Sculley’s leaving changes outlook
Initially, Sheryl Sculley’s decision to retire was seen as a boon to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who had been trapped between public sentiment against the city manager and strong support for her in the business community.
Now, a week after Sculley’s announcement, it’s clear Nirenberg has emerged from the Sculleycentered political tumult of recent months in a weakened position heading into the 2019 mayor’s race.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a political veteran who traditionally has supported the re-election of incumbent mayors and who had been seen as a backer of Nirenberg’s, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I want to see who all the candidates are first before I make a final decision,” Wolff said. “There’s been a lot of names bandied around. … I don’t know yet what the picks will be, so I don’t really know. And you never know — somebody could pop up at the last minute.”
Among those mentioned as possible candidates are City Councilman Rey Saldaña, developer and philanthropist Gordon Hartman and banking executive Eddie Aldrete.
Hartman and Aldrete said they do not intend to challenge Nirenberg.
Saldaña, a friend and ally of the mayor’s, appears to be leaving his options open. He will be forced out of his council seat next year by term limits.
Last Friday, the day after Sculley dropped her bombshell, Saldaña was asked whether he would run for mayor.
“Twenty-four hours ago, I knew the answer to that,” he said. “I don’t know now.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who is expected to challenge Nirenberg in the May election, is spinning Sculley’s retirement announcement to his own advantage.
It initially seemed her departure could be a momentum-killer for Brockhouse, because he no longer would be able to use her to attack Nirenberg.
But now, Brockhouse and the city firefighters’ union are pointing to Sculley’s departure — which they long had sought — as a major victory in their drive to oust Nirenberg.
Brockhouse has taken to saying that he never planned to focus on the city manager; that a campaign with a “melt down Sheryl Sculley” approach has proven ineffective in the past.
“If that worked, we’d have Mayor Manuel Medina,” he said, referring to Medina’s 2017 failed bid for the office.
“It doesn’t work,” Brockhouse said. “So when I run, or if I run, it wouldn’t have been an anti-Sculley campaign.”
Blood in the water
Nirenberg’s troubles are rooted in a bitter dispute between the city and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association over taxpayer-funded health benefits and other contract terms.
At Sculley’s urging, the city filed suit against the union, seeking to invalidate an “evergreen” clause in its contract that leaves most provisions of the agreement intact even after it has formally expired.
The city’s suit failed in the courts. It also infuriated union leaders and their president, Chris Steele, who turned to scorched-earth tactics in their battle with the city.
The union began gathering signatures on petitions seeking to amend the city charter in three ways. One amendment would lower the threshold for challenging City Council decisions by public referendum. Another would give the union unilateral authority to take contract disputes to binding arbitration.
The third amendment aimed squarely at the city manager’s office. It proposed a cap on the salary and tenure of future city managers. The proposal came to be seen as a referendum on Sculley, although it would not apply to her.
In campaigning for the amendments, the union depicted Sculley as power-hungry and her compensation — a $475,000 base salary, plus an annual performance bonus of up to $100,000 — as grossly excessive.
Although Nirenberg, business leaders and elected officials campaigned vigorously against the amendments, voters approved two of them — those affecting the city manager and binding arbitration for the firefighters. The third amendment was defeated.
Although some business leaders admire Nirenberg for standing behind Sculley, others view him as politically wounded by the outcome.
“There continues to be this vacuum,” said a business leader who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. “And people are still searching for some white knight to ride up and run for mayor and run for council seats.”
The financial terms of Sculley’s contract expire at the end of the year, creating a predicament for Nirenberg had Sculley wanted to stay in office. If the council had extended her contract, Nirenberg likely would have faced the wrath of voters.
But the business community, which funded the $2 million Go Vote No campaign against the amendments, wanted Sculley’s contract extended, despite the public vote of no confidence.
By announcing her retirement after 13 years in the position, Sculley seemed to take some pressure off the mayor.
Now, some fault Nirenberg for not persuading her to announce her retirement earlier, before her conflict with the firefighters grew into an all-out political war.
And there are those who say he should get her to leave now, rather than have her remain through the May elections. Sculley has said she will stay on the job through June 30 if necessary to ensure a smooth transition.
In a one-on-one race between Brockhouse and Nirenberg, conventional wisdom has it that the business community would side with Nirenberg. Still, the mayor’s relationship with business leaders has been tenuous. The business community backed thenMayor Ivy Taylor over Nirenberg in the 2017 election.
He’s taken heat for the city’s decision — made behind closed doors — not to make a bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Most recently, Nirenberg and the council have been in the business community’s crosshairs for approving an ordinance mandating paid sick leave for privatesector employees in San Antonio.
The Saldaña factor
Saldaña long has been seen as a mayoral contender, but has done little in his final term on council to set himself apart from Nirenberg’s agenda. He has made it known, however, that he’s loath to see Brockhouse in the mayor’s office and would consider a mayoral bid if it would prevent that from happening.
Despite having no announced political plans, Saldaña has continued to amass cash. As of July, he reported more than $140,000 in the bank, compared to $167,624 for Nirenberg. Brockhouse reported $15,516.
A “Farewell” fundraiser for Saldaña is scheduled to be held at the Pearl next Thursday.
“You’ve got to ask why he’s having a fundraiser,” one business leader said. “It’s for a future effort, obviously.”
Listen to the people
Another factor in Nirenberg’s future is the Texas Organizing Project, a grassroots organization that has emerged as a powerful player in local politics. The group was behind the successful push for mandatory paid sick leave and its supporters knocked on tens of thousands of doors during the November election, campaigning against two of the charter amendments.
It’s unclear whether the group will play a role in the mayor’s race, but it’s not something Nirenberg cares to test. His relationship with the organizing project may depend on how he moves forward in replacing Sculley.
“In no way are we celebrating City Manager Sculley’s departure,” said the project’s executive director, Michelle Tremillo. “We remain focused on addressing the frustrations the overwhelming majority of San Antonio voters expressed in this election. Our city government is not working for the majority of us, and the next person to hold this position needs to be responsive to our entire community.
“The mayor and council have an opportunity to restore faith in our city government by co-creating a process with the community to hire and evaluate the next city manager. Or they can operate as usual and see how voters respond in May.”
Who’s not playing
Speculation on who might challenge Nirenberg likely will continue until 5 p.m. Feb. 15, the filing deadline for candidates.
Hartman and Aldrete insist they won’t darken the city clerk’s doorway.
“I have no desire to run for mayor and I will not be running for mayor,” said Hartman, who served as treasurer for the Go Vote No campaign.
Aldrete said he prefers to help San Antonio through his civic work.
“I’ve had quite a few people ask me (to run),” he said. “I can tell you, emphatically, that I’m not running for mayor.”
City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s decision to retire now is seen as weakening Mayor Ron Nirenberg.