Editor’s Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.
The bare-knuckle brawl of a race between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and challenger Greg Brockhouse mirrored the deep partisan divides apparent on the national political stage.
Brockhouse mobilized evangelical voters by playing up their fears of religious discrimination, while Nirenberg pulled in endorsements from Democratic wonder twins Julián and Joaquin Castro and the Texas Democratic Party. Meanwhile, outside money poured into both campaigns at rates that surprised even seasoned political observers.
Of course, all of this flies in the face of San Antonio’s longstanding claim that its city elections are nonpartisan affairs. We favor that approach, the logic goes, because it allows issues, not ideology, to take the front seat.
But like a lot of the narratives our city creates around itself, that’s something of a myth. Partisanship has been part of citywide elections for some time now.
While mayor in 2012, Julián Castro became the first Hispanic to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, erasing any doubt about his party affiliation. And the 2015 matchup between Ivy Taylor and Leticia Van de Putte crackled with partisan rancor. Van de Putte was a longtime Democratic state rep, while Taylor largely appealed to conservative voters.
A similar ideological gulf was apparent during Nirenberg’s 2017 run against Taylor. It was no secret that many progressive supporters saw his win as balm for the stinging defeat Donald Trump handed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
It’s easy to point fingers at Nirenberg this go-round for accepting campaign help from the Texas Democrats, but Brockhouse fanned the fires of partisanship before he’d even announced his candidacy.
Most notably, then-councilman Brockhouse claimed Nirenberg’s unwillingness to bid on the Republican National Convention was motivated by his disdain for the GOP. Brockhouse even blew it up into a public spectacle by asking the state attorney general and the Texas Rangers to investigate whether council violated the law when it voted not to bid.
Given the current political climate, which is likely to grow even more contentious as the 2020 election looms, it may be sheer folly to think partisanship won’t consume local elections — here or elsewhere.
Maybe it’s just time to admit the Alamo City’s ideal of party-free local elections are, while well-intentioned, not grounded in reality. Plenty of other cities — from New York and Philadelphia to Houston and Charlotte — have partisan contests.
To be sure, allowing party distinctions in local elections can help voters better understand the platforms candidates support, said David Crockett, a political science professor at Trinity University.
“Partisan elections can give voters more data to work with,” he said.
Political scientists also argue that without a party ballot, voters frequently turn to other even more divisive cues when making their decision, such as the ethnicity of a candidate’s name.
Of course, none of this is to say Nirenberg can’t — and shouldn’t — work to erase the division lingering after the bitter mayoral runoff, if for nothing but selfish reasons. After all, he’ll need voter support for his plan to alleviate San Antonio’s growing transportation woes, and if he hopes to shore up support for his climate plan.
In a recent interview with the Current, Nirenberg said he hopes to bridge the divide by being more visible in the community and continuing efforts to make city government more transparent.
“I’ll be out in the neighborhoods far more often than before,” Nirenberg said. “People will see me on their doorsteps a lot more than they will on TV.”
That visibility and openness may be the best approach.
It’s certainly preferable to one where the mayor backs away from the bold changes he was elected twice now to fulfill. Or trying to sell those changes as something they’re not.
While sticking to the middle may be the most natural inclination as Nirenberg tries to unify the city, that strategy hasn’t always served him well.
Take, for example, his defense of the vote to exclude Chick-fil-A from the airport’s concessions contract as a business decision based on the chain’s closed-on-Sunday policy. Voters on the left saw it as a failure to deliver a full-throated defense of the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
And those on the right?
“It didn’t inoculate Nirenberg from their attacks,” Crockett said. “They just saw it as trying to be clever — and not successfully so.”
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