COMMENTARY: The Mayor's Race and the Future of San Antonio

by Jim Forsyth

Ron Nirenberg's surprisingly strong nearly ten point victory over Ivy Taylor in the runoff for Mayor on Saturday tells us a lot about our politics and about our changing city.

Taylor's strategy, especially at the end of the campaign, was to attempt to morph the northwest side Councilman into Leticia Van de Putte, whom Taylor handily defeated (after indicating, but not promising, after being appointed by City Council to succeed Julian Castro in 2014 that she would not be a candidate the following year), largely by portraying Van de Putte as an 'out of touch liberal.'  But '' didn't work two years later for a number of reasons.

First of all, her 'LiberalRon' campaign was launched too late.  More than two thirds of the runoff vote, an unusually high percentage, was cast early, with an even greater portion of that vote, the Anglo northsiders who were most likely to be receptive to the 'too liberal' message, casting ballots before the bulk of the LiberalRon campaign peaked.

In addition, the evangelical vote, which had supported Taylor, a genuine and public Christian, didn't turn out for her the way it did in 2015, after she cast a very public vote on council against the culture war 'Non Discrimination Ordinance.'

Nirenberg ran as a 'change agent,' which is a powerful message today, regardless of which side of the political divide you're on.  Whether it is Trump over Hillary last fall, or Everybody Else over Theresa May in the UK, voters more and more think those who are in are lousy and the people who are out can do a better job.

Nirenberg is a passionate advocate for his vision, which Taylor is not.  A self-described 'policy wonk,' Taylor is honest, honorable, and very smart, but so is Jeb Bush.  She is not a 'closer' the way Nirenberg is, the kind of person who can fill a crowd with passion and, more importantly, motivate them to vote on a summer day in June.

Taylor was also hurt by the perception (not the reality) that the City's crime rate is up. While the sorts of crimes that are most likely to affect the average voter, like auto theft and burglary, are actually down, the rise in the sorts of crimes the media covers, gang shootings, drive bys, the arrest of the alleged Medical Center Rapist the day before the election, lead citizens to think that crime is rampant, and, as Mayor, Taylor owned that during the election.   This even though her steady leadership and close cooperation with the police have in fact calmed situations which could have easily turned San Antonio into another Ferguson.

Finally, and a lot of people aren't going to want to hear this, San Antonio is becoming a more liberal, more progressive city.  The huge boom in the city's tech industry has brought with it a similar increase in educated, millennial, and very active tech and related workers, the very people who were most likely to be motivated by Nirenberg's 'The City you Deserve' argument, especially his focus on transportation and the environment.  Just look at the numbers.  In the 2012 Presidential race, which Barack Obama won by a landslide, Obama won Bexar County by five percentage points.  In 2016, in a far tighter race nationwide, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Bexar County by 13 percentage points, and the City of San Antonio is far more liberal than Bexar County.  Face it, San Antonio is becoming a lot more like Austin (but with better roads) than many would like to believe.  Look for more initiatives on previously failed issues like commuter rail and environmental protection.  Maybe LiberalRon, instead of being an insult, was what the voters wanted.

Taylor becomes the first sitting San Antonio Mayor since Bill Thornton in 1997 to be defeated for re-election.

Nirenberg has the potential as he takes the oath of office June 22nd to become a transformational figure, on the level of Henry Cisneros.  Six of the ten members of City Council will be newcomers, and two of the four remaining veterans, Rey Saldana and Shirley Gonzales, are major supporters of the Mayor Elect, and are in position to shepherd his initiatives through Council.  At the same time, the conservative core of Council, Joe Krier and Mike Gallagher, are gone, which means less potential opposition for those initiatives.  If Nirenberg runs the Mayor's office as successfully as he ran his campaign, he is in position to leave a major legacy in this city.

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