Unless one is familiar with the many boards and commissions that have helped shape San Antonio over the past 25 years, Grace Rose Gonzales may be a name that’s slipped through the cracks.
But Gonzales moved up a notch in familiarity on Super Tuesday when, as one of four candidates vying for Bexar County Democratic chair, she advanced to a runoff by winning 27% of the vote, just three points behind incumbent Monica Alcántara.
The success so far of her first-time candidacy reflects how much dissatisfaction resides in the divided local Democratic Party.
If she wins the July 14 runoff, some Democrats worry she could take up valuable time gaining her political footing. However, Gonzales, a local designer, already has deep roots in the community that go beyond lending her expertise to city and county projects.
Her grandmother, Elena de la Garza —known in her West Side neighborhood as Doña Elena — owned two businesses, the Radiant Rose Flower Shop and the Castroville Meat Market.
“I saw how she would give credit to people who didn’t have money for groceries,” Gonzales recalls. “She had her little ledger with their name and how much they took out and how much they’d pay her.”
At the Radiant Rose, her grandmother kept a bowl of dimes by the payphone so anyone could use it to call a doctor or a family member. It was also through working with her grandmother that Gonzales earned her first five-dollar bill.
Gonzales grew up in the Jefferson neighborhood, known for producing political movers including the Castro family, County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez and Gonzales’ mentor, former Mayor Ed Garza, whom she says deserves more credit for his forward-looking work for the city.
Gonzales seems to have inherited her fiercely independent mind and calm demeanor from both her parents. Over the course of her childhood, her father — an Army officer — went to work at the Pentagon for extended periods. Her mother was a registered nurse and an early yoga enthusias.
“She’d be wearing her black leotard and standing on her head and doing stuff like that that nobody understood,” Gonzales recalls with a laugh. “She was way ahead of her time.”
While yoga had Eastern origins, it was Gonzales’ father who taught her about the concept of karma.
“When I would bring a problem to my dad, he would just hold up his hand and [say], ‘Grace, God sees all, knows all, does nothing,” she says, adding that she later came to understand that “karma would eventually take care of it. You don’t have to be in the middle of it. But because He’s not going to intervene with anything that you do, but if you choose to do this, you will pay a price.”
Gonzales’ mother advised her to not be judgmental of others. It was through these conversations that she began to understand the difference between judgement and discernment.
“To discern means that you have come to a conclusion and it changes the way you live,” she explains. “A judgment is something that you just proclaim and do nothing about.”
Doing the former is often difficult, she admits.
Gonzales studied architectural design at the University of Houston and then moved to New York in the mid ’80s, where she worked for nearly a decade in the design industry. In 2005, she opened her firm Grace PG Design Group, where she has since completed projects for the city, county and private sector clients.
It was after her return to San Antonio that Gonzales joined her neighborhood association where she met Garza, then on a path to a seat on city council and, eventually, the mayor’s office. Though she had always voted, she credits her conversations with Garza as the push that led her to take a more active role in local politics.
She gained some of her political chops as an arts advocate. During six years as chair of the Cultural Arts Board, she recalls a heated conversation she had with then-Mayor Howard Peak on a public art project.
“He said, ‘San Antonio is not ready for this!’” she remembers. “And I said, ‘Howard, I am San Antonio. Don’t clip my wings.’”
Gonzales’ current opponent has headed a fractured county Democratic Party since 2018. At times, the two warring factions within the party seem like entirely different political organizations that bear no resemblance to one another.
Gonzales, who has a reputation among peers as a problem solver, says she feels called to use her skill set to bring those sides together.
Though she doesn’t have experience working with Alcántara, she says she’s gleaned two realizations by watching the incumbent.
“One of the most important things that a leader can do is to listen and follow the rules,” Gonzales says, adding that being organized as a party on the micro level is the only way to ensure a Democrat wins the White House in November.
The turning point for Gonzales came when she observed Alcántara’s response to a March 2019 letter from County Commissioner Tommy Calvert that criticized for the chair for what he saw as a disregard for party rules.
“I thought that that was disrespectful and [felt like I was looking at] someone who did not understand protocol,” Gonzales says. “If you’re in leadership, one of the most important things to know is protocol. I thought to myself, ‘I have to help these people.’”
As a first-time candidate, Gonzales is getting the full experience, up-close-and-personal.
“Unfortunately, politics is very, very ugly,” she says. “I really wanted to stay clear of this. But, with where our country is now, we can’t stay clear of anything. It’s a call to arms. No one has the right to feel comfortable in any way, shape or form right now.”
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