Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's political scene.
San Antonio native Melissa Cabello Havrda believes that there’s a lesson to be learned from every one of her life experiences.
The past four months of her second bid to represent District 6 on San Antonio’s city council has been ripe with those lessons as she prepares for a runoff with certified public accountant Andy Greene. Cabello Havrda is vying for the open seat being vacated by Greg Brockhouse — an opportunity she wasn’t expecting for another six years.
I first met Cabello Havrda in mid-February at Mad Pecker Brewing Co. on Tezel Road in the heart of Northwest San Antonio. The energetic attorney, dressed in an orange campaign t-shirt, invited me to sit at an open table. The owner, one of her campaign supporters, had opened early just for our interview.
Cabello Havrda, now 44, ran for the D6 council seat in 2017, and advanced to a runoff with Brockhouse, who’s now entwined in an increasingly caustic runoff of his own with first-term Mayor Ron Nirenberg. That year, Brockhouse defeated Cabello Havrda with 52% of the vote. Despite the three opponents on the May 4 ballot this election cycle, she hoped that the outcome this time would swing in her favor.
Cabello Havdra’s interest in public service began when she was a child. On a walk with her grandfather, she noticed there weren’t any sidewalks on a particular street. When she asked why, her grandfather replied, “Porque no les importa. They don’t care about us.” In subsequent years, she would decide to make it one of her long-term goals to see to it that her community would get its fair share of resources and investment. When I asked her if she could give a personified description her part of town, she pauses for a minute and replies, “District 6 is the middle child of the city.”
Her experience advancing to a runoff as a first-time candidate was a crash course in political maneuvering.
“A runoff election is much more stressful,” she explains. “You have to start with a brand new plan. Whatever worked in the regular election, may or may not work in the runoff.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson she learned is that a candidate must “flip the page and start over.” No matter how many block-walking interactions a candidate had that might have earned a general-election vote, both competitors are “back where [they] started: zero votes.”
“It was just 30 days of intense, stressful work,” she recalls, comparing a council race to a half-marathon and a runoff to nothing short of a sprint. “And you didn’t necessarily train for that sprint. The reason I got so close last time is because I block walked the heck out of these neighborhoods.”
Along the way, Cabello Havrda also discovered that bold authenticity is key when engaging with potential voters, who she says are mostly concerned about property appraisals, traffic and crime.
“People don’t want to see your mask,” she says, referring to her own mask as “grown-up Melissa lawyer lady. They want to see who you are.”
As part of that authenticity, she once let the F-word fly, and when she did, “people didn’t flip out” — a trickle-down perk of Trump-era political discourse.
And now Cabello Havrda could be poised to learn another lesson about the power of political association. Because of the 2017 runoff as Brockhouse’s opponent, and now, as the councilman’s possible successor, voters may perceive a link between her and Brockhouse, which could play to her advantage or disadvantage.
On election night, I returned to Mad Pecker Brewing Co. for Cabello Havrda’s watch party. Amidst the supporters in orange T-shirts, there was a feeling that the clean win she’d hoped for wasn’t in the bag.
That turned out to be the case. Cabello Havrda won 47% of the vote, locking her in a runoff with Greene, who finished with 35%. Though she was publicly optimistic, it was time to flip the page again.
“Maybe that’s the lesson that I had to learn,” she says days later. “That it takes more than hard work.”
The week after Mother’s Day, I joined Cabello Havrda on a block walk near West Commerce and Southwest 39th streets. Most people she speaks to engage in, on the average, minute-long conversations. Even the seemingly disinterested residents are polite and take her flyer with updated voting information.
“Quality over quantity,” she says of knowing when to end her campaign pitch as she offers me a bottled water from her backpack.
As she talks to an older woman, her daughter and granddaughter join us at the door. The smiling child reaches out and hugs Cabello Havrda, taking us all by surprise. It turns out that the family recognizes her from her block walking two years ago.
I jokingly tell Cabello Havrda that she does seem like the runoff queen.
“I’ve got my tiara,” she agrees with a laugh.
“All I can do is block walk,” she says as we approach a gated residence with a front porch shrine dedicated to Julián Castro. “You can never predict people ... how they’re going to vote or if they’re going to vote.”
If Cabello Havrda can inspire supporters to vote for her a fourth time, the self-described “almost councilwoman” may get the happy ending she’s been hoping for.
And wouldn’t that be a lesson in itself?
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