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What Happened in the City Runoff Election of 2017?

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Watching the San Antonio election results on Election Day last Saturday evening was certainly no nail-biting affair. The results were clearly evident during the seven o’clock hour when the early voting report scrolled across the TV screens, even though the tallies from the 30% of the votes from election day  was yet to be counted. There never was a substantial change in the numbers before the final winners and losers were declared.

In the aftermath of the election, a common reaction of the local conservative leaders I interviewed after election day was denial followed by horror then a sense of bewilderment when all the results were finally in.

Mayor Ivy Taylor’s margin of loss in terms of actual votes was the most significant, over 9,000 votes.  John Courage  strongly affiliated with the liberal Democratic Party prevailed over Marco Barros who’s had deep roots in District 9. Cynthia Brehm who successfully garnered the most votes in the general election was defeated by Manny Pelaez who entered the runoff with questions about his residency in the district and past history of bankruptcies.

Ron Nirenberg who was elected to represent District 8 in 2013 had a tough time against Rolando Briones (314 votes separated the two) but he prevailed in the runoff, assisted by the frequent attacks against Briones by the local press. Relations soured between Nirenberg as District 8 representative and the Christian community when he voted for the unpopular homosexual rights ordinance in the Fall of 2013, then championed and defended Planned Parenthood’s surreptitious construction of a large abortion center planted in a quiet District 8 neighborhood without public hearings and input from the residents of Dreamhill Estates.

Informal interviews with local conservative leaders in San Antonio (respondents) were conducted by this writer. The respondents included a leader from the Bexar County Republican Party, Christian church pastors, a former city council member, GOP grassroots activists, a campaign manager for one of the candidates who lost the race, conservative PAC advocates, an election data analyst.

While most confessed the results were a “total surprise”, their comments and assessments were interesting and informative. Most believed that there were candidates like John Courage who ran disciplined, well organized campaigns. He used a cadre of young, enthusiastic volunteers to canvass and engage voters in District 9 in the opinion of one of the respondents and the perception was Ron Nirenberg also ran his campaign well, stayed on message during public forums and appearances with his vision as he articulated in his 32 page campaign policy statement.

The interview respondents thought that the Ivy Taylor campaign was overconfident and made serious mistakes in her public statements. Her staff ran a “lackadaisical” campaign and she assumed the Christian community was united and solidly behind her. According to a knowledgeable and politically savvy pastor, the Christian community was deeply divided and split unlike her first election against Van de Putte when the Christian community was energized and backed her mayoral run as a strong voting bloc.

One Church leader and a veteran politician thought her message on her vote opposing the Texas Sanctuary City ban was handled badly. She should have emphasized that her position was to represent the law abiding citizens of the city in keeping with her leadership role in protecting the city from any negative impact from the lawsuit. Instead she emphasized the financial fallout which she also did last year when she spoke against SB 6, the Texas Privacy Act (Bathroom bill). “Is she afraid to convey to the people of San Antonio that  her judgments are guided by her Christian faith? She should lead with a message of righteousness, not economic fallout” commented a local church leader.

Furthermore, according to the interviewee, Mayor Taylor’s position in her 2013 NDO (Non-Discrimination Ordinance) vote as a District councilwoman was widely supported by the Christian community. She successfully worked through a police union contract and a number of city projects which will generate substantive economic benefits for the city. But she did not articulate her accomplishments as Mayor effectively in the public forums.

There were other comments brought up by a few interviewees concerning voter weariness after the “contentious and stressful” presidential election last November which translated into “apathy and complacency” in the local election. There were also questions about possible demographic shifts with a growing Hispanic majority which traditionally tilt towards the more liberal values of the Democratic Party.

There  was a sentiment expressed about how conservatives are not engaging the younger “millennial” voters who are “independent thinkers and want to be engaged and participate in the political process”.

One interviewee associated with a Catholic PAC commented that the city’s voters are getting more liberal and have the perception that Ivy Taylor is more conservative than the voting population which hurt her especially this year because many liberal leaning voters are upset and angry that Donald Trump won the presidency and believe he “hates Hispanics and immigrants”. These voters are also very angry, according to the respondent,  about Governor Abbott signing the Sanctuary City ban into state law. These liberal voters, in the view of the interviewee, identified  Mayor Taylor with President Trump and Governor Abbott on immigration and they came out to vote for Nirenberg.

This opinion seems plausible considering a large women’s protest was held downtown on January 21st opposing Trump followed by the rally downtown on January 29th to protest Trump’s executive order on immigration. On the other hand, the Christian community was disgruntled with Ivy Taylor’s stance as represented by Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran and Police Chief William McManus protesting the SB 6 “Bathroom Bill” (Texas Privacy Act) in Austin.

Finally, several interviewees thought the voters were quite disconnected from the district candidates’ campaign positions, had a strong opinion on the mayoral candidates, and in the Barros vs. Courage District 9 race, one of the more conservative districts, they simply cast their ballots based on the candidates’ surnames, Hispanic vs. Anglo. I leave it to the readers to assess the wisdom and accuracy of this observation.

What is clear and this was the opinion of a local GOP leader is that the next city election will be a very challenging time for conservative candidates. They must have the experience and political savvy to run very well-managed campaigns. They must be well-funded and start early, much earlier, and campaign hard and be well known and knowledgeable about their district’s interests and issues. While the city council, according to most local political pundits and operatives, has turned hard left, the people of San Antonio will be watching closely how well they govern and manage the outsized challenges the city faces with growing crime and public safety, the ongoing battle between the city manager and the firefighters union,  near gridlock on the freeways, exploding unmanaged residential and commercial growth, disturbing ethical lapses among city leaders, property tax increases without caps due to rising residential and commercial property assessments, etc.

Christians have a supernatural outlook when confronting the troubles and challenges we face as residents of San Antonio. We seek political leaders who will accommodate and respect our moral traditions and values, protect the safety of our families, guarantee our civil liberties and individual freedoms, and foster a healthy economy. We only ask that we have the freedom to live our lives with as little intrusion into our affairs as possible from government bureaucracies. All the while we keep a patient and prayerful outlook  seeking no malice towards others but only the greatest common good possible for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

In their governing role in San Antonio, Mayor-Elect Nirenberg and the new council members should take to heart this reflection by James Madison:

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” (James Madison, Founding Father and 4th President; Federalist Papers, No. 57)

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