When President Obama appointed San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development last summer, he initiated some surprising changes in San Antonio’s political playbill. Those changes resulted in Diego Bernal’s decision this fall to give up his District 1 Council spot to run for Texas House seat 123, which Mike Villarreal is vacating to run for mayor. I paid a visit to Bernal at his campaign office to discuss his whirlwind experience on council and his bid in an election that could happen within weeks.
A campaign for higher office was perhaps inevitable for Bernal, who had begun to view the scope of council rule as somewhat limited. “School finance, health care, small business … equal rights, predatory lending—these are all, at their core, legislative issues,” he says. “They’re issues that can really only be resolved—in a significant way—in Austin.”
His experience as a civil rights attorney and his association with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has undoubtedly shaped his public message. “I do this work because I care about people,” he says. “There’s a real, human element to every decision you make, whether it’s a civil rights decision or a business decision or a decision about streets and sidewalks. People are going to have certain experiences because of those decisions. At the end of the day, everything you do is about people.”
Although he’s tried to maintain his “people first” perspective, he acknowledges that things work a little bit differently at City Hall and beyond.
“In politics, you have the element of relationships, you have the extra element of colleagues who may see things differently and you also have the element of negotiation and compromise,” he says.
Bernal’s greatest hits certainly look like the work of a civil rights attorney who happened to have a seat on the dais, but the speed with which he tackled issues such as payday lender regulations and the expansion of the Non-discrimination Ordinance was unusual, according to some observers. “It usually takes the first two years just to learn where the bathroom is,” says one former Councilwoman, admiringly.
“I didn’t have time to learn where the bathroom was,” Bernal says. “I just decided to hold it so that I could get as much done as I could. I never assumed that I would be re-elected.”
Through his signature bi-monthly event Coffee with the Councilman, he was able to create relationships with his constituents, which also helped to bring him a bit of local fame (Cured Chef Steve McHugh portrayed Bernal in last year’s Fiesta Cornyation). “I always made myself available to answer questions. I never hid and I’m really, really proud of that,” Bernal says.
He’s proud of the payday loan and NDO laws that Council passed with his leadership. Council also approved an ordinance that gives local businesses an advantage when competing for city contracts during Bernal’s tenure.
Bernal, who was this column’s first subject in 2011 when he was a District 1 candidate, reflects upon the changes that have come since then. “I grew my hair out. I got engaged. I’m certainly a few pounds heavier,” he says, with a boyish grin. “I also think I’m different in that … that Diego, I think, was unwilling to compromise.”
He learned that skill on the dais. There are times he felt he “compromised too much,” but he says he’s discovered his “limits in terms of compromising.”
“Working across the aisle and working with people who think differently than you shouldn’t be a calling card, it should be a prerequisite.”
If Bernal makes it to Austin, his new skills will be put to the test in the Republican-dominated House. But as he waits for the governor to call the special election for 123 (in which he’ll face public relations businesswoman Melissa Aguillon), he isn’t relying on the Castro pixie dust to push him to victory.
“When someone looks back on my career 20 years from now, sure, who I was associated with might be part of the introduction of the story, but my own work over 20 years—if I’m lucky enough to have a larger body of work—would have to stand on my own.”
He also seems to have found a philosophical nook for his personal life. “You have have your own life, your own love life, your own spiritual life—your own artistic life, in my case,” says Bernal, whose musical endeavors effortlessly blend beats, hip-hop and Latin music. He found the time to release another album in 2013.
That makes you a better professional.” He plans to split time between his family in the Valley and his soon-to-be in-laws during the upcoming holidays. Is this related to the wisdom you gained about needing to compromise in the political world? “Absolutely,” he says, without missing a beat.