An Ethically Challenged City, a Near-Billion Dollar Bond, and a Very Strange Mayor’s Race

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ILLUSTRATION BY JEREMIAH TEUTSCH
  • Illustration by Jeremiah Teutsch

On April 3,  a small but raucous crowd gathered midday at the corner of Avenue E and Third Street. Clustered below the San Antonio Express-News’ epic tower-style facade, people vowed to cancel their subscriptions while others hurled insults like “racist,” “bigot” and “xenophobe.” Some protesters waved signs emblazoned with the words “fake news.”

It was a bizarre, headline-grabbing protest against journalism led by an unlikely figure: Manuel Medina, a leading candidate for San Antonio mayor. Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff had dug up something about Medina’s past and framed it in a way Medina didn’t like. Medina and his supporters in turn, dramatically called for Chasnoff’s firing. Others in Medina’s circle called for a boycott of the paper.

When the Bexar County Democratic Party chairman filed in December to put his name on the May 6 municipal election ballot, local media labeled Medina the “spoiler” candidate, someone whose entry to the race would disrupt what was starting to look like a pretty clean, straight-forward election. 

The thinking was that Mayor Ivy Taylor, an incumbent fresh off her first full term leading the city, would have a lock on the conservative vote, thanks to her stance against equal rights protections for LGBTQ people and her tanking of a streetcar project that made fiscal hawks see red. Save for some light pockets of Democrat support for Taylor (like in her old East Side city council district), the other leading candidate for mayor, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, was expected to sweep the liberal and progressive vote with his Julian Castro-like visions of big, “transformational” projects to propel the city forward and prepare for the 1 million-plus people expected to move here by 2040. 

Medina bristles at the “spoiler” label – it sounds too pejorative, he says, “like this was theirs to win before I came in and messed things up.” 

But mess things up he has. As expected, he’s picked off some progressive and liberal support – including endorsements from the Bernie Sanders-inspired San Antonio Progressive Alliance and the local Democratic party he’s led since 2012. Medina’s campaign took an unexpected turn, however, when he whole-heartedly embraced a staunch fiscal conservative platform and started lambasting the near-billion-dollar city bond that’s also on the ballot this May. The career Democrat suddenly had the support of local Tea Party leaders and anti-development conservatives. 

Meanwhile, Medina has firebombed debates and political forums with a doom-and-gloom diagnosis for the city, blaming San Antonio’s problems on what he calls a corrupt “pay-to-play” ecosystem at city hall that spits money at special interests and ignores regular people and their concerns. He’s an attack dog during debates, with a confrontational style city leaders clearly aren’t all that used to. He’s known to stray from the facts on the stump – like calling San Antonio one of the most dangerous cities in the country (it’s not) or “the most economically segregated city in America” (close, but also not entirely true). 

But it’s Medina’s simple, populist message that his opponents quietly worry might be connecting with voters – especially now. 

Consider Nirenberg’s loud call for ethics reform at city hall this election, a more subtle version of some of the rhetoric and bombast emanating from the Medina campaign. Nirenberg, a self-proclaimed public policy wonk who was first elected to city hall in 2013, routinely cites what he calls a “crisis of public confidence” created by years of ethical lapses – some of which he lays at Taylor’s feet. “We know that the balance of power in San Antonio for the last 50 years has been with the real estate and development community,” Nirenberg told the Current. (Taylor’s campaign would not make her available for an interview with the Current despite multiple requests.)

Reforming the city’s ethics rules and pushing back against special interests are actually two of the hallmarks of Nirenberg’s campaign. He says that’s because the city will need public buy-in (and likely voter approval) to tackle the many challenges Medina has aptly distilled into one very punchy campaign line: “Generational poverty on the West Side, institutional violence on the East Side, nightmare traffic on the North Side, and the lack of basic infrastructure on the South Side.” 

Nirenberg says San Antonio is a city that needs to address problems it’s neglected for too long while also preparing for the future – that way, the past doesn’t repeat itself. He and Taylor have both heralded the long-range, comprehensive plan city leaders passed last year, dubbed “SA Tomorrow.” Medina offers a different choice – fix things for the people who live here today, stop worrying so much about those who will come tomorrow. “We don’t need a planner, we need a leader,” he told the Current. In some ways, he’s thrown city leaders’ rhetoric back in their faces, calling his plan for the city “SA Today.” 

Nirenberg calls Medina’s vision simplistic, even “dangerous.” “It tells our community that in order for us to take care of these significant needs, these lingering areas of disinvestment, that we have to sacrifice being a city that aspires to be great,” he said. 

Nirenberg isn’t the only progressive who’s been made nervous by Medina’s presence in the mayor’s race. “A lot of us don’t really feel like we know who he is,” says Graciela Sanchez, who leads the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which hosted a candidate forum at which neither Medina nor Taylor showed. “We mostly hear all these bold, vague statements that kind of resonate because we’re familiar with the problems he’s talking about – poverty, inequality, developers driving the conversation at city hall.” She says some people in her orbit seem to switch between Nirenberg and Medina daily. 

It’s not hard to see why Medina’s message might give some some left-leaning voters pause. 

Somewhere along the way in his campaign, Medina found a convenient punching bag: the city’s $850 million bond package, which he insists is “larded up with millions to special interests.” He points to money earmarked for supposed “transformational” projects, like $13 million to connect Hardberger Park’s eastern and western sides (what some critics call a “bunny bridge”), or the millions more slated for Hemisfair downtown – which, since its inception, has grown to include plans for a private hotel on public land. 

Medina has also embraced one of the city’s loudest anti-spending crusaders, former North Side conservative councilman Carlton Soules, as a campaign strategist and lead anti-bond messenger. The pro-bond crowd calls people like Soules a “caver,” or a “citizen against virtually everything.” Medina’s even brought into the fold Jeff Judson, a local conservative firebrand and failed politician who’s made his name railing against undocumented immigrants and the LGBTQ community. Last month, a document signed by Medina, a devout Catholic, started to make the rounds in political circles – in it, he vows to protect and defend the “sanctity of life” and “the traditional family.” 

But the question of who, exactly, is Manuel Medina is what led to this month’s protest outside the daily newspaper. His campaign bio describes him as a Mexican immigrant who moved to the country at age 3 — someone who worked hard, became a naturalized citizen, and eventually got rich enough off his real-estate and campaign consulting work to move into the North Side’s posh, gated Dominion community. When he filed to appear on the May 6 ballot, Medina declared that he’d lived continuously in San Antonio for more than 20 years. 

Then the Express-News published Chasnoff's column reporting that Medina had actually worked at a Mexican university from 1997 to 2008, was divorced and married in Mexico, and even ran for public office in the country as recently as 2005. It was something that appeared to contradict what Medina had told voters – not necessarily a campaign-ending story, but rather the standard fact-checking that precedes virtually every big political race. Medina now claims he ran for public office in Mexico to boost his consulting work (he says it was only a two-month-long campaign), and that he was a visiting professor who’d fly back to the U.S. after his occasional lectures. 

Still, Medina and his supporters went nuclear after the column, calling it a racist slight against naturalized citizens. The Express-News had been the first to call Medina’s style “Trumpian” – something only reinforced by a blatant attack on the press for reporting the news.

Not long after Chasnoff’s column went to print, Medina went full Trump with a new campaign tagline: “Drain the local swamp.”

*****

Less than two months from Election Day, it looked like the swamp might be starting to bubble. Just as city leaders were set to award a multi-million dollar contract to a new company to operate downtown’s fleet of riverboats, a selection process that started all the way back in 2014, Mayor Ivy Taylor dropped a bomb. In an email to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Taylor called for a do-over, claiming lobbyist meddling may have corrupted the process.

Here’s the problem Taylor explained in her email to Sculley: The top contender for the contract, a Chicago-based outfit called Entertainment Cruises, had hired former mayor and attorney Phil Hardberger to represent the company when it pitched the idea to the city. The city had already told companies bidding for the contract that lobbyists couldn’t attend their pitch meetings. After getting last-minute approval by the city, Hardberger attended his company’s pitch meeting and spoke on behalf of his client – meanwhile attorneys for some of the other companies didn’t because of the city’s admonition. 

Taylor wrote to Sculley that the unfair move had "tainted this process beyond redemption.”

It was a head-spinning controversy that only became more complicated the closer you looked. The company that was reportedly runner-up in the eyes of city staff, the River Walk’s current barge operator Rio San Antonio Cruises, is represented by Bill Kaufman – who, as the Express-News reported, “has been a close, informal advisor to the mayor.”

Nirenberg seized on the spat, saying Taylor had simply derailed the process because she didn’t like the outcome. “She has to explain why she did that,” he said. “And I think the explanation given has been inadequate.” He also claims it’s a pattern of shaky ethical behavior from the mayor that began her first elected year in office. 

Shortly after Taylor’s 2015 win, news broke that tenants living in the five rental homes owned by Taylor and her husband had received financial help from the San Antonio Housing Authority under the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, or Section 8. As mayor, Taylor was tasked with appointing SAHA board members, something she told reporters at the time would not at all affect the success of her subsidized real estate business. SAHA attorneys saw it differently. But instead of recusing herself from the SAHA leadership role, Taylor asked city council to pass a special ordinance to pardon her from any ethics violations involving her real estate conflicts. 

Only Nirenberg and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña voted against it. 

And then there was her role in the colossal Vista Ridge Pipeline project, a 142-mile pipeline from a Burleson County water basin to San Antonio that could deliver up to 20 percent of the city’s water by 2020. The public-private construction project, orchestrated by the San Antonio Water System board, has hit a remarkable number of roadblocks while officials hashed out a final contract, Nirenberg says. Many of those decisions have been ironed out without city council input, he claims. After the private company originally picked to lead the massive construction job went bankrupt in 2015, Nirenberg demanded more transparency in SAWS’ decision-making process going forward. The council disagreed, allowing SAWS to continue making contract tweaks behind closed doors. 

The councilman has also gained support from environmental groups for pushing SAWS to create a water conservation plan in tandem with the pipeline project. But for some in Medina’s camp, the fact that Nirenberg supports the project at all is a red flag. The pipeline would cross the property of roughly 435 landowners in seven counties, opponents say, threatening private wells and fragile watersheds. SAWS customers are expected to pay for this $2.8 billion pipeline in incremental rate hikes over the next few years.

As mayor, Taylor sits on the SAWS board, and is expected to serve as the messenger between city council and board members. It’s a role Nirenberg believes she’s neglected, and has constantly asked the mayor (and the board) for more transparency. 

“In the intervening two and a half years since we approved the project, there have been a number of changes that I can best characterize as SAWS, with the mayor’s approval, lowering the bar for a project company because they can’t clear it,” he said. 

The mayor has largely dismissed the criticism at public forums. Medina has said he’d kill the project as one of his first moves in office.

But when it comes to this year’s barge snafu, Nirenberg’s got his own tangles. Hardberger has been one of Nirenberg’s most prominent supporters since the start of his political career in 2013 (Hardberger hasn’t publicly endorsed anyone this election). 

It’s the kind of swampy clusterfuck Medina clearly thinks he can use to his benefit this election, something he points to in declaring, “We have an ethics crisis at city hall.” 

If some voters believe that, it might because the city does indeed have a history of multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded projects clouded by controversy. 

In 2012, for instance, then-assistant deputy city manager Pat DiGiovanni spearheaded the city’s search committee to find the right developers to tackle San Antonio’s largest-ever construction project: tearing down half of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center just  to rebuild it a block away and make room for a “civic park” for Hemisfair, at the corner of Alamo and Market Streets. 

While that search committee was picking Zachry Corp as one of the companies to get a big chunk of the $325 million project, DiGiovanni was in the process of negotiating a new job with the downtown development nonprofit Centro, where Zachry head David Zachry served as a board member. The city’s ethics review board later concluded that DiGiovanni violated city ethics rules by failing to recuse himself from a city process that awarded millions of taxpayer dollars to a company whose owner helped him get his new job. There was no punishment, just that DiGiovanni felt “embarrassed” by what he said was a simple mistake. 

It’s that convoluted web of influence that Medina routinely references when he demonizes the $850 million bond package that goes before voters this election. He says he supports some $550 million of it that would address the city’s basic needs – street, sidewalk, drainage and parks improvements. But with the help of fiscal conservatives in the wings of his campaign, Medina says he’s identified some $200 million that he insists are giveaways to developers and special interests.

For instance, at the start of the bond process last year, Centro gathered “stakeholders” (mostly downtown developers and business owners) to come up with their own funding recommendations for a number of large-scale projects they wanted to receive significant public funding. City staff bond recommendations mirrored almost all of Centro’s – save for funding for Hemisfair, which, at $21 million, came in below what Centro had requested. Zachry Corporation is now one of the companies in line to build a $165 million high-rise development on the edge of the new park – including a boutique hotel that was only made possible after Zachry lobbied the Texas Legislature to tweak a state law that had blocked planners from building it on public parkland. 

Or, at least, that’s what Carlton Soules, the former conservative council member and Medina’s fiscal watchdog, is referring to when he says things like: “Voters are being asked to spend $21 million on Hemisfair to make sure developers’ new hotel on our public land has a pretty view.”

*****

When the Obama Administration plucked Julian Castro from the mayor’s seat in 2014, it was Ivy Taylor who City Council ultimately picked to fill the final year of his term. At the time they chose her, she promised she wouldn’t seek a full term the next time the mayor’s seat was up for grabs.

Six days on the job, Taylor, a Democrat, made good with the city’s North Side conservatives by tanking a downtown streetcar system that Castro had supported. Later that year, she said growing support from some of the city’s business leaders had convinced her to backpedal on her promise to step aside the next mayoral election.

Some have called her a “reluctant mayor,” a city planning wonk who didn’t naturally take to the limelight like a Castro. Her use of religion in politics became a viral story this week when it was revealed that, at a candidate forum earlier this month, Taylor said that poverty happens to people when they don't have a relationship "their Creator." In 2013, when Taylor was still a councilwoman, she voted against a nondiscrimination ordinance that would protect LGBT San Antonians from being discriminated against, calling it a "waste of time."

Last week, as Taylor took to the stage inside one of the new convention center’s stately ballrooms, she seemed to have settled into her role as mayor, praising the city and business leaders gathered to hear her deliver this year’s state of the city address just days before early voting started. 

On the campaign trail, Medina often paints San Antonio as a city on the road to ruin without radical change. Nirenberg calls us a promising, vibrant city that needs new leadership in order to rise to the many challenges ahead. As for the incumbent in the race, it’s no surprise that negativity’s been stripped from Taylor’s talking points. 

“Contrary to some accounts, the evidence shows that not only is the state of our city incredibly strong, but the future of our city is blindingly bright,” she told the crowd. 

Nirenberg agrees that San Antonio’s future could and should be bright – but only with a watchful, critical eye at the wheel. In contentious zoning cases that pit real estate interest groups against neighborhoods, he’s broken from Taylor and the majority of council and sided with neighbors. He pushed back during last year’s budget process when Taylor mused about taking funds away from family violence prevention programs and instead spending the money on “workforce development.” When developers managed to cut even vague language related to aquifer protection from the city’s big SA Tomorrow plan, Nirenberg insisted the language be put back. 

Nirenberg says transportation is a key area where he differs from the other leading candidates in the race. The projections make it pretty clear that, moving into the future, San Antonio can’t just be all about cars. At the city’s current pace of growth, some experts estimate that by 2040, as much as half of San Antonio roadways will face serious traffic congestion, which would make average commuter times increase by 75 percent. (Ever driven in Houston? Think Houston.)

Nirenberg, Taylor and Medina all say they support giving VIA some extra money to boost bus frequency in key routes. Nirenberg actually voted for a proposal that would have done that last year – Taylor, along with others on council, successfully delayed the measure. 

Meanwhile, Medina continues to call himself the “transportation mayor” because of his promise to bring high-speed commuter rail connecting Austin and San Antonio – and then, after that, he promises a SA to Monterrey, Mexico line. In public forums, Taylor and Nirenberg have scoffed at Medina’s explanation for how that will happen: by throwing even more money at the Lone Star Rail plan that, after decades of planning and millions in consulting fees, imploded last year.

Meanwhile, Nirenberg has offered a different plan to avoid traffic gridlock – a modern, multi-modal transit system that includes commuter rails to connect the city’s major hubs. Nirenberg says he’s talked with northsiders who hated the downtown streetcar plan that Taylor ultimately scrapped and that they’re “not opposed to a light rail that makes sense.” Nirenberg says he wants a “transportation bond” to fund the design and development of that system. 

Medina, on the other hand, wants to improve the city’s 50 worst congested intersections with better coordinated traffic lights, staggered work hours and some more traffic cops. 

It’s hard to gauge how much impact Medina might actually have in this election. In late March, the results of a small, 400-voter survey conducted by Taylor’s camp showed that she was on track to capture 53 percent of the vote and would narrowly escape a runoff. A second survey conducted by Nirenberg’s campaign from around the same time reportedly shows him and Taylor in a runoff.  

But does Medina really have little chance of making it to a runoff? St. Mary’s University political science professor and longtime local election-watcher Henry Flores says it’s basically impossible to predict with local elections that have such low voter turnout (less than 10 percent of eligible SA voters cast a ballot in the last municipal election) and the nature of Medina’s populist message. 

“It’s really hard to figure out just how much populism’s connecting in an election like this,” Flores told the Current. “Just look at Trump’s victory. Nobody saw that coming. It’s so hard to predict. Ivy and Ron will either be able to hold on to their troops or they won’t.” 

One concern that’s floating around is whether Medina’s message could threaten any portion of the bond before voters this election. Such ballot measures typically pass with huge margins. What's unclear is if Medina’s message has made people less trustful in local government.

Medina, at times, seems to embrace his spoiler role. He told the Current that, after a recent forum, a voter came up to him saying some of her friends wouldn’t support him but were nonetheless glad he’s running. He says that when he asked why, this was the response he got: “Just think of how boring this election would be if it was only Ivy and Ron.”


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