On Monday, San Antonio voters will begin casting ballots in the May 6 race for mayor. Texas Public Radio sat down with the leading mayoral candidates to find out more about their policy priorities. We also asked them to take us to a location that reveals something about the values they would bring to the job. We met District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg at a place where his public and personal priorities come together. (Watch the video profile below.)
Ron Nirenberg is a diehard Red Sox fan who once dreamed of being a sports writer. And in a broad, grassy field at Hardberger Park he pulls a baseball from his leather mitt and lobs a high toss to his 8-year-old son Jonah.
“Nice job, you’re throwing like Jackie Bradley,” Nirenberg shouts, invoking the name of the Red Sox center fielder.
He says his family is what has driven him to public service, particularly his young son.
“I chose to be a stay-at-home dad for the first year of his life as a working father. And to watch my son grow, to be there, you know, in between conference calls and to throw the ball around with him when he first learned to move his arm, those were all treasured moments.”
Now Nirenberg wants to introduce his son to another of his passions- preserving natural areas like Hardberger Park.
“Places like this are an example of how government and the public have to balance the growth that's happening in our community with very important assets that we sometimes take for granted like green space,” he says.
Nirenberg’s Environmentalism and Vista Ridge
Nirenberg’s reputation as an environmentalist grew from a successful public battle in 2013, shortly after being elected to the District 8 Council seat which includes the Medical Center and UTSA on the Northwest Side.
He helped stop development that could have threatened Bracken Cave, a summer home to the largest colony of bats in the world.
Since then Nirenberg, the environmentalist has angered some developers by wanting to decrease the density on property where they planned to build. He’s questioned the San Antonio Water System’s (SAWS) plan to raise customer rates to pay for the Vista Ridge pipeline, even though he ended up voting with the rest of the council to move forward with the controversial project.
Now he says, “I'm not comfortable with where we are.”
Nirenberg says the Vista Ridge contract he voted for shifted risk away from the rate payers and emphasized conservation. He says SAWS has made changes to the contract, “that really call into question whether this project will even produce water when we need it.”
If elected mayor, Nirenberg says, he’d sit on the SAWS board and he’d use his leverage to make changes.
“I'm going to give them a period of time, 30 to 60 days, to cure all these things satisfactorily or that project will not continue,” he says.
Nirenberg, who recently turned 40, graduated from San Antonio’s Trinity University, and received a master’s from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. After working on a municipal policy project there, he returned to Trinity to run its radio station.
Nirenberg’s critics say he tends to take on issues like conservation and a stronger city ethics plan instead digging into gritty urban challenges like crime.
So we asked him about that:
Public Safety and the Police Contract
“The homicide rate in San Antonio went up last year. Are you comfortable with what we're doing in terms of public safety in the community and if not what would you do to change it?
“No, I don't think anyone should be satisfied when our crime rate is rising to the point where it's the highest it's been in three decades,” he says.
“One of the reasons why I voted against the police contract is that we need to get a structurally balanced contract so we can hire more officers. Right now we have one of the lower per capita officers … of any big city in the United States. That needs to change.”
Nirenberg claims Mayor Ivy Taylor, his opponent running for reelection, played a key role in finalizing the 5-year police contract, and that it will put the city over its targeted budget for public safety in its final two years. City staff say that’s true. Nirenberg says city negotiations on the next contract need to begin now so the city will be able to find the needed money to add officers.
Toll Roads, Rail and Transportation Plan
Nirenberg’s top infrastructure priority is one that dominated the conversation at a recent meeting of a community group, Pub Theology. Members debated the state of San Antonio’s transportation gridlock while hoisting a few beers.
Nirenberg told them San Antonio needs a modern “multimodal system” that includes mass transit, a better-funded bus system and more road capacity.
So, does that mean toll roads?
“I don't think it needs to be. In fact I don't support toll roads if there are resources to pay for those roads,” Nirenberg says.
Would he press for rail?
“I already have,” he said. “In fact a lot of people confuse streetcar with rail. I didn't support the streetcar project because it wouldn't have moved the needle on the transportation reform that we need in the city. It's not rail.
So, would Nirenberg be the mayor that tries to put rail in front of voters in the future.
“Yes. I would,” he says, adding the city needs the approval of voters before it can build a rail system.
Diversity and Inclusion
In whatever the city does Nirenberg wants diversity, inclusion. It may have something to do with the interfaith household he grew up in. His father’s family members were Jews who immigrated from Russia and Poland. His mother was a Catholic born in Malaysia.
“So I am the son of immigrants from all over the world, and I embrace that.”
Nirenberg says his views on gender diversity run counter to Mayor Ivy Taylor who voted against a non-discrimination ordinance for the LGBT community in 2014.
“I think there are remarkable differences between myself and Mayor Taylor that are important differences for people to base their votes on.”
Voters elected Taylor two years ago despite her opposition to the non-discrimination ordinance. Nirenberg is hoping they’ll rethink that and other issues this time, and consider his values.