Jim Greenwood
Jim Greenwood is Mayor Ron Nirenberg's new chief of staff. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Even before early vote totals were posted in the May municipal elections, Mayor Ron Nirenberg knew he had some serious problems. But the results released shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m. on May 4 drove the point menacingly home.

The early vote, nearly two-thirds of what would be the total vote, showed Nirenberg at just 44.8 percent, less than 2 percentage points ahead of first-term Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who had his own problems. Without backing from his former employers, the police and fire unions, Brockhouse wouldn’t have had the resources for a campaign. What’s more, he was plagued by police reports alleging domestic violence against two different wives and his clearly disingenuous responses to media questions on the issue. 

For Nirenberg to do so poorly against such a weak opponent made one thing clear: Even if he won the runoff, which was no certainty, he would have to do a much better job in his second term if he wanted to win a third. One or more stronger candidates than Brockhouse would almost certainly challenge him if he didn’t.

So a few days later, weeks ahead of the runoff election, Nirenberg asked Jim Greenwood if he would be interested in replacing Trey Jacobson as his chief of staff if he won a second term. Greenwood said he was interested and would consider it. After the successful runoff, they sealed the deal.

It was an appointment with the seeds of controversy, captured in this Rivard Report headline: “Nirenberg Hires Former Valero Executive as Chief of Staff.”

The mayor, who annoyed some of his environmentalist backers by postponing a vote on an ambitious climate action plan because Valero and some other energy companies in San Antonio objected, was appointing as his chief of staff the former vice president for governmental affairs for the Fortune 500 oil and gas company. As could be expected, the reaction from environmental and other community activists ranged from skepticism to objection.

Why did Nirenberg choose Greenwood? 

Greenwood has a long history in politics. His father, an attorney, served on Houston’s City Council. Greenwood says when he graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Texas at Austin, he had no idea what he wanted to do. 

“I didn’t want to go back to Houston without any plans,” he said. So he went to Washington. He soon landed a job in the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Andrews, who represented a district that included Pasadena and much of Houston’s petrochemical complex. He would later become chief of staff for another Houston-area Democrat, U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin. 

Then Valero wooed him to come work as a lobbyist. The company had an interesting pitch: They wanted him to block Republican efforts to water down environmental regulations requiring cleaner gasoline refineries. 

It was, Greenwood explained, a matter of self-interest. Valero was born out of bitter controversy between San Antonio and Coastal States Gas, which had reneged on a guaranteed-price natural gas contract with San Antonio’s City Public Service. The result was the creation of Valero as a natural gas company with headquarters in San Antonio.

In 1981, Valero purchased a 50 percent stake in a Corpus Christi company that was building a state-of-the-art gasoline refinery. In 1984, after the plant opened as the only refinery in Texas that met California’s environmental standards, Valero purchased the remaining half. 

The company hired Greenwood to help keep in place regulations that would force its Texas competitors to spend the money necessary to meet them. Greenwood said skeptics expected Valero to soften its support for the regulations when it acquired older refineries, but it didn’t.

First as a lobbyist, then as head of governmental relations for Valero, Greenwood developed a number of political skills. Most important, he said, is the ability to listen carefully to understand the concerns of everyone involved in an issue. Only then could you not only respond to them but also forge compromises that make up much of successful politics.

Greenwood not only rose within Valero but became chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, in which he played a leading role in then-Mayor Julián Castro’s campaign to pass Pre-K 4 SA. 

On a personal note, I came to know Greenwood through the San Antonio Botanical Garden, where his wife, Karen, and my wife, Kristen, serve on the board of directors. The Greenwoods recently chaired the botanical garden’s very successful capital campaign, and my wife and I served on the committee.

After his retirement from Valero three years ago, Greenwood, 58, volunteered to work in Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office. Nirenberg, who had come to know Greenwood when Castro was mayor, said it was a bit awkward after he declared his candidacy against Taylor.

“He was one of the few people on that team who was friendly with me,” Nirenberg said. 

The Mayor's Office Chief of Staff Jim Greenwood and Mayor Ron Nirenberg meet before City Council on Thursday.
Chief of Staff Jim Greenwood and Mayor Ron Nirenberg meet before City Council on Thursday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After Nirenberg defeated Taylor, he happily accepted Greenwood’s offer to do volunteer work in his office. Greenwood worked a bit less than half-time, leading Nirenberg to jokingly refer to him as “my intern.” But, said Nirenberg, he was actually a “utility player” who showed skills in unifying the staff and moving projects along as well as reaching out to the business community and other constituencies.

Greenwood said after years of working on national and state issues, he has enjoyed working in the mayors’ offices.

“In the city, you can get things done,” he said. 

Nirenberg made the same point. One of Nirenberg’s problems in his first term was that he initiated public processes that produced plans for a climate change initiative, a mass transit initiative, and an effort to ease San Antonio’s affordable housing crisis. But he was unable to bring any to fruition.

Calling Greenwood “a top-level executive who’s been able to move large organizations toward strategic goals,” Nirenberg said he thinks Greenwood will help him, together with new City Manager Erik Walsh, “break down the walls of the city’s bureaucracy. I think Jim is the battering ram to do that.”

Nirenberg said that after accepting his new position Greenwood immediately began reaching out to environmental groups and others such as the Texas Organizing Project, the liberal activist group that helped push Nirenberg over the top in the runoff, to make it clear he was not their adversary.

Nirenberg also is counting on Greenwood’s help as a liaison with both City Council members and the broader public, two areas the mayor admits were problems with his first term. To that end, Greenwood will be partnering with Ivalis Gonzalez Mesa, with whom he shared an office as a volunteer for the past two years. The daughter of the late Bexar County Democratic Chairwoman Choco Meza, Ivalis Meza has a law degree and has long been active in San Antonio’s Hispanic community.

At City Hall, Greenwood has shed his persona as the Man from Valero. 

It’s understandable that some groups will be skeptical, but success for Greenwood now will be measured by whether he helps Nirenberg succeed, not whether he furthers Valero’s interests. 

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.