Former District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal
Some two weeks after mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal resigned from his seat in the Texas House of Representatives, former District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and public relations consultant Melissa Aguillon, with their eyes on the Texas Legislature, officially launched their campaigns over the weekend. And, according to the San Antonio Express-News
, former councilman Walter Martinez may also be interested in the gig
, as well as Roger Gary, a potential Libertarian candidate.
We will post a periodic question-and-answer blog series with each of them, starting with Bernal, who has represented City Council District 1 for three years.
You were a social worker, civil rights lawyer and now elected official. How does your background inform your public service work?
My entire career is premised on helping other people. As a social worker, as a civil rights attorney, and as a councilperson, I’m always looking for opportunities to help people. I feel like I’ve done that, and I want to continue to do that. The Legislature is where we deal with very human issues—education, health care, personal finances. That’s where predatory lending comes in, the kinds of and quality of jobs that we attract or create in Texas. These are all things that I care very much about and how they affect people. That’s where the desire to run and the desire to serve comes from.
When you reflect back on your time on city council, what are your biggest takeaways? What policies and/or ordinances are you most proud of and why?
First, I approached City Council as another vehicle to help people. Even when you’re doing stuff like streets, sidewalks or parks, if you’re providing services or maintenance that people haven’t had for decades, there’s a real sense of justice there. I also approached it as I approached my civil rights work—here’s what’s right; here’s what’s wrong; here’s what’s helpful; here’s who’s working against our cause. I may have been blunt or curt early on. I don't apologize for the principles I have, but tact is important.
What’s really been spectacular about Council is you’re put in a position to see so much of what’s happening in this city, the kinds of people and the kinds of talent that the city has. That blew me away. Aside from the ability to represent the area that I grew up in, the chance to see the city in all its different sectors and all the people working together, it’s a beautiful thing to see. It makes me appreciate the city even more than I ever did. There was so much information coming my way every day and I was just astounded at how much real good there is happening here.
I would say, on the neighborhood side, we started to show neighborhoods that thought the city had given up on them, that there is an effort to correct that neglect. The work we’ve done in parks, we've done 14 park projects...(including)...the McCullough-Jackson Keller Walking Trail and the San Pedro Park Walking Trail. We've really reinvested in the district, reinvested in this part of town, there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from moving the needle and demonstrating that given the right person and right opportunity, all is not lost. Every neighborhood deserves nice things.
I’m really proud of the payday loan ordinance that we passed, I’m proud of the local (nondiscrimination ordinance), I’m especially proud of the local preference which gives local companies an advantage or leg up when competing for city contracts. There’s always this angst or disappointment when out-of-town companies get city contracts and this ordinance allows us to focus on and give more attention to local companies and give them the best opportunity to get those contracts. I’m really proud of the work that got us there. That was my baby.
...We kept in touch with people through email, Facebook and Twitter, but we also did over 70 Coffees with the Councilman. We went to different coffee shops and cafes around the district where people could ask me any question that they wanted and I would answer. I’m proud of that effort to be available and transparent.
What did you learn from serving on city council that you can take with you to the Legislature?
Former District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal
First of all, that, at the end of the day everything we do needs to be about people. Every decision we make or every proposal that’s put forward has a real human element. You have to always think about people, and it’s very easy to think about the city as its own unique entity that operates automatically, but the truth is that it’s not running on its own steam, it’s running on the people: workers, families, parents, students.
Clearly, there always has to be someone who’s willing to stick up for the most vulnerable or the least powerful among us. That’s our job. The powerful and the connected can expend a lot of resources to be heard, it’s not like those people are up to no good all the time. You have to make sure that you’re listening equally to everyone else who make up the majority of the city and sometimes they need to be stood up for, sometimes you’ve got to take a stand on their behalf.
I believe that, for better or worse, I didn’t put a tremendous premium on getting along, I just wanted to do the right thing. Now, I’m sure I need to soften up a little bit in the way that I deal with people, but I don’t apologize at all for the principles. There was a moment where there were a group of people who were trying to recall me, they were trying to get me out of office, and at first I was very taken aback. It shook me for a minute, but then I realized that the very worst thing that could happen was that I would be out of the (council) seat. But otherwise my life would be OK, and if losing my council seat was the highest cost that I would pay for doing the right thing, I could live with that. Now I say, bring it on. Let’s do it. I’m here for people and that’s what all this is about.
We have some work to do on the state level: public education, transportation and health care to name a few. How do you plan to work with colleagues to solve some of our state’s most pressing challenges?
I believe it really helps to come from a nonpartisan environment. All the work we did was issue-based. Anyone who says they’re willing to work across the aisle, that’s not special. if you’re a Democrat in a heavily-controlled Republican Legislature you have to work across the aisle. I’ve done that. There are going to be disagreements and we’re going to have to take our respective positions...policy issue by policy issue, there’s always opportunity to find some middle ground and build on that. If you take it an issue at a time, you get as close as you can get to real consensus and real collaboration. If we treat each other like gang members with separate colors, it’s all just theater, and that I’ve certainly had enough of.
C: What differentiates you from your opponent?
The opponents I know of now are good people, I have nothing bad to say about them. I can only speak for myself, and that is, I’ve dedicated my career to helping people. I’ve spent my life engaging with the issues that we’re going to engage in in Austin—public school finance, bilingual ed, predatory lending, equal rights, small business assistance and development. I’ve done these things, I know that these are the issues that are important to people because they touch people’s lives. That’s why the Legislature is a good fit. Serving people is not an opportunity; it’s a responsibility.