Manny Pelaez may have an early jump on San Antonio's mayoral election, but it's still wide open

Political observers say Pelaez's missteps and voters' thirst for an outside candidate make the next election hard to predict.

click to enlarge District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez speaks at a public event. - Courtesy Photo / Manny Pelaez Campaign
Courtesy Photo / Manny Pelaez Campaign
District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez speaks at a public event.

After months of hinting that he's set his sights on holding San Antonio's highest elected office, District 8 City Councilman Manny Pelaez last week announced that he is officially running for mayor.

Pelaez's business-community support, relatively high name recognition and fundraising capabilities suggest he's starting with an advantage, San Antonio political strategist Christian Archer said. The question is how long that will last.

"I would say the clear front runner today is Manny Pelaez," Archer said. "He has probably been the most aggressive. When you turn around at every event, Manny Pelaez is working the room. But when the ballot actually comes around, that's a different thing."

Despite having key playing pieces in place, Pelaez carries baggage as a result of political blunders over the past 12 months, according to experts. His about-face on a city council vote over whether to pass an Israel-Palestine ceasefire resolution could bite him in the ass, they argue.

And with the actual election more than a year out, Pelaez isn't the only council member with eyes on the prize. District 9's John Courage has already thrown his hat into the ring, and District 4's Adriana Rocha Garcia and District 6's Melissa Cabello Havrda are considering runs.

What's more, after seven years of Ron Nirenberg, who also previously represented District 8 before becoming mayor, San Antonio voters could be more inclined to favor an outsider than another city hall insider, Archer added.


Although Pelaez might have grabbed plenty of headlines leading up to his big announcement, they've not all been positive. One of his most notable moves over the past year has been jumping head-first into one of the most divisive topics in recent memory, observers said.

For those who need a reminder, Pelaez signed on to a memo in December supporting a motion to discuss an Israel-Palestine ceasefire resolution, which was supported by District 2 City Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and District 4 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, the most progressive members of the dais.

To hold a special meeting, three council members must support the motion, making Pelaez's signature the linchpin.

A meeting was scheduled for Jan. 11, then Pelaez asked that it be postponed until the following month. As February rolled around, he got cold feet again, eventually withdrawing his signature altogether.

Pelaez's decision led to protesters shutting down a City Council meeting the week when the vote was scheduled to take place. Members ducked out to an Executive Session as protesters held signs and chanted "Free Palestine" in the chambers.

Pelaez was out of town during that meeting.

"I think it hurts him today, I think it hurts him in terms of when it comes to making a big decision [as mayor]: how are you going to make it?" Archer said of Pelaez's decision to wade into the ceasefire issue. "It's certainly recoverable, but he's going to spend time answering that question, and how does that help you when you want to talk about a vision for the future of San Antonio?"

Archer continued: "No one cares what a city council member thinks about the war in the Middle East. And yet, you know, it became an issue that a lot of people got hurt by, Manny in particular."

Pelaez isn't alone in being stung by local tensions over the Gaza conflict. Courage was heckled by pro-Palestinian activists during the January announcement of his mayoral run.

Political strategist Kelton Morgan, who ran Nirenberg's 2017 and 2019 mayoral campaigns, said the only memorable thing about Courage's press conference was that ended up "a disaster."

Pelaez likely opted for a video announcement to avoid succumbing to a similar situation, Morgan said.

Advantage? What advantage?

With 13 months until election day, Archer and Morgan agree that Courage's and Pelaez's decisions to announce early come down to fundraising. Once a candidate files the paperwork to run for mayor, they can receive individual donations of up to $1,000 — twice the donation cap for those running for city council.

"Money is the mother's milk of politics, and Manny has been making phone calls, and he's been aligning for more than a year with people that would give him the upper hand in terms of running for mayor," Archer said.

Even so, Morgan warns that once a candidate announces, they have to keep up the momentum until the end or risk being forgotten. He also questioned whether either candidate has the appeal to deep-pocketed donors to take full advantage of an early announcement.

"I don't see people lining up down the block to write $1,000 checks to either of those guys," Morgan said.

Meanwhile, the council experience Courage, Pelaez, Garcia and Havrda have makes all of them political insiders at a time that Archer said many in the San Antonio electorate may be craving an outsider.

"In many election cycles, it's been a disadvantage to be on council," Archer said. "I haven't seen any recent polling, but it's not like City Council's [approval rating] is polling any higher than 40% or 50%. So, it may not be an advantage to be on council. It might be an advantage to be an outsider that doesn't have a record — and there have been mistakes made by all these council members."

At least two potential mayoral contenders would fit the outsider bill. Former Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, a Republican who formerly worked under Govs. Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, is said to be weighing a run, as is San Antonio tech entrepreneur Beto Altamirano, whom Archer describes as having the charisma and vision of former Mayor Henry Cisneros.

Pelaez, a corporate attorney on labor issues, has tried to present himself as a visionary by using that buzzword and others such as "innovation" and "potential" in his campaign video. However, Morgan questions how well those actually play to voters.

"Sometimes people like to think it's about big grand thoughts and ideas," Morgan said. "But, municipal elections typically are about basic things that the city is supposed to do. [This election] is going to be about crime, it's going to be about public safety, traffic, infrastructure and it's going to be about basic city services."

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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