths.

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We need smart leaders who can make the most of the opportunities and demonstrate that real, measurable progress can be made addressing our weaknesses.

City Councilman Greg Brockhouse is alone among the eight challengers  – all men – who can mount a credible campaign. He has amassed strong name recognition for a single-term councilman, a reflection of a decade of work for other officeholders and the public safety unions. He has the backing of the police and fire unions, which presumably will include significant funding. He espouses a populist message with appeal to working-class voters who feel left behind in a growing economy driven by technology and disruption.

None of that makes Brockhouse a credible threat at this juncture, but it’s early. Those who judge his first term as an exercise in ineffective, back bench opposition would be foolish to dismiss his candidacy in a city where voters approved Propositions B and C in November.

What angers some voters is evident in the answers given by the lesser-known candidates Dimmick interviewed. San Antonio is held back by its poverty, unacceptably low education outcomes, economic segregation, and decades of public disinvestment in the minority-dominant urban core, a predicament that will take future leaders a generation or more to address.

Yet if some see Nirenberg and the City Council as indifferent to their plight, others see just the opposite. Many conservative suburban voters and some in the business community judge the current City Council as too progressive. Even in an era of historic tax cuts and growing income inequality, talk of using an “equity lens” somehow unnerves people who otherwise enjoy material comfort and security that others in San Antonio have never known.

Improving the lives of the neediest among us would pay dividends citywide, but not everyone sees it that way. As I wrote to a friend and widely admired local educator this week, it takes about $8,000-$11,000 a year to deliver high quality, all-day pre-K schooling to a 4-year-old, and that includes extended day programming and meals. Early childhood education, research shows, is the best shot at putting children on a path to a good education and an exit from poverty. Students who can’t read by the third grade are headed in the other direction, and the eventual cost to society is far greater, financially and morally.

It costs Bexar County taxpayers $100,000 a day to house 4,000 or more inmates, according to a 2016 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The same report estimated an average daily cost of $18,000 for people incarcerated on pretrial misdemeanor charges and more than $79,000 a day for those jailed on a pretrial felony charge.

Investing in our public schools, neighborhoods, housing, safe streets and sidewalks, community policing, and mental health services benefits everyone. For the first time in my memory, we have a majority of elected city leaders committed to addressing these issues.

Nirenberg did not have much opportunity to accomplish great things in his first term. He inherited an intractable standoff with the firefighters union and spent a lot of political capital defending City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who, despite 13 years of extraordinary accomplishments, ultimately was the target of Proposition B’s passage.

Even with what some call a progressive agenda, Nirenberg will win the support and financial backing of the business community over a candidate known as the union’s “guy.” On the other hand, if latent voter discontent seen last November is stirred by unforeseen events, the new unpredictability of politics will make Brockhouse a more serious contender.

The Sculley era ends March 1 when a trusted deputy, Erik Walsh, ascends to the position. We will gain a better sense over the next 75 more days how voters feel about the incumbent mayor and whether they agree with the anti-establishment sentiment of Brockhouse and the other seven challengers, or conclude the best candidate already has the job.

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.