When District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales first ran for office in 2013, she wanted to remove some of what she saw as barriers to small businesses like hers, a family-owned pawnshop on West Commerce Street.

“I thought I need to change this city to make it more business friendly and make it easier for small businesses to grow and to expand,” Gonzales said during a live interview Tuesday with Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons, part of the San Antonio Report’s Conversations With the Council series.

Now in the last six months of her third and final two-year term in office, Gonzales is known for being outspoken about longstanding racial and gender inequities. She and her team also have shown a knack for starting programs that later gain broader traction across City government.

“Very quickly, I learned there were so many needs in the community,” Gonzales said of her overall time in office. “I didn’t get to work on small business issues like I wanted.”

Instead, Gonzales’ legacy includes ramping up the use of community health workers, or promotoras, who help connect struggling residents to government and nonprofit services. At one point, her office employed 10 promotoras, and the practice has since been more widely adopted by San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District for several public health initiatives.

Gonzales, who first ran for office in 2013, also was a strong force for pushing San Antonio to create in 2018 what officials called the City’s first equity-focused budget that accounted for historical lack of investment in districts like hers.

In June 2017, her office issued a report on how roadways in council districts 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 had lower-quality pavement on average than San Antonio’s other five council district. The report led her colleagues to allocate an additional $35 million in street maintenance funding to those districts.

Looking back, Gonzales said she knew the hard numbers in the report would be “uncontroversial.” Since the passage of that budget in 2017, the idea of equity has become more mainstream in San Antonio policy circles.

“What happened was as we started to really recognize and acknowledge our past and our history, we decided to use equity in every city department, not just in [Transportation and Capital Improvements] or Public Works,” Gonzales said. “We have a long way to go to really get there, but that was the beginning of it.”

Gonzales acknowledges that her district continues to struggle more than others, especially with issues of lack of outside investment, generational poverty, and violence. That’s especially been true during the coronavirus pandemic.

During the interview, Gonzales recalled what it felt like seeing all businesses but those deemed “essential” being required to shut down to prevent the virus’s spread.

“I thought, we can’t do that because that’s all we have are essential businesses – that would be everyone,” Gonzales said. “And even the stay-at-home order I thought, we can’t do that because we don’t live in safe homes. We don’t have physical safe structures and there’s too much violence.”

Even after her term ends in June 2021, Gonzales plans to stay engaged in the issue she cares about. Voters also could see her on the ballot again soon, with Gonzales saying that “being in an elected position is where I have my greatest strength.”

“There’s just a question of what’s open,” she said. “One thing I can say very confidently is that all of my Democrat friends that are in current positions, I think are doing a great job, and so I would not want to challenge an incumbent. But if a position opens up, I’m preparing myself for whatever that may be.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.