Filling Phil’s shoes

Two campaigns for San Antonio mayor are happening simultaneously this year.

In one campaign, Julián Castro is cruising to what looks like an inevitable — almost preordained — victory. This campaign has been like the final round of a title fight in which the champion holds a prohibitive lead on the scorecards. All he wants to do is dance around the ring for three minutes and stay out of enemy range.

The other campaign is the compelling one. It’s the battle happening between District 8 Councilwoman Diane Cibrian and marketing consultant Trish Deberry-Mejia for second place, in the hope that a silver medal might mean a one-on-one runoff with Castro.

DeBerry-Mejia has consistenly run second to Castro in polls, with Cibrian a distant third. But for all the antipathy stirred by her Type A personality (she was best described by KTSA radio host Jack Riccardi as “a can of Red Bull in a pantsuit”), no one can ever accuse Cibrian of being a quitter. When early polls showed her floundering in the single digits, rumors surfaced that she might pull out of the race. She laughed off the suggestion with this taunting March 9 blog post: “If you think I’m dropping out, you must be in one of Julián’s dreams.”

That sort of bravado is part of the complex, contradictory package that makes Cibrian the most fascinating candidate in the race, albeit a candidate whose personality annoys many voters. (Cibrian and Sheila McNeil declined to speak to the Current for this article. Elaine Wolff considers DeBerry-Mejia, page 12.)

All political candidates are driven and ambitious, but some (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama) manage to mask it behind it a genial, cool exterior. Cibrian is more like Richard Nixon in the sense that her intense craving for success is all on the surface. Whether she’s participating in a seemingly lighthearted radio discussion, commending her colleagues on the Council dais, or chatting up a constituent, she never drops her game face, never wastes an opportunity to sell herself.

That intensity results in some tiresome grandstanding at Council meetings, where her comments generally feel like lengthy campaign speeches. It can also lead to a prickly defensiveness, displayed to worst effect when she abruptly called a halt to an innocuous Fox 29 television interview in which she objected to being described as a “junior Councilmember.”

The flip side of Cibrian’s temperament issue is that she does her homework. She’s consistently prepared and well-informed, and over the course of the campaign, her ability to expound on policy details and patiently answer voters’ concerns (at a March 17 North Shearer Hills Neighborhood Association forum she painstakingly answered concerns from an elderly resident by speaking at great length about the size of city trash cans) has earned her grudging respect from those who expected her to self-destruct.

Even ideologically, Cibrian resists simple characterization. A self-described liberal who served as a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention (the Houston Chronicle photographed her holding up a “Texans Love Kennedy” placard at the convention), she nonetheless shows no sympathy for labor unions, and was willing to make Michael Shackelford, an unabashed, classic conservative, her chief Council aide, with the idea that Shackelford would provide a useful balance to her thinking.

From the beginning, Cibrian hoped that the mayoral forums and debates would set off some real fireworks between the candidates. She attached herself to the popular record of Mayor Phil Hardberger and, by implication, blasted Castro for serving on Council during the tumultuous Ed Garza era. At a downtown Tourism Council Forum, the first candidate gathering of the campaign, she pointedly argued that previous Councils balanced the budget “on the backs of police and fire departments,” and vowed that as mayor she would “never let that happen again.”

Despite her occasional attempts to rile Castro, most early campaign forums were filled with bland civility. Cibrian openly hoped that the 11th-hour entrance of her Council colleague Sheila McNeil would liven things up, but it swiftly became obvious that even when McNeil showed up for a candidate forum (which was pretty sporadically), McNeil preferred to chant her “Take the lead, San Antonio” mantra, rather than aggressively challenge any of her opponents.

So, in characteristic fashion, Cibrian took it upon herself to stir up a scrum. In an informal candidate gathering on WOAI’s SA Living last month, she used an exchange on the toll-roads issue to blast DeBerry-Mejia for her company’s participation in a proposed toll-road project. “The truth is she’s supporting toll roads, yet she’s going to profit off them.”

DeBerry, obviously blindsided, could only offer an anemic “There is no contract” defense, an argument accurate only in the strictest sense, because Guerra DeBerry Coody’s toll-road contract with the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority ran from October 2008 through February of this year.

On Friday, May 1, Cibrian interrupted an amiable candidate exchange on Chris Duel’s 1250 AM sports talk show with another verbal grenade. After DeBerry-Mejia spoke about the need to keep the Spurs in a state-of-the-art facility and complimented herself for “leading the charge” to pass a local venue tax, Cibrian shot back: “`DeBerry-Mejia` made $600,000 on the venue-tax campaign. She wasn’t a volunteer.”

DeBerry-Mejia disputed Cibrian’s figure, which led Cibrian to persistently ask, “Then how much did you make?” When an exasperated DeBerry-Mejia estimated that her company had brought in $200,000 for the campaign, you could feel Cibrian’s giddiness over the airwaves.

The dominant theme of these attacks is that DeBerry-Mejia is a mercenary, that her political loyalty is for sale, and that she pretends to serve the city while she’s really serving herself.

Whenever Cibrian and DeBerry-Mejia start throwing punches, Castro inevitably plays the high-minded diplomat, offering a gentle can’t-we-all-just-get along note, and returning to the topic at hand.

Castro can afford to be the statesman, because he’s held a commanding lead throughout this campaign. While he saw a 17-point advantage over Hardberger wither in the closing days of the 2005 mayoral campaign and lead to a runoff collapse, in the closing days of this campaign he projects as much serenity as could possibly be expected from a first-time parent with a seven-week-old baby.

“I’m feeling great,” Castro says. “It’s a combination of adrenaline and cautious optimism. I feel very good that we’ve put in a lot of hard work. But then you never know when the people go vote. I’m very hopeful we can win it on May 9.”

With the city facing a projected $11-million shortfall next year, and navigating its way through a national recession, the next mayor will not have the luxury of pursuing the kind of activist agenda that characterized Hardberger’s tenure.

Castro says the projected shortfall is not daunting, but will require some tough decisions. “The budgetary circumstances necessitate caution and discretion in terms of our spending,” he says. “There’s no question that in fiscal year 2010, we’re not going to be able to allocate resources the way that I would like to for different initiatives. Hopefully, starting in 2011, we can do more of that.”

Aware that the local business community viewed him with suspicion in 2005, he lined up key business endorsements early, and took pains to describe himself as a strong advocate of economic development. Both Cibrian and Deberry-Mejia attempted to raise doubts in the business community by noting that he’s received the endorsement of the influential Service Employees International Union.

“I believe that the other candidates are just trying to find any wedge to use and, to a certain crowd, just saying the word ‘union’ makes their blood boil,” Castro says. “And the candidates are hoping to curry favor with that crowd. I’ve said that I’m going to make sure that San Antonio is business-friendly, but I’m going to listen and work with everyone. I’m not going to villify one group just to curry favor with another group. That’s not the way that Mayor Hardberger has served as mayor, or any good leader is able to lead. The other candidates are trying to pit people against each other in an unsavory way.”

Castro says he’s proud of his council record, pointing to infrastructure improvements for the Jefferson/Woodlawn area after the devastating 2002 flood, and campaign-finance reform intended to restore confidence in city government in the wake of bribery scandals that drove John Sanders and Enrique “Kike” Martin from the Council.

“I was not very popular with my colleagues when I was on the Council, because I was willing to take them on,” he says. “One of the things that happens when politicians serve on a body together is there’s a certain amount of chumminess, and an unwillingness to hold your own colleagues accountable. Obviously, folks have to build up relationships so they can work well together. But when colleagues do things that don’t serve their constituents, but serve themselves, people need to call them out on that, and I did that.”

In the minds of most observers, the 2005 campaign began slipping away from Castro when his twin brother, State Representative Joaquin Castro, appeared at Fiesta River Parade, while Julián attended a neighborhood forum. Some observers, including mayoral contender Carroll Schubert, suggested that Castro had tried to deceive voters by sending his brother in his stead. The charges never made much sense, because only a reckless fool would attempt such a ruse in front of other council members, and even Castro’s critics would never call him a fool.

The true nadir of Castro’s campaign came later, when he pandered to Schubert’s conservative constituency during a fierce runoff battle with Hardberger, by accusing the former Fourth District Court of Appeals judge of releasing sex offenders and murderers during his time on the bench. Given Castro’s oft-repeated devotion to positive campaigning, this attack strategy smacked of electoral desperation induced by Hardberger’s surging poll numbers.

Castro defends the attacks by stating that they were consistent with the tenor of that tough campaign.

“Both campaigns engaged in some negative campaigning that year, unfortunately,” he says. “So I wouldn’t say that I regret it. It was the heat of a campaign. I don’t think it ever got personal, from me or from him. Obviously, the campaign didn’t turn out the way that I wanted it to, but I don’t know if it was that component or another component that did it. I just think we were swimming upstream in 2005. I think youth had a bad name at that time, and I was very young.”

Given Castro’s bad luck with the 2005 runoff, the March entrance of Sheila McNeil in this year’s race should have been a major cause for concern. The immediate assumption among local political observers was that the presence of a fourth major contender in the race would make a runoff likely. That scenario seems much less probable today, because McNeil’s presence in the race has bewildered all but her most devoted followers. Regularly missing opportunities to debate her opponents, and lacking a compelling message, she’s run a campaign that feels more like an act of self-indulgence than a committed effort to provide a new vision for the city.

It speaks poorly for McNeil’s two terms on the Council that the candidates vying to fill her District 2 seat uniformly describe her as inaccessible and impulsive. Dianne Green, former president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, says McNeil first alienated her constituents by supporting the 2006 painting of a mural on the Nolan Street bridge underpass, as part of that year’s Clogged Caps Aerosol Art Festival. Green says McNeil made little effort to inform neighborhood residents about the project in advance.

“As it turns out, this became a standard modus operandi, to do the minimal amount that she has to do to contact people in the neighborhood before she does something,” Green says. “I found this to be true on a number of issues that came up in the neighborhood. She’d engage in a neighborhood meeting and get the response of the neighborhood, and then ignore the neighborhood.”

The chorus of opposition only grew louder when McNeil unilaterally pushed for the sale of Healy-Murphy Park to a private developer for the purpose of building a hotel.

Green says McNeil’s “solution to problems is almost non-negotiable.” She adds that at a neighborhood meeting, McNeil “just totally frustrated everybody. She was ready to have the meeting over, because her time was valuable and she had to go teach her class at UTSA.

“I don’t know what made her think she should run for mayor. I wouldn’t nominate her for a neighborhood association, much less to run the city. She doesn’t have the ability to build consensus, and she makes people feel like they’ve been roughshod over in her desire to achieve whatever goal she has.”