Mayor Ron Nirenberg and many of San Antonio’s business leaders, frequently at odds during his administration, have entered into an uneasy alliance to try to convince voters to pass a sales tax proposal in November aimed at getting workers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic back on their feet.
Throughout his administration, business leaders have vehemently opposed Nirenberg on matters they say would wreak havoc on local businesses such as a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance and a plan to reduce carbon emissions.
For now it seems many of those misgivings have been set aside — although not forgotten.
Nirenberg and his allies have assembled a cadre of business leaders to back his plan to use a 1/8-cent sales tax for a workforce development program aimed at helping those who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic and putting a dent in the city’s endemic poverty.
The plan aims to help 40,000 people over the next four years at a cost of $154 million.
Despite being scant on details, the idea has won the backing of the San Antonio, South San Antonio and Hispanic chambers of commerce — the same leaders who had grave qualms about the paid sick leave ordinance.
“I think Ron hit it right where he needed to hit it,” Richard Perez, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO, said of the workforce proposal.
Joining them are executives of major San Antonio-area companies like H-E-B, Rackspace Technology, USAA, Frost Bank, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas and Frost Bank.
Bolstering that support is an even longer list of business executives recruited by former Mayor Henry Cisneros who have signed on to a “vote yes” campaign for all three sales tax initiatives slated to appear on the November ballot: Nirenberg’s economic recovery push, VIA’s pursuit of dollars to fund expanded public transit four years in the future, and the renewal of Pre-K 4 SA, the city’s early childhood program.
Among them are NuStar Energy chairman Bill Greehey, SWBC Chairman Charlie Amato, Holt Cat president Corinna Holt Richter, and real estate developer and philanthropist Gordon Hartman.
To some degree, that business leaders would back the workforce proposal seems like a no-brainer. Executives and business owners have long complained that the city’s workforce lacks the skills and education to fill higher-paying jobs and attract larger employers to the region.
And they feel urgency to ease the city’s economic pain — made glaringly apparent by hundreds of thousands of unemployment filings since the pandemic began and by pictures of long lines at the San Antonio Food Bank.
But the mayor’s backers also take the coalition of business support as a tacit endorsement of Nirenberg’s performance during the pandemic.
“It takes an immense amount of faith in the mayor for a business person to say, ‘this is a big step, this is a stretch step, but it needs to be and we’re putting our name behind it,’” Cisneros said. “That’s inseparable from the leadership of the mayor.”
The increased comity between Nirenberg and the city’s business leaders is a marked shift from other times in his administration when they have clashed head-on.
It’s a tension Nirenberg acknowledges.
“Obviously, the business community plays a crucial role in our city’s civic life, and business leaders are essential allies in our efforts to move the community forward. I am grateful for that support,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on every issue.”
The paid sick leave ordinance — which mandated that San Antonio firms provide the benefit for an estimated 354,000 workers who don’t already have it — drew anger from restaurant and small business owners when City Council first adopted it two years ago.
A coalition of business groups sued the city over the ordinance and tied up the issue in the courts indefinitely.
Business leaders warned Nirenberg’s plan to reduce the city’s carbon emissions would add burdensome costs for employers. Nirenberg and council members eased some of the goals laid out in the plan to weaken that opposition, though unease among the business community remains.
They also criticized the city’s decision not to bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention or Amazon’s highly-sought-after second headquarters, known as “HQ2.”
Chamber leaders convinced council members to nix a proposed “labor peace” agreement Nirenberg sought as part of an airport concessions contract that would have barred employers from preventing their workers to unionize as long as workers agreed not to strike.
And then there’s the council’s infamous vote to strike Chick-fil-A, known for supporting organizations with anti-LGBTQ views, from an airport concessions contract.
The misgivings drove the city’s business leaders to shop around for someone with more private sector bona fides to challenge the mayor in May 2021. Before the pandemic, rumors would periodically swirl that perhaps Hartman or Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president of IBC Bank, would take him on at the ballot box.
But as the coronavirus and its ensuing economic fallout spread, that talk has largely died out.
One reason for that: many business owners are working hard to keep their doors open during an unprecedented economic crisis. Ousting a mayor who occasionally upsets them just isn’t a priority.
“There’s still a gong, a drum beat of it,” Perez said. “But it’s very low now because everybody’s just so focused on staying alive.”
Cristina Aldrete, CEO of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and a frequent Nirenberg critic, has a slightly different take.
“Business people are making sure that their businesses stay afloat and making sure their employees are taken care of,” Aldrete said. “So they’ve got other things on their mind other than that this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not going to be a challenger. It’s still early.”
But the notion of challenging an incumbent with solid favorability ratings for his handling of the pandemic and who appears on television every night to keep residents up to speed on the state of the virus seems daunting.
For some, doing so would be in poor taste. Hartman, who said he is not eyeing a mayoral campaign, said there’s a sense that “this is not the proper environment to really try to go out there and go against a mayor in the circumstances that we’re currently a part of.”
And many business leaders have praised Nirenberg for what they see as his level-headed handling of the pandemic. They also note his good relationship with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, long favored by the business community, as a calming factor.
Perez also noted that the mayor has delivered on economic development, pointing to heavy-truck manufacturer Navistar’s planned $250 million South Side plant.
Nirenberg’s relationship with the business community, leaders say, has also improved as the mayor makes greater efforts to clue them in before making key decisions — contrary to his previous reputation for excluding them.
Earlier in the pandemic, Nirenberg and Wolff tapped a number of business owners and leaders to serve on working groups to advise the city and county on their response to the virus and its economic fallout.
“I think he has purposefully recognized that that was a deficit of his first term,” said Hartman, who oversaw the working groups and is a co-chair of the “vote yes” campaign. “I think he has made a conscious effort to make sure he reaches out and has them participate and be more involved in some of the processes before he makes decisions.”
But, Hartman added, “I think there’s always room for improvement and I think he’d be one to agree with that.”
Later, Nirenberg brought business leaders, among others, into the fold to help bang out the recovery proposal that will appear on the November ballot.
Among them was Aldrete of the North San Antonio Chamber. She acknowledged that the mayor sought business community input on the workforce plan, but notes the proposal wouldn’t be “fully comprehensive” without them at the table.
Still, Aldrete and her chamber aren’t backing the push just yet.
“Right now, today, there’s not enough detail in there yet,” Aldrete said. “For our chamber, we’re holding off on whether or not we support this until we hear more.”
Others have criticized the mayor for taking a long-term approach rather than solely focusing on immediate stimulus.
For example, a $191 million stimulus passed by City Council over the summer set aside about $75 million for workforce training. Critics of the workforce push have said that more should have gone to directly help small businesses, which got about $38 million.
“This plan of educating our workforce, well, that’s great,” restaurateur Louis Barrios said. “But how about taking care of what you got first before you go and do that? And he (Nirenberg) didn’t do that.”
Nirenberg and city business leaders have found themselves on the same side on big fights in the past, but that hasn’t always guaranteed victory.
The mayor and business donors teamed up in November 2018 in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to beat back a trio of charter amendments brought by the firefighters’ union. Voters passed two of the amendments, including a salary cap for the city manager. Then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whose high pay stirred controversy, was well-respected among the business community.
Business donors coalesced around Nirenberg in his tough re-election battle against the insurgent conservative council member Greg Brockhouse, who they feared would drain the city’s finances to satisfy firefighters who had gone years without a contract. But that support for Nirenberg was tepid.
Having business support could help Nirenberg woo moderate voters or conservatives who are on the fence about the workforce proposal and could be swayed by local high-powered CEOs, veteran political strategist Christian Archer said. It’s also helpful for the mayor to have them around when luring businesses to relocate to San Antonio or to pass bond packages, he said.
But business backing means increasingly little to voters when it comes time to vote for mayor, Archer said. He noted that former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, whose mayoral campaign Archer managed, had business leaders lined up behind her in 2015 when she lost to then-Mayor Ivy Taylor.
“I think Nirenberg has done a good job of not being a business community candidate,” Archer said. “He has angered them at times and you don’t want to anger them. But you don’t have to sell out to them, either.”