Why, in over 50 years, only one bond package has failed

Last Updated by Patrick Driscoll on

Early voting starts Monday for the city election and I have a prediction. No, it’s not about the mayor’s race. It’s about the $850 million bond package, the largest in city history.

Some supporters are nervous about it, worried major portions could sink because of criticism of the inclusion of the land bridge at Hardberger Park, major improvements to Broadway and a number of downtown projects. Not to mention the sheer size of the package.

I am confident in saying none of the criticisms will keep San Antonians from approving the bond package. Why? For the simple reason that such criticisms never do.

For the past 50 years San Antonio has approved bond package after bond package despite regular criticisms. It helps that the packages typically — as is the case this year — do not involve tax increases. The new bonds are approved as older bonds are retired.

San Antonio has always believed in investing in itself. So much so that only one bond proposal in more than 50 years has failed. And that was because the mayor herself mounted a campaign against it. Here’s the story.

The year was 1979. City Hall was in the midst of a transformation. For more than 25 years all members of City Council were elected at-large, with tickets formed by the business-oriented Good Government League dominating the elections. The organization almost always selected two Hispanics and one black for the 9-member council, and for the most part they followed the party line.

But in 1977, under pressure from the Justice Department’s civil rights division, citizens barely passed a charter revision electing the mayor citywide and 10 members from districts. For the first time in a generation, voters in poorer parts of town who had little influence on citywide elections got to pick their own representatives.

The result: five Hispanics and one African-American, all of them under 40, with constituencies whose areas had been underserved for decades.

“It was a generational change and an ethnic change,” recalled Henry Cisneros, the only incumbent among the six.  

Under the leadership of Mayor Lila Cockrell, a GGL veteran who had been elected the city’s first woman mayor two years earlier, the council in early 1979 worked up a bond package to take to the voters. But before the election took place, a dispute arose over allocation of a chunk of money from a federal program called Community Development Block Grants.

“We had all agreed on a package through a long process of negotiation,” Cockrell said this week. But when the issue came to a council vote, she said, “Councilman Bernardo Eureste introduced an amendment that completely changed the package.”

Without much discussion the five Hispanics and one black member voted as a bloc — and started a battle.

“There was a situation when the council was forming cliques,” Cockrell said. “So I simply stood against the voters approving a bond issue under those conditions. It strengthened my standing. It showed I wasn’t going to allow myself to be pushed around.”

The business community raised money to amplify her message and hired Austin political consultant George Shipley, who would later work for Cisneros, to run the anti-bond campaign.

“Their slogan was ‘Don’t give them a blank check,’” Cisneros said. “It was a very divisive campaign.”

It was not a close vote. The bond package was defeated. But Cockrell made it clear she was not anti-bond, but that the council needed to be taught a lesson. The next year, the bond package passed.

Cisneros said both sides learned a lesson. The business community learned that the long-neglected southern sector of the city needed considerably more investment. And the new council members learned that they could not pass those investments without working to get a full consensus of the council and the community.

It is a lesson that has held. Every bond package since has passed. This one will, too.

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