The Trish filter

Following what has become the usual protocol for the second-tier candidates in this mayoral race, Rhett Smith rose from the audience at the end of last week’s debate at Rackspace to accuse the organizers of “bigotry.” They had, he said, invited only the wealthiest candidates.

Forget for a moment that the latter accusation might not stick so well to last-minute entrant and fundraising laggard Sheila McNeil, and consider the hilarity of the initial charge: The four major candidates, by any standard, present a strikingly diverse field: A Latina Councilwoman (District 8’s Diane Cibrian), an African-American Councilwoman (District 2’s McNeil), a successful Anglo businesswoman (Trish DeBerry-Mejia), and a Latino attorney and former councilman (Julián Castro). From an affirmative-action standpoint, you can’t go wrong.

Yet, the many undecided voters I’ve spoken with anecdotally over the last few weeks seem worried that we could in fact go very wrong, or at least not nearly as right as we have the past four years under the leadership of surprise 2005 winner Phil Hardberger. It’s easy in retrospect to forget that when Hardberger, he of the 80-percent-plus approval rating, first entered the race following Ed Garza’s anticlimactic exit, he wasn’t taken all that seriously. Then he hired Christian Archer, a veteran of underdog campaigns in Austin and Houston, and squeaked out a tight win over betting-odds favorite Julián Castro. Castro, saddled in 2005 by association with Garza’s youth and perceived leadership weakness, points out that he’s older now and more experienced — and the city is in a better place, despite the national recession, more confident about its prospects and sure of its accomplishments (less desirous of a father figure is one implication) — but he rarely mentions that he hired the guy who beat him in 2005 to run this campaign.

A handful of political stars, big and small, flirted with the dream of recreating Hardberger’s outsider, crossover-appeal magic in the 2009 elections before DeBerry-Mejia jumped in the race last November, effectively breaking up what had been an extremely successful political partnership. DeBerry-Mejia, a partner in well-connected and influential public-relations firm Guerra DeBerry Coody, is no City Hall outsider. Her firm sold the 2007 $500-million bond election, the 2008 venue-tax extension, and — most impressively — last fall’s term-limit extension, which increased the number of terms a City officer can serve from two, two-year stints to four, two-year stints. Before her very public split, in other words, DeBerry-Mejia was a key part of the team that’s largely reclaimed San Antonio from the Homeowner Taxpayer Association refuseniks who’d bullied the public arena since Henry Cisneros departed the dais, and whose remnants are still a core part of SA’s conservative voting bloc.

If elected, DeBerry-Mejia would be the first mayor to benefit from the extended term limits. The news that she planned to run, leaked sloppily and just ahead of the term-limit election — in time to undermine crucial support for an initiative that had failed in another incarnation in recent political memory — was an uncharacteristically clumsy entrance for a seasoned political player. Harsh public criticism of the decision was followed by a flap over what looked like a name change to cater to San Antonio’s Latino majority: from the DeBerry of her public business life to DeBerry-Mejia, highlighting her marriage to architect Carlos Mejia (with whom she has two children). Her campaign quickly responded that that is in fact her real name, but it made for a rough start.

Nonetheless, in strategically leaked campaign polls, DeBerry-Mejia has come in second (albeit not a close second) to Castro, with Cibrian trailing a distant third. If one of them can just get into that runoff, however, they might be able to pull off ballot-box magic, as Hardberger did coming from a second-place finish in 2005 — although Castro is likely to finish with much more of the vote, even if he doesn’t hit the magic 50 percent May 9, making it harder to surpass him in June.

Cibrian, sensing her long shot at a second-place runoff evaporating, has attacked DeBerry-Mejia swiftly and mercilessly over her firm’s numerous public contracts. In addition to a contentious toll-road-related contract `discussed in more detail on page 9`, GDC holds a five-year contract with SAWS (although the water utility recently decided not to use the firm for a key lobbying project in Austin, a decision that Vice President for Public Affairs and Customer Service Greg Flores attributed to Pink Dome strategy rather than DeBerry-Mejia’s run). DeBerry-
Mejia has sometimes handled the accusations that she’ll benefit personally from City contracts while she’s in office gracefully — promising during a Texas Public Radio debate that she’ll remove herself from her firm and disengage GDC from municipal projects — and evasively — during a memorable Cibrian ambush on SA Living.

If GDC’s close relationship to City politics and money means that DeBerry-Mejia can’t effectively sell the outsider appeal of Hardberger (also a fiction to a large degree; before becoming Mayor, he was retired Chief Justice Hardberger of Texas’s 4th Court of Appeals), Archer has also effectively stolen much of her potential business-community support. It’s easy to measure this state of affairs with a quick look at the candidate’s returns, which show Castro with a comfortable lead in fundraising and cash on hand, but a fundraiser held last week at the Weston Center makes for a telling anecdote. The evening’s hosts were a trifecta of San Antonio’s economy, present and future: Rackspace’s Graham Weston, Zachry Construction Corp’s Bartell Zachry, and Clear Channel’s Randall Mays.

Cibrian has managed to pick off a few of the remaining usual suspects — through vocal support for solar power and the Mayor’s Mission Verde green-economy plan (see: NuStar’s Bill Greehey, former Valero chief) and, charge critics, political favors (Red McCombs, who got a street closed with the Councilwoman’s backing).

Money eases but doesn’t guarantee election, of course, and at last week’s Rackspace debate, attendees I talked to afterward were not falling into lockstep behind their boss’s financial support for Castro. Most expressed indecision. One woman told me she’d been leaning toward
McNeil (who helped secure the deal for Rackspace’s new Windcrest headquarters, giving away part of District 2 while she was at it), and a gentleman told me he was predisposed to DeBerry-Mejia because of his conservative personal views.

Which brings us to the most frustrating thing about this candidate’s campaign: Yes, she’s the putatively conservative business candidate, but her stances on many of the top issues are pragmatic, even progressive, in a way that should appeal to a wide swath of San Antonians.

True, like her three main opponents, she supports the addition of two nuclear-power plants at the South Texas Project, provided costs can be controlled (Cibrian has been the most skeptical on this issue), and she has been the most measured regarding Mission Verde, cautioning that in a recessionary economy, we won’t be able to implement all of the initiatives at once. But she has promised to increase citizen oversight and involvement in a range of issues, including the proposed nuke-plant project, has come out unequivocally against digital billboards (given Clear Channel’s largesse in both the 2007 bond-election and 2008 term-limits extension, a bold move), and is sympathetic to the Free Speech Coalition’s complaint that the City’s new Parade Ordinance locks some citizens out of their own streets. Her support for the City’s HOT arts funding sounds at least as solid as Castro’s and Cibrian’s. Yet, these messages don’t seem to be getting through.

“This is the one time I would say the candidate should run their own campaign,” one campaign veteran said.

Either through temperament or strategy, DeBerry-Mejia’s campaign persona has contrasted sharply with Castro’s. Castro, who almost exudes negative charisma when he’s not focusing on politicking, has worked hard to strike an inspirational tone this election season, using his closing remarks at candidate forums to pitch the vision of a city that develops an economy of the future while retaining its cultural uniqueness and small-town friendliness. DeBerry-Mejia tends to sound like the hard-nosed realist, with the “here’s what we need to do to get that done” answers. (Cibrian, on her good days, is the friendly bureaucrat, enthusiastically explaining how various local, state, and federal programs and laws fit together to make things possible at the street level. McNeil, for her part, doesn’t seem to think there’s a problem that couldn’t be solved with a good PR campaign — perhaps she’ll endorse DeBerry-Mejia if the latter makes it into a runoff.)

Realizing, perhaps, that Castro has effectively occupied the middle ground, relatively late in the campaign she began attacking Castro as the union candidate (he’s endorsed by the police and fire department unions and the SEIU), and has tried to make an issue of the meet-and-confer legislation currently before the Texas legislature. If the legislation passes, and the City of San Antonio agrees to meet and discuss terms with City employees, those agreements would be binding — a situation DeBerry-Mejia has argued is tantamount to unionizing the local government workforce.

When I commented to a longtime Northside political player that those moves looked like kind-of desparate attempts to ditch the rest of the city and shear off districts 8, 9, and 10, he disagreed. She should’ve launched the union attack earlier, he said, and hit it hard all the way through. “The tourism industry is made up of small businesses, and they’re scared of unions, too,” was one of the comments he made.

Of course, those tourism-industry hoteliers and car-rental shops are the ones who have to sell the venue-tax extension increases to their customers, and while there’s little evidence that the addition of the initial tax in 1999 to pay for the AT&T Center decreased business, the larger question might be whether potential voters can view DeBerry-Mejia as an individual separate from the clients her firm has represented. It’s a crucial question, because not only has GDC worked on causes that are anathema to the older, white, anti-tax crew that’s carried conservative citywide candidates in the past, but she’s earned the distrust of many in the environmental and anti-development camps through work for developer Gene Powell, the 281 toll-road initiative, and the PGA development. And while I don’t think it’s any more fair to judge a marketer on their clients than a defense attorney, there’s a reason attorneys are reviled as much as they’re needed.

I’ll say this, though: Trish DeBerry-Mejia’s likable, in-person and on the stump. She’s smart. She dresses sharper than the other candidates. And she has a successful business track record. So, sometimes, when I have a minute or two to play What If, I wonder: What if Christian Archer were running the DeBerry-Mejia campaign?

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