Greatest Hits & Deep Cuts: Power Brokers in San Antonio

click to enlarge Julián Castro - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
Julián Castro

City council members come and go. CEOs of major corporations occasionally dip their toes into broader community affairs but mostly stay busy keeping shareholders happy. Institutional leaders are powerful advocates for specific causes but rarely engage in log rolling or wielding the broad power needed to consistently make things happen.

So, with all of those ruled out, who are the power brokers moving San Antonio forward (or backward, in some cases) in 2019? They’re figures who have longevity, a seat of power and the ability to get the ear of decision-makers across governments, business and the community. Here are some the most influential players in the Alamo City.

Nelson Wolff, Bexar County Judge
At 78, Wolff has seen most of San Antonio’s major recent developments from the inside. That includes Toyota locating a manufacturing site in the city, an extension of the San Antonio River Walk to the old Spanish missions, the expansion of county public health services through the University Health System and improvements to San Pedro Creek as both flood control and economic generator. He’s been a key player not just in the county-owned, Spurs-run AT&T Center but in every so-far-unsuccessful attempt at luring a major-league sports team to the city. Plus, he’s only the second person in San Antonio history to have served as both mayor and county judge.

Paula Gold-Williams, CEO of CPS Energy
After stints as a financial exec in the regional operations of Time Warner Cable and the Luby’s restaurant chain, Gold-Williams joined the city’s primary power supplier in 2004 as a controller and moved up the ranks to CEO in 2016. The buck stops with her when it comes to keeping the lights on, the air conditioning running and the machines of industry juiced up. She’s also been responsible for pumping the brakes on the utility’s headlong jump into an aggressive renewable energy strategy. Gold-Williams’ moves in infrastructure and energy make her a key player in economic development behind the scenes.

Graham Weston, entrepreneur and philanthropist
As founder and former chairman and CEO of tech firm Rackspace, Weston left a legacy by creating a major high-tech employer. His contributions, however, go much deeper. Weston’s downtown projects include paving the way for a consolidation of city offices, an expanded UTSA downtown campus and the first new downtown office building development in decades. He also fostered a tech-friendly environment with the creation of incubator Geekdom.

Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio Mayor
Nirenberg was an outspoken, if wonkish, North Side councilman, but he found favor across a broad enough spectrum of the city to launch a 2017 run for mayor. In that position, he’s worked to push through housing initiatives and launch a plan to upgrade the fast-growing city’s transportation infrastructure. May’s citywide election will determine whether he’s earned enough public support to stay on this list.

Phil Hardberger, former mayor
As a lawyer, Hardberger’s wheeling and dealing goes way back, serving in both the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations. But that dealmaking prowess really hit its stride when he served as a powerful mayor who demanded a greater workload for the city council. He served his two terms from 2005 through 2009 but managed to push through a term-limit revamp that let both mayors and councilmembers serve four terms of two years each. He also championed the purchase of land for the creation of a sprawling North Side park ultimately named in his honor. Hardberger, 84, is still politically active and helped broker a deal between the city, neighborhoods and Walmart when residents objected to the retail giant setting up so close to their homes and Hardberger Park.

Julián Castro, former mayor
Castro lost his first bid for mayor after hitting the term limit for his council seat. However, he came back strong in his 2009 mayoral bid. While in office, the young politician created SA2020, a community-wide visioning effort for the city and a program to offer college guidance to local students. His crowning achievement, however, may have been selling voters on a $30 million sales tax to fund the Pre-K 4 SA pre-kindergarten program. Castro left the office to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development — experience that helped elevate him to become a serious contender as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate. He’s since entered the crowded field for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.

click to enlarge Patti Radle - SA2020
Patti Radle

Bill Greehey, chairman of NuStar Energy and philanthropist
Greehey turned a struggling Valero Energy into a thriving refining company that put San Antonio on the energy sector’s map. Since then, he’s turned a former Valero spinoff, NuStar, into another locally based Fortune 500 company. He’s also donated heavily to children’s cancer research, had a business school named after him at St. Mary’s University and partnered with influential private donors, the city and the county to start Haven for Hope, a comprehensive program and shelter to aid homeless people.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor
Cisneros spent eight years as mayor of San Antonio and later did a stint in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development. He also serves as chairman of two companies that invest in affordable housing projects and transportation infrastructure. Business aside, his family’s political roots are deep in San Antonio soil, and numerous politicians, including presidential-hopeful Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, have sought his counsel. He’s also a former San Antonio Chamber of Commerce chairman and founding chairman of the public-private BioMed SA partnership, formed to promote biosciences development in the city.

COPS/Metro Alliance, community organization
While not a single person, the enduring power of the combination of Communities Organized for Public Service and Metro Alliance lies in its numbers and not having a dependency on a single leader. Those numbers come from church congregations, schools and unions, who first unified in 1974 to demand better drainage, streets and police protection for underserved areas of the city.

Patti Radle, SAISD Board of Trustees President
Radle finishes her term this year as president and District 5 representative for the San Antonio Independent School District, but her public service track record is long. Radle and her husband Rod serve as volunteer directors of Inner City Development, which they founded in their West Side home in 1972. The organization has given rise to other groups including the San Antonio Alternative Housing Corp. and San Anto Cultural Arts. Radle was considered a voice for the voiceless when she served on council from 2003 to 2007, and she remains a strong public policy advocate.

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