Five years ago, Justin Rodriguez observed then-District 7 Councilman (and current mayoral frontrunner) Julián Castro at City Council meetings and felt sorry for him.
“I remember thinking, ‘What a poor guy, man. That job sucks. I would never do that,’” Rodriguez says with a hearty laugh. “Because he would just never be able to make folks happy.”
These days, Rodriguez has a first-person perspective on the pitfalls of trying to keep your constituents content, as he seeks a second term for the very same position Castro held five years ago. Like Castro, Rodriguez is a 34-year-old attorney widely perceived to be one of the brightest lights on the local political scene, and that perception can cut both ways. On the one hand, it generates a certain buzz for you, but it also opens you up to charges that Council is merely a convenient stepping stone for a politician eyeing bigger prizes.
So it’s understandable that Rodriguez downplays his own ambitions and likes to call himself a “reluctant politician.” There’s nothing more appealing to political spectators than the politician with ambivalence for the game. But Rodriguez sounds convincing when he suggests that he’s often needed some cajoling from others before pondering a political run.
“I was always kind of a quiet kid. I never really envisioned myself being in politics,” he recalls. “There were folks that kind of pushed me, even classmates that, for whatever reason, felt like I had some leadership qualities. So I was the senior-class president. But I dreaded it, man.”
The 2009 District 7 race has the perfect symmetry of a classic boxing series. In 2007, Rodriguez challenged incumbent Elena Guajardo and won a resounding victory. Two years later, the two are again battling for the Council seat, with Guajardo as the challenger looking to reclaim her title.
Guajardo, 56, has built a campaign around her status as a retiree with plenty of free time. She insists that she, unlike Rodriguez, can be a “full-time councilmember.” It’s her most persuasive argument, given that District 7 is an unwieldy, demanding stretch of San Antonio that extends from the inner-city neighborhoods of the West Side to the sprawling developments north of 1604.
“When I came into office, I quickly realized that there was a real cynicism in government,” Guajardo says. “I’m retired, so I went to work every day. There wasn’t another colleague that could say that, besides the Mayor. Patti Radle was still doing a little teaching, but she had cut back in her second term. So I was the only one who could say, ‘This is what I do, every day.’”
Guajardo argues that Rodriguez has been an absentee councilmember, a charge that led him to research his own record and determine that he’d been present for more than 90 percent of Council votes. Most recently, she’s described herself as “perplexed” by Rodriguez’s work as a broker for Cabrera Capital Markets, a company that has provided bond underwriting for CPS and SAWS. Rodriguez counters that after he recused himself from three Council votes dealing with CPS, Cabrera reps agreed to cut off any financial dealings with CPS and SAWS for the remainder of Rodriguez’s time on the Council.
Guajardo recalls her two years on the Council as a time when she did “wonderful things” for the district and “made believers” of constituents resigned to the idea that their neighborhoods had been forgotten by the City.
Unfortunately for Guajardo, her infrastructure-building efforts were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the February 2006 suicide of Oak Hills subdivision resident George Dickerson. On January 30, 2006, Dickerson sent Guajardo an email from his Zachry Construction work account, complaining about criminal activity stemming from the presence of the dance club Graham Central Station near his neighborhood. Dickerson blamed Graham Central Station for enticing “undesirable, low class elements from bad parts of the city into our upper class part of the city.” In a second email, sent eight minutes after the first, Dickerson insisted that his previous email should be considered “completely confidential and not for public distribution.”
Nonetheless, Guajardo informed his supervisors about the email. Zachry quickly fired the 27-year employee, and he committed suicide two days later. The tragic incident unleashed a torrent of vitriol at Guajardo, who was routinely blamed for Dickerson’s suicide, while Zachry escaped with nary a blemish on its local reputation.
Guajardo has become accustomed to questions about Dickerson, but when the subject comes up, she still speaks slowly and tentatively. “Hindsight’s an amazing teacher,” she says. “I continue to pray for the family.” She adds that when she knocks on doors in District 7, Dickerson’s suicide is not what people want to talk about.
They may not bring it up to her face, but Ted Guerra, former president of the Jefferson Neighborhood Association, says residents continue to question Guajardo’s handling of the incident. “That’s a concern that they have,” Guerra says. “I don’t think it’s a legitimate concern, but all they know is that she got him fired and he killed
Guerra says that Guajardo “did a great job” on the Council, crediting her with infrastructure improvements such as a much-needed, million-dollar alley grate project in the Jefferson area. In spite of his admiration for her, however, he says he’s voting for Rodriguez. He describes it as a tough choice between two worthy, experienced candidates.
The wild card in the race is 18-year-old Robert Garibay, a 2008 Business Careers High School graduate who criticizes Rodriguez for “a lack of presence in the community.” Running a defiantly low-budget campaign, he’s been getting by on slightly more than $300 in campaign contributions, compared to more than $41,000 for Rodriguez (including $500 from Spurs owner Peter Holt) and nearly $23,000 for Guajardo.
The stylistic differences between Rodriguez and Guajardo are endless: She’s a full generation older, an earthy, plainspoken, out-of-the-closet lesbian who spent most of her career working for Southwestern Bell. He’s a young family man, an accomplished attorney, and a polished speaker who’s also the Council’s most reliable provider of self-deprecating wisecracks.
The biggest distinction between them, however, is that Guajardo is micro while Rodriguez is macro. While Guajardo views herself as a nuts-and-bolts, small-picture neighborhood advocate, Rodriguez has been — next to Mayor Phil Hardberger — this Council’s supreme big-picture policy architect, making his mark with citywide initiatives meant to create long-term change.
Rodriguez took the lead on pushing the city toward green-energy alternatives, well before Hardberger had crafted his Mission Verde plan. “Every week we’d have these contracts coming through Council, and it would be purchasing new police vehicles, purchasing new garbage trucks. So I thought we should have some type of fleet purchasing plan that eventually will lead us to hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles across the board,” Rodriguez says. “So that was one of the initiatives, and `Hardberger` said, ‘Go ahead. I’m not going to put the brakes on it. We’ll figure it in the bigger picture at some point. With the Mayor’s backing, it worked out great.’”
Rodriguez also pushed through a pilot program restricting cell-phone usage in 18 high-density school zones, employing his consensus-building skills to scale back an initial plan that would have banned drivers from using cell phones in any of the city’s 1,000-plus school zones.
On a Council noteworthy for its lock-step allegiance to Hardberger’s agenda, Rodriguez has also shown a rare willingness to go against the grain. He fought last year to reduce a projected 5-percent CPS rate hike, convinced that the utility had not “done enough outreach to justify it.” Rodriguez says Hardberger and his staff “got a little bit upset. They claimed it was non-negotiable. I said, ‘Everything’s negotiable.’” Eventually, Rodriguez succeeded in whittling the rate increase down to 3.5 percent.
Rodriguez’s boldest stance came last December when, in the middle of a Sheryl Sculley love-fest that resulted in the city manager receiving a lavish new contract, he cast the lone dissenting vote.
Rodriguez says he was concerned that the contract contained no “performance-evaluation instrument” for Sculley and that the severance language was “very vague and very ambiguous.” He worried that the contract would enable Sculley to walk away “based on her personal perception that she no longer had the majority support of the Council. If we went against staff recommendation on any given item, she could interpret that as, ‘I no longer have the confidence of this Council. I’m out of here. Give me my $600,000.’”
According to Rodriguez, Hardberger was “pretty upset” that the councilman prevented the contract vote from being unanimous, but Rodriguez’s stand earned him praise from the local media — particularly when it was revealed that he was the only council member who actually read the contract before voting on it.
Rodriguez insists that his focus is on this race, but the rumor mill suggests that he might have a run for the county commission or state legislature in his future.
“I would love to continue serving the community in some capacity,” he says. “I think because of my interest in policy-making, probably the state legislature is something that interests me more than county commissioner or anything else. But that’s so far down the road, it’s more other people’s plans for me than my own.” •
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