Easy Target?: November’s Charter Vote Could Spell Trouble for Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Reelection — Assuming He Has a Real Challenger

click to enlarge BRYAN RINDFUSS
Bryan Rindfuss
Editor's Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.

San Antonio voters’ November approval of propositions B and C, two of the punitive charter changes put forth by the city’s fire union, is the kind of rebuke no mayor wants — especially not six months before another election to keep his job.

But that’s what Mayor Ron Nirenberg got.

Nirenberg, who faces reelection in May, was out front in the fight against the two amendments, which limit the salary of future city managers and give the union power to unilaterally force contract talks into binding arbitration.

And the results, political observers said, signal strong anti-status quo feelings from local voters.

“My conclusion after observing the vote is that Nirenberg’s support isn’t that deep and that he’s vulnerable,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Indeed, nearly 366,600 voters weighed in on Proposition B, with more than 59 percent casting ballots in favor. The number of “yes” votes alone is more than double the total turnout in each of the past two mayoral elections.

Nirenberg’s focus on equity over unbridled development and his refusal to chase the 2020 Republican convention didn’t win points with the city’s old-line business establishment. That may leave him open to a developer-backed challenger, who could leverage the traditionally higher turnout of the city’s wealthier, whiter and more conservative North Side.

The North Side’s districts 8, 9 and 10 cast the largest number of votes in the last May citywide election, tallying 12,900, 16,000 and 13,500 respectively, according to Sanders’ data. By comparison, voters in downtown’s District 1 cast just 10,300.

Even so, a business-backed candidate has yet to materialize.

As of press time, the only three challengers that have filed are Tony Diaz, John Velasquez and Matthew Piña. Diaz and Velasquez are repeat long-shot candidates, while Piña ran as a Libertarian to unseat Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

The wild card may be District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse, council’s sole supporter of the union’s charter amendments and a frequent critic of departing City Manager Sheryl Sculley, at whom Prop B was aimed.

Brockhouse’s willingness to publicly scrap with Nirenberg hints at a run. However, the councilman said he’s still gauging whether it’s the right move for his family and if his underdog campaign has a shot at taking out the incumbent mayor.

Plus, Brockhouse would be far from a conventional choice as a business candidate. His support of the charter amendments put him at odds with every chamber of commerce in the city.

“I’m the most pro-business guy on the council, but there are other pieces, like my support of the amendments, that pissed them off,” said Brockhouse, who won’t announce whether he plans to run until February 9.

Even if a solid business candidate does materialize, there’s no guarantee voters will want to change course, said Arturo Vega, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University. Some of the biggest issues Nirenberg ran on, such as revamping the city’s transportation strategy, are still in the takeoff stage.

“It’s hard to dislodge an incumbent unless there’s been a major scandal,” Vega said.

Not to mention, Nirenberg’s handling of Sculley’s departure shows a willingness to deliver the change voters demanded in November while promising stability to business interests. Barring a major last-minute surprise, council will vote January 31 to approve Erik Walsh, a San Antonio native and longtime Sculley lieutenant.

“That choice manages to address the business community concerns,” Vega said. “That community wants a known quantity.”

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