Early voting in the May 9 City Election begins this morning and continues through May 5. The election is, arguably, an historic one. The next mayor will be positioned to lead the city into 2023, an eight-year period in which San Antonio can define itself as a leading-edge city or fail to realize its full potential and become one of the fall-behinds.
The first step forward is for people to vote, either early or on May 9. To not vote is to disqualify yourself and your voice in judging the City’s leadership and its policies going forward. How can you criticize officeholders that you had no say in electing or deposing?
Turnout of registered voters is always lower for local elections than it is in presidential election years, but this time San Antonio voters should consider: Do you want to be part of the decision to change or not change city government from its 1951 model to a new, 21st century model?
The Mayor’s Race and City Council Elections
Voters will elect a mayor to a full term for the first time since they gave Mayor Julián Castro a third term in office in 2013. Voters in all 10 City Council districts will be choosing incumbents or challengers. Click here for a list of all the candidates.
In a crowded field of 14 candidates seeking the mayor’s office, there are four serious contenders, each with well-established records of public service. Who would make the best mayor depends on many things, including each voter’s socio-economic status. I might favor the candidate with the most progressive urban core agenda, while an inner city resident getting by on Social Security might favor the candidate most focused on fixing potholes and corralling stray animals. Someone else might care more about who promises to work on behalf of military veterans, and other voters might support a faith-based candidate.
The point here is that media endorsements seem to me to be a relic of 20th century newspapers. Every person’s vote matters as much as the next, and the best people can hope for from the media is an honest presentation of the candidates, thus providing citizens with the information they need to make up their own minds. People don’t need the media telling them how to vote.
Former state Rep. Mike Villarreal entered the race first among the four major candidates and has been campaigning 24/7 since last July. His competitive advantage is that he is in the race because he wants to be mayor and not because he lost another election. He probably has the most carefully articulated vision and mayoral agenda should he win, one that is closest to the “Decade of Downtown” agenda pursued by former Mayor Julián Castro. Villarreal is a policy wonk who would be hands-on, someone who understands municipal finance and the value of the City’s AAA bond rating, yet espouses liberal social and urban policies that would address many of the frustrations expressed by the city’s Millennial and young professional population. He gets tech better than any of the other candidates. His disadvantage is that he has represented a geographically small House district and is not a household name in much of the city. Some in the business community oppose him for actions he took as a legislator.
Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is the acknowledged frontrunner, and as a longtime legislator with a large district that covers a significant pat of the city’s voting footprint, she is someone many city voters have supported in past state elections. She is the Establishment candidate and she won the Express-News’ endorsement on Sunday. She and her family have deep ties in the Westside and throughout the community that go back generations. She also has political consultant Christian Archer as her campaign manager, who has an enviable win-loss record. There is widespread conviction that he has focused and energized the candidate and her base. Her disadvantage? As a candidate in the 2014 lieutenant governor’s race, Van de Putte said she had no intention of running for mayor, but then suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick. Many said the prospect of returning to complete her Senate term under the thumb of Lt. Gov. Patrick is what drove her to surrender her Senate seat and jump into the mayor’s race, but her change of heart has not been a campaign issue and does not appear to be hurting her with voters. She’s had time to develop an urban agenda.
Interim Mayor Ivy Taylor has the advantage of incumbency, however short-lived, and is an authentic symbol of progress for San Antonio as the city’s first-ever African-American mayor and only the second woman to hold the office. The long neglected African-American community has taken enormous pride in her elevation from City Councilmember (D2) to mayor after Castro’s departure last summer to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, which came just as the city’s historically black Eastside has started to undergo a major revitalization fueled by both federal urban renewal grants and Millennial migration to historic neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill, where the mayor herself lives with her family.
Taylor has had her successes and her setbacks. Conservatives loved her rejection of the VIA streetcar project as newly elected mayor and her anti-NDO ordinance vote while serving as a council member. On the other hand, the considerable concessions her administration has made to the police union have failed to lead to a new contract. The union’s endorsement of Van de Putte undermined Taylor and her efforts and leaves the City in a weak negotiating position if Van de Putte wins.
Taylor, an urban planner by training, has launched a much-needed comprehensive planning initiative, SA Tomorrow, as the city contemplates the impact of a population that could grow by another one million people by 2050, but her agreement to allow a charter amendment calling for citywide elections on any light rail initiatives is seen as capitulation to the firefighters union, which led the anti-streetcar petition drive. Few civic and business leaders want to see the city going to the polls each time a major transportation initiative is contemplated. Voters will now decide whether to support the charter amendment that would require such votes. Taylor won support from her fellow Council members to become interim mayor by pledging not to do what she is doing now: seeking a full term in office. Yet like Van de Putte, her change of heart has not become a significant campaign issue.
Former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson is derided for his rambling, over-animated public displays at forums and debates, but no elected official in the city has a record equal to his for showing up at community and neighborhood events and meetings. He never stops, and many of the city’s working class neighborhoods are a reflection of his base, where he has worked tirelessly to represent constituents demanding better basic services such as community policing, public works, and quality of life issues. His disadvantage? Adkisson, frustrated that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff decided to seek re-election last year, broke with his onetime ally on the Commissioners Court and attempted to unseat Wolff. His campaign fell well short. Like Van de Putte, Adkisson is seen by his critics as jumping into the next available race to stay in public office.
I’ve known and watched all four candidates for some years, and what is not in doubt, is that all four candidates are dedicated public servants with records voters can scrutinize. That can’t be said for the other 10 individuals crowding the ballot and confusing uninformed voters.
Charter Amendments 1-4, Propositions 1 and 2
Charter Amendment No. 1 would require a citywide vote before any rail project proceeds in a public right of way.
In addition to the mass transit issue on the ballot, Charter Amendment No. 2, if approved, would pay median household salaries of $45,722 to City Council members and a median household salary plus 35%, or $61,725 to the mayor. Salary increases would come only once a decade with new U.S. Census data shifting the median household income.
Right now the mayor and council members are paid the same token honoraria that have been in place, unchanged, since 1951. Were the rest of us bound to the same mid-20th century economics, minimum wage earners would make 75 cents an hour today, and CEOs and other top business executives might make $20-30,000 a year or so, far less than most entry-level professionals pull down today. While some in San Antonio continue to espouse an anti-government viewpoint and take pride in the dismal $20 a week wage council members earn and the $50 a week wage the mayor is paid, San Antonio’s image in the outside world suffers. Would you move your company here or expand your operations in a city where voters refuse to pay elected representatives?
Charter Amendment No. 3, if it passes, would mean City Council will no longer hand-pick an interim mayor or council members in the event of unexpected vacancies. The amendment would require a special election when 120 days or more remain in a unexpired term.
Charter Amendment No. 4 is a clean-up measure aligning the outdated City Charter with current state law by mandating that charter provisions superseded by state law would be rewritten to conform as needed.
Finally, voters will decide whether to extend the 1/8 cent tax dedicated to the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (Proposition 1) and expansion of the city’s Linear Creekway Parks Development Program (Proposition 2).
*Featured/top image: A “vote here” sign points potential voters in the right direction at Bowden Elementary School. Photo by Scott Ball.