Royal flush

As Mary Alice Cisneros exits the Olmos Park Panchito’s on a Monday morning, you’re suddenly reminded that you’re observing Alamo City royalty.

It’s not so much what Cisneros says as she greets old friends, curious constituents, and police officers. For the most part, she offers little more than small talk and pleasantries, albeit in both English and Spanish. It’s the way people respond to her, the way they beam when she walks by, the sense of deference that instantly grips them when she speaks.

The peculiar nature of royalty is that you never have to justify yourself; that you’re reflexively worshiped, regardless of your personal attributes.

For most of her adult life, Mary Alice Cisneros has experienced that sort of unquestioning approval in this city. In the early ’80s, San Antonians admired her as the young wife of golden-boy Mayor Henry Cisneros; later in the decade, they worried for her as her infant son John Paul successfully battled a rare heart ailment; they sympathized with her as she endured the public humiliation of her husband’s scandalous, career-shattering affair with fundraiser Linda Jones Medlar; and they supported her during her brief stint in the early ’90s as a school-board representative.

A few months ago, Cisneros’s bid for a second term as District 1 councilmember appeared to be a coronation-in-waiting, a landslide affirmation of the power that the Cisneros name still holds in SA. But a combination of political gaffes, growing constituent grumbling, and a surprisingly aggressive campaign by 25-year-old computer consultant Chris Forbrich has turned this into what looks suspiciously like a legitimate race. `See “Fighting the dynasty,” March 11.`

As a result, for the first time in her public life, Mary Alice Cisneros has to defend herself. She seems to understand that. After skipping out on a May 17 Shearer Hills Neighborhood Association candidate forum and showing up close to the end of a River Road forum a few days later, she’s begun to show signs of buckling down. On Monday, March 23, she joined rivals Forbrich and Ruby Krebs in a KTSA radio discussion. Such events are standard procedure for most local politicians, but Cisneros’s participation stood out because she had previously shunned live radio interviews with the obstinacy of a reclusive pop star. On March 25, she arrived (only a few minutes late) for an Alta Vista Neighborhood forum, calmly crediting herself with bolstering the city’s police and fire departments, and working with VIA Metropolitan to boost downtown transportation.

Given her apparent reticence to speak to the media or mix it up with her political opponents, it’s only natural that some observers wonder what makes Mary Alice run. Why does she bother at all when the process seems antithetical to her personality? She is, after all, the same person who three decades ago told reporter Rick Casey that dealing with her husband’s non-stop City Council work schedule had been “horrendous.”

“My son went off to college and he was the youngest,” Cisneros says, by way of explaining why a Council seat appealed to her in 2007. “I’ve always stayed involved in community activities. There’s so much to do in San Antonio.”

The complaints about Cisneros are remarkably consistent, whether you’re speaking to a neighborhood-association rep or a City Hall insider. Her critics say Cisneros is disengaged and scattered; that she carelessly commits staff members to multiple events at the same time, and then impulsively fires them when they can’t live up to her expectations; that she fails to respond to calls or emails from District 1 residents and rarely shows up at neighborhood meetings.

Underdogs routinely attempt to portray incumbents as remote and inaccessible, but in this case the arguments seem to have teeth. David Longoria, vice president of the North Central Neighborhood Association, says, “I’m fed up with her. She doesn’t do anything for the neighborhood associations, doesn’t answer calls when you call her office, doesn’t return calls. You try to get ahold of her on little matters for the city, she doesn’t respond. She’s mostly concerned with what goes on downtown. If there’s a dignitary, there she is.”

Longoria bitterly cites a meeting he organized to address gang fights at the North East Independent School District’s alternative school. He brought together representatives from the school district, VIA Metropolitan, the city gang unit, business community, and various neighborhood associations.

“We started the meeting, and, of course, Mary Alice wasn’t there,” Longoria says. “Halfway through the meeting, she shows up. That’s an insult to me and the people I had invited there. She had no idea what was going on in her district. The whole, entire meeting, what was Mary Alice doing? Working on her Blackberry — offering no input whatsoever.”

During KTSA’s radio forum, a caller, who described himself as a King William business owner, challenged Cisneros by asking why she failed to return the 14 calls he made to her office. Unfortunately, this discussion thread deteriorated into a tiresome comedy of errors, with Forbrich stating that Cisneros had also ignored his numerous letters to her office; Cisneros responding that she held a copy of two letters Forbrich had written her after he’d announced his candidacy; and Forbrich explaining that the letters he referred to were written way before he became a candidate.

Even non-partisan, above-the-fray players in the district can barely conceal their disenchantment with Cisneros’s performance. Patricia Doria, president of the Los Angeles Heights/Keystone Neighborhood Association, recently told the Current that Cisneros had never attended a meeting of her group, even missing a gathering held a week after two fatal shootings occurred at the Extreme Sports Bar. Doria also recalled an asociation meeting at which one of Cisneros’ assistants waited outside, stubbornly insisting that the councilwoman was on her way, but Cisneros never arrived.

“Obviously, I have 120,000 residents in my district,” Cisneros says in her own defense. “So it’s hard to try to make every meeting of every neighborhood association. So my staff and I, we divide and we try to help in areas where neighborhoods want us to particularly pay attention to certain things.”

The lingering impression of Cisneros as a half-hearted, unfocused public servant is buttressed by her demeanor at Council meetings. She rarely speaks, and when she does, it’s usually just to reiterate what her colleagues have already said. With unflagging politeness, she thanks representatives from City agencies for their presentations, but seldom offers a noteworthy insight on any issue.

Rudy Moreno, president of the Edison Neighborhood Association, offers a mild defense of Cisneros, saying that her staffers come to his association’s meetings and regularly call in to check on issues of importance to the neighborhood.

While she took heat for her absence at last month’s Los Angeles Heights summit, Cisneros has subsequently managed to turn the club-violence issue in her favor, arguing that a letter-writing campaign from her office persuaded the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to shut down Extreme (she also held a press conference last month outside the much-derided topless bar Club Babylon, pushing for local authorities to close it down).

Residents grumbled for at least a year about what they perceived to be Cisneros’s unreliability before she started to take some hits in the local media. Last October, her Council peers openly questioned her last-minute introduction of an amendment which disregarded the recommendation of City Staff and took a lucrative Westside towing contract away from Allied Towing in favor of Assured, a company that had lobbied the Council for a bigger contract.

“It became obvious that we had to spread `the towing contract` around,” she says. “In doing that, that’s the way it came out. It wasn’t because one was better than the other. I don’t think that was the deal.”

Cisneros also drew some ridicule for her offhand suggestion that the city honor writer Sandra Cisneros (no relation) on the 25th anniversary of the publication of her novella, The House on Mango Street, by renaming a King William street after the book. And her re-election campaign took an odd turn last month when Kelton Morgan, her campaign manager `and occasional Current freelance photographer`, responded to an email Forbrich had sent to Express-News reporter Tracy Idell Hamilton with a snarky “quit while you’re behind” email to Forbrich, allegedly designed to look as if it had come from Hamilton. Cisneros demoted Morgan shortly after the brouhaha, and replaced him with Danny Meza, son of her longtime friend and advocate, Choco Meza. “We discussed it and I took action on it,” Cisneros says. “`Morgan` responded in that email and it was very questionable.”

All these campaign headaches pale next to the migraines induced when Cisneros, in a closed-door February session, reportedly encouraged the Council to consider selling Market Square and La Villita to the Cortez family, owners of Mi Tierra and La Margarita. When Councilmember Lourdes Galvan publicly blasted the plan, Cisneros quickly denied that a sale was ever on the table.

In fairness to Cisneros, concerns about the financial viability of Market Square and La Villita did not begin with her. In 2007, the City commissioned a retail management study of the historic properties to explore ways to make them profitable. Turning the properties over to a private company seemed to be a logical move, and the Cortez family was as qualified as any other choice.

Cisneros’s mistake appears to be that she essentially lobbied the Council on behalf of the Cortez family, rather than allowing the Council to open up the process to interested bidders. An open-records request by the Current indicates that in December 2008, the City’s Downtown Operations reps planned a meeting with the Cortez family to talk about the retail-management study, and Cisneros merely asked to be present at the meeting.

“I smile every time `people ask about it`,” Cisneros jokes, when the subject of Market Square and La Villita comes up.

“We began to hear that the report was ready, and we began to hear some reports on it,” she says. “The deficit issue kind of awakened everybody to the fact that both of them were in trouble, and no real manager onsite. We’re going to have to make changes over there.”

Cisneros continues to be bothered that executive-session discussions not meant for public consumption were leaked to the press.

“It got leaked out by a councilperson, who didn’t want to identify herself or himself. I think you can make some allegations that’s it’s a councilperson that’s probably running for mayor,” she says. “And it seemed like there was a plan. Even if there is a plan, you either direct staff or you kill it on arrival. And we killed this on arrival.”

Cisneros is a stiff, reticent public speaker. In interview situations, she’s guarded, if not defensive. Generally, she seems most comfortable mining the kind of public-private partnerships that her long list of business connections enables her to put together with ease. Her most confident, impassioned moments during her interview with the Current come when she talks about projects such as the Granados Center, a facility that caters to seniors, created by a property donation from the Granados family to the City. The biggest irony of her campaign is that this innate strength — bridging the gap between the public and private sectors — sent her campaign reeling when she attempted a public-private partnership to revitalize Market Square and La Villita.

Much like Diane Cibrian in her mayoral bid, however, Cisneros clings to the broad popularity of this Council and the leadership of outgoing Mayor Phil Hardberger. Ultimately, Hardberger’s coattails may prove more valuable to her this year than those of her husband.

“This Council has been a pretty important one in the legacies that Mayor Hardberger will leave this city. Thanks to Voelcker Park, we’ve added more greenspace than any other Council,” she says. “He will get lauded for that, and so will we. Also, the Mission River Improvements, both to the missions to the south as well as the River North. We’ve put in a lot of money to do that, and the city will be better for it.”

For those who argue that Cisneros only shows interest in photo ops, Choco Meza offers an alternative perspective on the burdens of carrying the Cisneros name. “One of the reasons I was very happy that she decided to run for office was because I saw what she would do in her neighborhood,” Meza says. “A lot of people from all parts of town will just ring their doorbell and ask, ‘Can you help me with this?’ People who have not had jobs, people who’ve been homeless, people who just got divorced. I think her heart’s in the right place.” •

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