May 4 is a big day in local politics. In San Antonio and several incorporated cities, it’s municipal election day. Some races have generated heated competition. Others have no contested races at all.
There are, however, some extremely hard-fought contests. The big mayoral battle in San Antonio has nine combatants. Incumbent Ron Nirenberg and District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse, Nirenberg’s conservative nemesis on the council, are billed as the major contenders. On a smaller scale, the mayor’s race in Castle Hills, where former Alderman JR Treviño is locked in a battle with Alderman Douglas Gregory, has generated a lot of interest.
To hear some of the most passionate partisans in these elections, you’d think the fate of civilization hangs in the balance. When the final bell sounds, millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours will have been spent on the collective campaigns.
So, recently I found myself wondering just how much any mayoral election – or any mayor – really matters in the long run, particularly in cities with a term-limited council and a professional city manager and staff.
I’m not the only one who has asked that question. In 2011, a widely quoted study in the American Journal of Political Science — “When Mayors Matter: Estimating the Impact of Mayoral Partisanship on City Policy” — answered with a resounding “yes.” While state and federal laws limit the power exerted by city governments, researchers found conservative mayors tended to increase spending on police and fire.
A town leader can also have an impact on how money is allocated to different projects and neighborhoods through his or her ability to set agendas.
The former mayor of one incorporated municipality in the area told me after his election, he asked the city attorney how far his authority extended.
“He told me, ‘You can do anything they let you do. … Some people ask how much damage even a bad mayor can do in just a two-year term. Well, you can lose your whole city staff.’”
Good or bad, mayors can set the tone for the whole town.
“In San Antonio, since Henry Cisneros, mayors have mattered a lot,” said Char Miller, longtime professor of urban studies and history at Trinity University, as well as author of “San Antonio: A Tricentennial History.”
Miller, who is now at Pomona College, cites “the game-changing nature of Henry Cisneros’ political vision” as evidence of skillfully wielded mayoral clout. The San Antonio River tunnels, the Alamodome, the Shops at Rivercenter and SeaWorld San Antonio are among the “signature projects” he championed.
Sometimes, though, voters want a change. By 1991, San Antonio’s electorate passed the shortest term limits for mayors and council members of any major U.S. city. From 1989 to 2009, Miller wrote, eight mayors and more than 50 council members held office. Elected officials barely had time to learn the ropes.
Nelson Wolff, a former mayor who has racked up many impressive accomplishments as Bexar County judge, called it “the churn of mayors and council members.” The voters, he has written, “had driven a stake into the heart of City Hall.” In 2008, Mayor Phil Hardberger used his powerful political skill to sell voters on longer term limits – a lasting legacy.
While a city manager often has practical power, the mayor remains the city’s public face, influencing how a city sees itself and how it is perceived. The mayor can set the agenda, and has the bully pulpit, not just as a vote tiebreaker.
Mayors do matter. So does your vote.
Don’t get counted out.