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Mayor on the Hot Seat

San Antonio’s independent mayor Ron Nirenberg aims to transform his city, an oasis of blue in a deep red state, into a world leader. But first he has to deal with a housing shortage, a public transportation problem, climate change and—oh, right—that “medieval” border wall.

Ron Nirenberg speaks at the Alamo. Photo by Jon Alonzo

A former personal trainer and the founder of a communications and marketing firm, Ron Nirenberg was elected mayor of San Antonio, Texas, in June 2017. Last year, in connection with our choice of San Antonio as one of the 15 most dynamic cities in the country, Worth interviewed the now 41-year-old mayor on why he won and how he hoped to transform San Antonio into a top-tier city capable of challenging Austin, Dallas and Houston for Texas bragging rights.

This year, Worth returned to see how Mayor Nirenberg is keeping his promises—and why he thinks he deserves reelection in 2019.

Worth:  Mayor Nirenberg, I last visited you in July 2018, just about a year after you’d been elected. How’s it going?

Ron Nirenberg: Last year was the tricentennial of San Antonio. It was a great celebration, but we’ve had a very busy year. There’s been a tremendous amount of transition over the last 12 months. Some of our policy direction has changed dramatically. All in good ways, all by design.

What’s in the win column for you?

When you were last here, we discussed the challenges of socioeconomic inequity. One of the most important achievements of the last year was the delivery of a comprehensive and compassionate housing strategy for the city. It’s the economic building block of a modern city.

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Why is affordable housing such a priority for you?

Because socioeconomic inequity can track with the cost burden that families have in regard to housing. Half of our renters are cost-burdened, which means they are paying more than 30 percent of their income just on housing.

Half of San Antonio families pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing? That’s a real challenge.

And it’s made even more difficult in a city like ours because we’re so sprawled. Often the jobs that people have are way on the other side of town and with very little access to public transportation. They have to own a car, and the car costs a lot of money to operate, especially with city congestion. So one of the factors in cost of living is where we build the houses, at how much cost we build the houses and also how do we reform our transportation system?

I’m fortunate to be able to visit cities around the country. There is not one where this isn’t a big issue.

It’s a new gilded age, and it is hidden in many cities because the wealth has grown so conspicuous. Cities are doing well. We’re doing well. San Antonio, though, has a history of being a very low wage, poor city. So when we do see that kind of economic development, the disparity tends to make the gap even wider.

Do you support a higher mandatory minimum wage?

By state law, we’re not permitted to raise the minimum wage. But we’ve done other things. We were a pioneer in raising our entry level wage [for city employees] to $15 an hour. It’s still a barely livable wage, but it’s about 50 percent higher [than it was].

What else are you doing to tackle economic inequity?

We’re also using our resources in regard to economic development and infrastructure investment in a more equitable manner. We’re investing in communities that have been left behind. And we’re using resources to encourage the growth of businesses locally but also ones coming into our city that help create jobs at higher wages.

It must be easier to make these investments of money and political capital at a time when much of the city is doing very well.

We’re in an era of great prosperity as a city, and that’s great. But what will make a difference for the future is whether or not that prosperity emanates throughout the city. The fact is that, from an income standpoint, we are a segregated city, which is holding San Antonio back from reaching its potential.

How do you plan to address the shortage of public transportation here?

One of the big focus areas this year is “Connect SA.” It’s a nonprofit that I started with the county judge [Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff] to help deliver a comprehensive transportation plan that voters will hopefully approve within the next year and a half.

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Does it involve taxes?

Yeah. Everything we do in the public sector involves taxes. The question is, will it involve new taxes?

And?

Undetermined, but likely not. The reason is we’ve identified about 10 or 11 different levers we can pull in regard to funding. Some of it is existing revenue that’s currently being spent, often in transportation, just in a highly inefficient and uncoordinated way. What we need to do is finally invest in urban rapid transit.

Could you define what “urban rapid transit” means for San Antonio?

People’s minds go directly to light rail. We believe we’ve skipped over that. Our city is 500 square miles. If we were to invest in light rail now, we wouldn’t be able to extend it to everyone who needs it for another 30 years.

So what do you skip over that to?

Trackless transit.

I don’t know what that means.

For the rider, there is no perceivable difference between a light rail train and a trackless transit car. It operates on traditional rubber tires. It’s low or no emission. It can be scaled up like a train. It’s flexible because it’s not on a track.

I’m confused. Are you talking about a bus?

It’s similar to a bus but it rides in a separate right of way and follows a design that’s painted onto the street. Some of the transit vehicles are already developed to be autonomous, so they can scale up.  These vehicles are much more flexible—we can change routes if necessary, but it’s far less expensive, a quarter to a half of the price.

So you’re not talking about building some massively expensive new train system, like California has been debating for many years now.

Yeah. So the costs are much more reasonable, which makes the implementation of a new plan much easier.

Half the battle in transit plans is to get people to accept options besides their cars. Is San Antonio culturally ready to embrace a less car-dependent transit policy?

I believe it’s been ready. We just haven’t had the political courage to ask.

But there have been votes here on light rail plans and they failed.

There was a light rail vote in 2000 and again in 2002. Think about the world in 2002—gas was 80 cents a gallon here. There were two rings around the city that were speedways because there was no traffic. In fact, where two of our major highways intersected, you had to stop at a light to get on and off the road. So life was dramatically different. People didn’t feel the pain of congestion. People are feeling the pain of congestion now and it’s impacting our economy, our quality of life, our air quality.…

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Let’s talk about another issue that’s both local and national. San Antonio, like the rest of the country, recently suffered the effects of a 35-day government shutdown because of the political fight over President Trump’s desire to build a wall on our border with Mexico.  What’s your position on the wall?

My position hasn’t changed: It’s a medieval solution to a 21st century problem that we could solve if the people who were in charge of cities were the ones doing the negotiating.

President Trump recently visited the border to argue that cities and towns near the border with Mexico are infested with violent crime because of illegal immigration.  Is that the case in San Antonio?

I was just teasing my wife while we were driving—I was like, did you bring your passport? I didn’t know if we were going to run into a checkpoint outside of San Antonio.

The truth is that San Antonio has the best walls, but they are all full of art and windows and doors.

Let’s talk about the city of the future, which is a campaign theme for you.

My first campaign was “the city you deserve.” That’s a city that you would choose even if you could live anywhere else in the world. San Antonio has that potential although it is, in places, unrealized. But we have the tools and the human capital and the ability to realize it.

When you look around San Antonio, what are the successes that epitomize what you’re talking about?

A few come immediately to mind. No secret to anyone, America has been slipping in its standing in the world with regard to how it educates its young people. We’re not educating young people to fill the jobs of the future. In San Antonio, we have created a national model for early childhood education—full day pre-K amid some of the toughest conditions relative to diversity.

Meaning that you’re taking a bunch of different kids from different backgrounds and elevating them all?

Correct. Socioeconomic diversity. Cultural diversity. Language diversity.

Let’s talk about your reelection campaign. Who’s running against you and why?

Here’s the thing. I don’t ever expect or want to have an easy race….

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Really? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy race?

Well, OK. Maybe I would want to. I never expect to have an easy race. But a challenging race is something I would expect if we’re going to have an agenda that challenges the status quo, which is what we’ve done from day one. I didn’t run on more of the same. There is friction with that.

Give me an example.

We are in the midst of public vetting of a climate action and adaptation plan. It’s the first plan of its kind that uses [social] equity as a foundational principle. It’s creating friction already because there are things in there that are going to be hard. But we’ve got the parties at the table that need to be there, and we’ll find out if everybody has the gumption to implement it.

Tell me a little bit from a personal perspective about being mayor. What have you learned? Has the job changed you?

My wife had this saying when we first met, and she has always repeated it: “People change, and they forget to tell each other.” You have to proactively get outside of the bubble of City Hall. If we don’t go out and listen to our community and really get the pulse of who we serve, we risk losing people along the way.

So…really making an effort to be inclusive and hear diverse voices.

I’ve learned in this job that the world is changing very quickly, and that regardless of how things were done in the past, we always have to err on the side of transparency and access, even if it’s maybe difficult or potentially perilous to the project at hand. That’s one thing.

And another?

The second thing I learned in dealing with colleagues is that everybody’s got their own priorities and speed at which they work. I think I’ve learned to be a little bit more savvy about when I step on the gas and when I lay on the brake.

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