After the runoff, San Antonio may have its most progressive council ever. What does that really mean?

click to enlarge District 2 challenger Jalen McKee-Rodriguez arrives at Tucker’s Kozy Korner on Saturday night. - San Antonio Heron / Chris Stokes
San Antonio Heron / Chris Stokes
District 2 challenger Jalen McKee-Rodriguez arrives at Tucker’s Kozy Korner on Saturday night.
Saturday's runoff election is sending four new faces to city council, all of whom ran on progressive platforms and two of whom beat incumbents.

District 2 victor Jalen McKee-Rodriguez is the first openly gay man to serve on council and pledged not to accept donations from property developers, for example. Fellow council newcomer Teri Castillo of District 5 is a housing advocate who ran with an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, John Courage — the single incumbent who held on to his seat in the runoff — routed a challenge from an ideological conservative who tried to make the race in usually right-leaning District 9 about culture war issues.

Political observers already consider the current council one of the most progressive in San Antonio history, so it might be tempting to think the newcomers will shift things considerably further left. Not so fast, they caution.

Two of the newly elected members, District 1's Mario Bravo, an Environmental Defense Fund project manager, and District 3's Phyllis Viagran, who's worked on the digital divide and senior issues, are replacing progressive incumbents. Bravo beat out three-termer Roberto Treviño, while Viagran won a race to replace her sister Rebecca Viagran, who was term-limited out.

"I don't know if this really moves council that much further to the left," veteran Democratic campaign consultant Laura Barberena said. "You do have two people who are pretty progressive coming in, but at end of the day, you need six votes to get things done."

Barberena was involved in the campaigns of both the newly elected Viagran and Rudy Lopez, a left-of-center candidate who lost his race to represent District 5 to the considerably more progressive Castillo.

Texas Organizing Project Executive Director Michelle Tremillo, whose organization endorsed both Castillo and McKee-Rodriguez, said she doesn't expect the pair to completely remake council. Still, she sees potential wins from their presence on the dais.

For one, they're likely to bring needed scrutiny to the city's affordable housing efforts, she said. She also expects them to push for more accountability from CPS Energy under the city climate plan and to ensure talks for a new police contract center on keeping bad officers from returning to the force.

"These candidates just got elected by knocking on doors and having conversations with thousands of voters," Tremillo said. "Those conversation will be the foundation for their work at City Hall."

The presence of Castillo and McKee-Rodriguez could force the conversation left on some issues. However, the newcomers will risk angering constituents and looking like obstructionists if they dig in their heels and refuse to compromise, St. Mary's University political scientist Arturo Vega said.

"They can bring a very progressive agenda, but unless they're willing to build a consensus, they're not going to be very successful at getting it to take hold," he said. "My rule of politics is don't panic. Just because we've got a bunch of new faces on council doesn't mean we're going to swing too far one way or the other."

Vega points to Courage's reelection as a lesson. He said the two-term councilman was able to withstand a challenge from the right because he was able to deliver services for his constituents. Ultimately, those neighborhood issues are what drive turnout in council elections.

Barberena said the newcomers' success in sticking around for a second term and delivering on progressive policy objectives could largely come down to staffing choices they make as they look to navigate City Hall.

"A council office has to be responsive to the community," she said. "You need to surround yourself with staff who can help you balance your policy objectives with doing the day-to-day stuff you do for your constituents. It's not easy."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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