This weekend, the mayor's race officially began. District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg stood before a chilly downtown crowd and announced he wanted to challenge Mayor Ivy Taylor because, as he put it, under her watch "our city has stopped rising."
Then on Monday, a little bit of karma. Someone did exactly what Nirenberg did to his opponent
when he first ran for council in 2013, buying a domain name nearly identical to Nirenberg's actual campaign website (RonForSA.org instead of the Nirenberg-appproved RonForSA.com) and then redirecting all traffic to a website touting Taylor's accomplishments as mayor.
That someone was Brad Parscale, half of the San Antonio design and marketing firm Giles-Parscale, which does work for a long list of groups and businesses you've probably heard of – like the Esquire Tavern, San Antonio Cocktail Conference, San Antonio Public Library Foundation, Liberty Bar, Local Coffee, and Hotel Emma (which, if you believe the Giles-Parscale marketing, is basically the new crown jewel of the redeveloped Pearl complex).
Another client: President-elect Donald Trump, who tapped Parscale to be digital director of the "Make America Great Again" campaign.
Parscale, reportedly one of the few people Trump would let tweet on his behalf during his presidential run, first connected with the Trumps in 2010 after he low-balled some bids to build websites for the family businesses and now considers himself an honorary member of the soon-to-be First Family.
Among the strategies employed by Trump's Parscale-led digital nerve center (dubbed "Project Alamo"
): voter suppression through targeted, negative messaging. In a remarkable profile of Trump's digital team just days before the presidential election, Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Parscale
(one of his few, candid interviews about the campaign) on how the Trump camp tried to dissuade voters from showing up to the polls by bombarding Facebook with so-called "dark posts," or non-public posts whose viewership the campaign could control so that, in Parscale's words, "only the people we want to see it, see it." Like targeting African Americans with a South Park
-style animation of Hillary Clinton delivering her infamous 1996 "super predator" speech, or putting Bill Clinton's accusers front and center before white, left-leaning young women.
It's been no secret that Taylor is Parscale's pick for San Antonio mayor; he showed up to her official campaign launch party last month, and his firm even designed her campaign website. But the stunt he pulled this week redirecting people from a Nirenberg-looking website to Taylor's campaign page (which is a really
common tactic on almost every level of politics now) could very well hint at how closely involved Parscale wants to be in local politics from now on.
Parscale wouldn't talk with us by phone Monday, and only responded to our questions with a few terse text messages: "I support the Mayor and the smart decisions she has made for our city. I plan on providing support to the Mayor within my own capacity."
Parscale is no stranger to local politics, and recently pushed behind the scenes to ensure Taylor made some of those "smart decisions." Parscale sits on the board of the local nonprofit TechBloc, which is made up of tech entrepreneurs like Parscale who hope to guide policy for "San Antonio in the Internet Century.
" When, under Taylor's leadership, Uber and Lyft pulled out of San Antonio (like in other cities) because the companies refused to abide by basic safety rules that the city forced on every other transportation company (mainly, a fingerprint-based background check for drivers), it was TechBloc that led the campaign to bring rideshare back to the city.
Or maybe it was Parscale. Or Uber. It's hard to tell who exactly was negotiating for whom in internal city emails obtained by the San Antonio Progressive Alliance under a public records request and shared with the Current
(the progressive alliance was openly critical of the rideshare proposal). While the emails show TechBloc had virtually unlimited access to city council members, city staff and the mayor for more than a year, it was Parscale in particular who seemed to drive the conversation on rideshare.
The emails show that over the past year, Parscale openly represented Uber in conversations with the city. When Uber was upset with the mayor, it was Parscale who relayed the message to city staffers — who then quickly apologized on her behalf. And when the city was planning to allow Lyft (which was apparently willing to make some concessions) to operate in town and not Uber (which wasn't), it was Parscale who warned: “As a lead on this issue… we will not be satisfied with just the return of Lyft without Uber. If you fight this without Uber, you get zero political win for all the trouble. This feels like a big risk for the Mayor.” The emails from Parscale appear to be a case study in how to get your way at City Hall.
Not long after news broke
that Parscale was behind the little bit of help Taylor got this week (setting up fake Nirenberg websites that redirect to Taylor's campaign message), her camp was quick to say they knew nothing about it, that Parscale acted on his own and that he has no role in the Taylor-for-mayor campaign. But Parscale obviously thinks he could do a lot for the mayor, telling the Express-News
the kind of digital operation he built for Trump would be "a devastating force inside the city."
For now, it's unclear if Taylor would even allow Parscale to take an up-front role in her campaign. Perhaps in a county where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by a 13 point margin, it might be too politically toxic for her to bring into the fold one of the architects behind a campaign that alienated Muslims, women, immigrants, Gold Star families and Black Lives Matter supporters.
Then again, the guy did win, so...
(Alex Zielinski contributed reporting)