by Benjamin Collinger and Zabdi Salazar
City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) has entered the San Antonio mayoral race to “build the city you deserve.” First elected to represent District 8 in 2013, and re-elected in 2015, Nirenberg has been a persistent advocate of improving San Antonio’s transportation infrastructure, economic development, and environmental sustainability. In May 2017, Councilman Nirenberg will compete with the incumbent Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Democratic Chairman Manuel Medina for the chance to reshape San Antonio as mayor. We spoke with Councilman Nirenberg at city hall about his vision for San Antonio, his perspective on controversial transportation infrastructure policy debates, and why he is challenging Mayor Taylor.
You are a former program director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. How does your experience and knowledge from academia shape your approach to city governance?
My work at Annenberg helped inspire me in municipal policy and the power that local government can have in people’s lives to make them better. From a general standpoint, academia – and I worked at Trinity as well in the communication department and taught courses as an assistant at Annenberg – I loved academia because it teaches critical thinking, creative problem solving, and you work with people on a daily basis that still believe in the way the world should work and the way people ought to treat each other. Even if that’s not the way the real world is, those are ideals that we should all be reaching towards. For me, that’s one of the powers of academia today. I always lean on my academic experience.
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Your campaign’s theme is “For the City You Deserve.” What inspired you to communicate this specific message, and why you think that the city’s current leadership is not, or will not be able to deliver the city their constituents deserve?
To answer the second question: it’s because they’ve proven to not be able to. I think, starting with SA 2020 back in 2009, the city came together as one community and created a vision that we all believed in. It’s beautiful and something that all citizens and their representatives say we have to work towards every single day. Since Mayor Taylor took over, we’ve had repeated decisions to make to advance the city towards that vision. Many of which become politically difficult because in order to work in the best interests of the public, you often have to work against some people’s self-interest. In those cases, more often than not, Mayor Taylor has chosen to either not make a decision or to make the wrong one, despite the clear voices from the community urging us to do the right thing.
“The city you deserve” was really from that process of seeing the community come together, all 10 different districts and parts of the town with vastly different experiences in San Antonio. The fact is that everyone has a slightly different idea of what they want to be their experience in living in the seventh largest city in the United States. Everyone has an equal right to this city and to benefit from its prosperity and to have an equal opportunity to make a wonderful life here. That’s the message of “the city you deserve.” The city should be working towards improving your life and your family’s experience in San Antonio, and that may be different on different sides of the street. “The city you deserve” is one that is fiscally responsible, ethical, fair, equitable for people no matter what side of town they live. It is one that we can all be proud of no matter what zip code we live in, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, Hispanic or Anglo, rich or poor. It’s a city that you can thrive in, and that’s the message of our campaign.
What is your strategy to take that message to San Antonians and creating a large enough coalition of voters to win, especially in light of Mayor Taylor’s strong base of support?
We’re going to run a campaign on all cylinders. A traditional campaign where we’re doing a lot of grass-roots organizing and door to door campaigning. We’ll be doing traditional media, TV spots, radio spots, as resources permit. And then we’re going to be doing innovative things like reaching out through new media, creating opportunities for people to get to know their neighbors, and through their communities. Not just for the purposes of asking for their vote, but because what we want to do is stand for a great city, not just winning a vote. So, we’re going to be running a full-fledged campaign.
What is your message to people who have voted for Mayor Taylor in the past, but is considering you as an option?
I would tell them that I believe very strongly that they deserve city leadership that is going to be forthright, trustworthy, and that acts in an ethical manner. They also deserve a mayor who will unapologetically confront the issues we’re facing today, and not try to put window dressing on the fact that, since Mayor Taylor took over, we have the highest crime rate since the 1990s – when we were known as the drive-by capital of the world – our job growth rates have been cut in half, venture capital investment in companies in San Antonio has declined by 66 percent, wages have stagnated, socioeconomic disparity has persisted, drunk driving rates continue, and domestic violence victims are receiving less of the city pot than they used to. All of those things, I think, we should all stand against; those are things that Mayor Taylor has produced.
San Antonio’s community is predominantly of a Latino heritage. If elected, how would you stay informed and address issues such as health, housing, and representation that directly affect Latinos?
In my first campaign, we had a slogan: “meet your neighbors.” Being a better neighbor is our philosophy, from international relations to local policy. We also, and I take pride in doing this, listen better and work harder. In District 8 – where we have the most diverse constituency in the city – socio-economically, politically, demographically, you name it – we have actively listened not just to our district, but we’ve had town halls, events, block walking in other parts of the city so that we know what’s going on. I’ll continue that. It will be much more aggressive obviously, in parts of town where we weren’t governing, but we’ll continue to listen.
I don’t make a decision unless I can answer three questions. Number one: is it fiscally responsible? And that’s for the whole city, not just to a particular constituency. I consider fiscal responsibility to mean properly investing in assets as well. For instance, one of the most fiscally irresponsible things that government can do is to underinvest in education. Second: is it fair and ethical? And that’s to all people. Third: have I done my homework? Doing your homework requires listening to the community – you’re affecting the whole city – and I’ll continue to do that.
There is a great deal of income segregation in San Antonio; what proposals or ideas do you have to combat that challenge?
Number one, we’re going to have to do a better job of equitably investing in our infrastructure. We’ve been working with Christine Drennon [of Trinity University] and her students, and they helped to produce a report to understand where underinvestment has typically occurred. It’s about equitably investing infrastructure dollars, so we’re going to have to take a holistic look at that. In addition, I believe that we need to do a better job in collaborating for economic development and workforce issues to do that. We need to do something we haven’t done before: bring public school districts to the table to help us develop economic policy. We’re deeply committed to doing that.
We have to get back to expanding investment in adult literacy programs. I think we’re doing better with childhood literacy and early childhood education. There’s a report that was just released that our third grade reading levels still aren’t there yet, in fact, they’re stagnating. Within the next two or three years when the first cohorts of Pre-K for SA start passing through those metrics, we’re going to start to see a difference. When we begin to more equitably lift outcomes within areas of town that are socio-economically left behind, we’re going to start creating jobs for the whole spectrum. That’s ultimately what is going to lift all boats.
Those in favor of the funding delay to VIA Metropolitan Transit said that they worried about the Texas Legislature imposing local revenue cuts, and that increasing funding could lead to cuts in city services. You have characterized the situation as a question of priorities, and are an advocate for transportation infrastructure to address the city’s growing sprawl. What does the VIA Metropolitan transit funding controversy and your advocacy on the issue tell San Antonians about how you would govern differently from current city leadership?
Clearly, it’s a distinction between me and Mayor Taylor. Excuses are all I hear, none of which are legitimate, frankly. Let me back up for a minute, I went to a neighborhood, one of the wealthiest areas in my district. It’s as far away from that issue of public transportation as you could get. Obviously, the folks up here [pointing to the neighborhood on a map of District 8] are not very interested in investing in the bus system because it doesn’t affect them. I talked to them about why I firmly believe that we need to take $10M –as a start –from our general fund and invest in those bus routes on the south side because those mothers are spending an hour and a half or two hours a day trying to get to school and work.
By the time they get to work and come back, their kids are asleep and they don’t have time to work on homework with them. It’s a problem for the entire community because that’s what holds back our progress in economic development and community wellness and all of those other things. By the time I got done – after they had entered the conversation with no interest or knowledge in the issue – they were ready to support me and ask for the $10M for VIA.
Her argument was that it could lead to funding cuts in the city, and there would also be less money coming from the state. How do you evaluate that?
There are a number of excuses and all of them are conflicting with each other. Ultimately, it had to do with priorities of funding. I say, we’ve identified a need – and I challenge anyone in the city of San Antonio – to tell me what is a bigger priority from a public investment standpoint than ensuring that people who do not have a choice to get to work other than a bus, have a bus to get to work. The first dollar of our transportation investment needs to take care of the worst needs. Tell me a worse need than that.
If voters approve the $850 Million 2017 bond on May 6, what will this mean for the city in the context of SA Tomorrow and the VIA controversy?
It’s not going to do anything for the bus system, unfortunately. It’s going to address a lot of low hanging fruit in terms of road infrastructure, sidewalks, drainage systems, which are all really important. In terms of SA Tomorrow, it’s going to move the leader a smidgen, and that’s because Mayor Taylor disbanded the committee that was intended to implement and oversee the plan at the precise moment that these projects were coming together. So, there was no oversight of SA tomorrow and the bond programming.
Why do you think Mayor Taylor disbanded the committee?
You can ask her, but I was chairing the committee. That’s ok, but the point is that there was a disconnect between finishing the SA Tomorrow planning and developing the bond proposal. It doesn’t mean the bond proposal is bad. But what I will say is that we’re a growing city – in fact, we’re now annexing new property – and we’re going to have to address infrastructure and invest in places that are underinvested. You can’t do all of it, and it’s just a $850M bond. So, we’re addressing some of the low hanging fruit and trying to make some initial investment in other catalytic projects. In terms of overall reform of the transportation system, the bond does nothing. One thing I advocated for as far back as February was: we need to take a portion of that money out of the bond and design the multi-modal transportation system that voters could vote on. Because, in order to do multimodal in the city, rail, you must have a public vote.
We have the plan, we just need political courage to implement it. And when I came out and said that we needed to do that, the Mayor’s response was ‘no means no.’ We had an opportunity to make dramatic change, even with only a small portion of money, and that was an opportunity missed. The bond is going to do good things for the city, but it could have done great things for the city. But we’ll take what we can get under this administration.
Several former mayors have pointed to San Antonio’s airport as the city’s Achilles heel; how does the airport figure into your plans for transportation infrastructure?
I think the airport has become a receptacle for all of the excuses we have for this city. Sure, it’s an Achilles heel, but people run marathons on their Achilles heels. This is an international airport in the middle of the city in a place where, for most business travelers, it’s 10 minutes away. Name me a top 10 city where you can say that. We have a strategic asset, a competitive asset. Infrastructure-wise, we can take off and land 99 percent of the commercial aircraft that are out there. We keep whining about not having direct connections to Boston, London, and D.C.
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It’s not because we don’t have a nicer terminal, it’s because we don’t have high wage jobs, we don’t have a business market that would support airlines putting a direct flight here. We need to do better on education, supporting technology, innovative job growth, things like that, and the flights will come. I think we also need to continue to improve our airport, and we’re doing that. I do believe that we need to explore and plan for 50 years from now, but I don’t want us to get so distracted by that we lose sight of investing in our current airport.
Is there a city that has done a particularly good job of infrastructure development for the future that you look to for guidance?
That’s a great question. I don’t think any city does it perfectly. I think that you can pick out different things from many cities. But there’s danger in that because we’re a unique city, too. Seattle has done an incredible job – northwest coastal cities have done an incredible job with balancing smart growth with green space and urban revitalization. Los Angeles has somehow – really unbeknownst to most of America – created and retrofitted a city for multimodal transportation. And that’s worth emulating because we have to retrofit a city, too. From an equity standpoint, I think this is one area where no city is doing it right currently. Although I think cities are doing some innovative things, Philadelphia being one of them.
You have been critical of how Mayor Taylor and San Antonio Water System (SAWS) Officials adjusted the contract with developers of the Vista Ridge pipeline, calling for more communication and transparency in the process. If elected mayor, would you give the council oversight authority or simply be more intentional about informing the council about such changes?
Certainly, I’d prefer more communication. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself having to ask for consent in a vote because we have a mayor that’s not willing to have communication in any meaningful way. I get updates now on stuff that ought to be consent agenda issues. Certainly, I would welcome more council input. The truth of the matter is that my quarrel was not with the San Antonio Water System executive team; they’ve been doing a fabulous job. In fact, Berto Guerra and Robert Puente have been asked to create a public private partnership to deliver 50,000 acre feet of water to San Antonio, and they’re doing that.
The problem is that we haven’t had a voice for citizens there to counterbalance [the SAWS executive team] trying to produce a great business deal. So now, we have a deal that doesn’t even resemble what we voted on in Oct. 2014. And we haven’t had the pushback from a public policy standpoint from our mayor. My concern is that our mayor is not representing the council and therefore the public. I would ensure that there’s better communication, that the council is better informed about the process. Not just about SAWS, but CPS and VIA as well. On critical decisions like the Vista Ridge contract changes, absolutely, the council needs to vote on them because they took a vote on a contract that we all, by virtue of the city manager’s signature, put our name on the dotted line. They deserve a voice in the changing of that contract.
You were a guest at an Iftar for Ramadan at the Raindrop Turkish House last summer. If elected, would you be interested in hosting a city-wide Iftar like the Mayor of Houston?
Sure! I didn’t know that. Cool guy, Sylvester Turner! Along with non-discrimination I also believe that we have to vocally embrace our diversity and that’s how we teach each other about who lives across the street from you, how we become smarter, and create more compassionate policy. Part of the pride I take in the job is not having fear of political repercussions of doing things like that. It doesn’t matter your religion or your cultural background, you have just as much right to the benefits of living in San Antonio as anyone else and we should trumpet that fact, and an Iftar is an expression of that.
The Department of Human Services recently created the role of Community Faith Based Liaison. Are you in favor of the position, and how would you approach issues of religious inclusion in San Antonio if elected?
This is one of those in the category of ‘pick your battles.’ I was not very comfortable with that position because I believe strongly in the separation of Church and State. In terms of how the government interacts with religious organizations, it’s a matter of diversity and inclusion. So, I think we already have that function covered. I myself am a person of faith, I just don’t wear it on my sleeve and ask people to vote for me because of it.
I think we need to have a robust relationship with our faith community because that’s where people are. It’s an important facet of life in San Antonio and in San Antonio’s history. I won’t make any apologies for outreach to the faith community from a humanistic standpoint. We need to do that every day. But in terms of policymaking, there needs to be a pretty strict line between the two and that goes for the faith community as well. We don’t want politics to influence the message from churches. So, I will be respectful of their space and have a collaborative – but not co-dependent – relationship.
What would you do as mayor to collaborate with activist organizations in San Antonio?
All of the great ones have told me to never refuse a meeting, keep an open-door policy, and talk to everybody who is willing to talk to you. I will continue to do that, even the organizations that don’t agree with me. If they violate basic values of human dignity in the process and are there as a hate group, their time is better spent elsewhere. But activist organizations, whether it’s environment, immigration – whatever the issue is – they will have an open forum with me. It doesn’t mean I’ll agree with them or that we’ll agree on anything. But if they can help us improve life in the city and help us refine policy collaboratively, they deserve to be part of the conversation.
Is there a book that has changed the way you look at life or approach city governance?
The book that has most changed my life is Siddhartha. In terms of governance, which also influences where I think the limits of government are: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. I used to read a lot of beat writers when I was at Trinity, that was my thing.
Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary. Follow him @bcstlsa or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
Zabdi Salazar is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in Political Science and Business Administration, and is the Business Manager of The Contemporary. Email her: email@example.com
This interview has been edited and condensed. The views expressed in this article are those of interviewers or the interviewee. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The picture above was taken by Scott Ball of The Rivard Report. Courtesy of The Rivard Report.