The recent city election had the audacity to take place in my absence, while Texas Week was on summer break. But it was such an extraordinary election that I can’t let it go without unburdening myself of some observations.
Mayor Ivy Taylor had won election last year because of her performance as interim mayor after Julian Castro went to Washington to join President Obama’s cabinet. Less than two weeks after being appointed by her fellow council members, Taylor teamed with County Judge Nelson Wolff to summarily shut down an expensive street car project. It was wildly unpopular among North Side conservatives.
The move made her appear strong and decisive. Before the election she further solidified her support with North Side conservatives by opposing the inclusion of gays and others in a non-discrimination ordinance easily passed by City Council.
But as mayor her image of strength waned. The centerpiece of her term was a master plan developed through a lengthy and widespread public process. But the last step before council was for the plan to go through the developer-dominated Planning Commission, which removed a number of sticks for developers in the plan while retaining the carrots. When Nirenberg made motions to restore the document to what it was before the development interests weighed in, Taylor led the council in defeating his efforts. Developers have long been powerful at City Hall, but not popular at the ballot box.
Meanwhile, Nirenberg stoked passion among environmentalists who have long battled the developer establishment. He also easily won his own District 8, the largest of the North Side districts. And he put together a strong team to appeal to the city’s heavily Hispanic West and South Sides.
When Ivy Taylor led the first round with only 42 percent of the vote, it was clear she was in trouble. History was not on her side. This was our fourth mayoral runoff in the past 20 years. In each previous case — Howard Peak vs. Kay Turner in 1997, Phil Hardberger vs. Julian Castro in 2005, and Taylor vs. Leticia Van de Putte in 2015 — the person who trailed in the first round won in the runoff.
Taylor knew she was in trouble and brought in a new political consultant to lead her campaign. Colin Strother had a reputation as something of a bomb thrower and lived up to it. He started labeling Taylor’s opponent as “Liberal Ron Nirenberg,” and criticized him for being endorsed by the Castro twins. The campaign was in a bubble. Both Julian Castro and his congressman brother Joaquin have their critics, but they remain popular in the city as a whole. What’s more, San Antonio is like nearly all American cities. It is more liberal than conservative. So the Taylor runoff campaign backfired, and Nirenberg, trailing by 5 points in the first round, won the second by just under 10 points.
Meanwhile, the wild card in the race — Bexar County Democratic Chairman Manuel Medina — ran a comically bad campaign. He could have run as a local Bernie Sanders, seeking to mobilize Democratic voters who don’t normally vote in city elections. But he chose instead to run as a local Donald Trump. He painted a Trumpian distopian picture of the city, talked of “draining the local swamp” and opposed a record bond issue that passed by overwhelming numbers. He supported a right-wing legislative bill that would put city finances in a strait jacket. And he crazily sought and won the Tea Party endorsements of the likes of Jeff Judson, whose political appeal was such that he couldn’t win re-election to the Olmos Park City Council. The result: a pathetic 15 percent for someone who touted his skills as a political organizer, and growing unrest among local Democrats.