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Government/Politics

Runoff Election Paves The Way For A More Progressive San Antonio City Council

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Joey Palacios/Texas Public Radio
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Jalen McKee-Rodriguez at his victory party on runoff election night on June 6, 2021.

Four new faces will join the San Antonio City Council this month after voters in a runoff election unseated two sitting council members and elected replacements for two open seats. They the include the council’s first openly gay man, a housing advocate, and an environmental advocate.

The youngest is Jalen McKee-Rodriguez — elected to District 2 on the city’s East Side.

“We expected every step of the way we were going to be the underdog,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We were going to come in and we were going to be the 26-year-old teacher battling a crowded field.”

McKee-Rodriguez faced 13 people in the race, including one-term incumbent Jada Andrews-Sullivan — whose council office he previously worked in. He defeated her in Saturday’s runoff election. McKee-Rodriguez is the first openly gay man elected to the city council. He’ll be the seventh person to represent District 2 in seven years and he said he’s ready to disrupt the system.

“We want our fair share and getting that means acknowledging that for so long we haven’t gotten our fair share and I think that's what people view as radical,” he said. “And that’s what the people are demanding and so that’s what the people want so that’s what I’m going to give them.”

In downtown and the near northside, District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino was defeated by Mario Bravo, a project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. The district finds itself at the center of San Antonio’s homelessness issues and Bravo said it’s something he wants to work on.

“We’re not going to change anything immediately, it’s going to have to be a smooth transition for anything that does change,” Bravo said. “But I’m going to do my best to work with the experienced professionals who work in mental health, who work in drug addiction, who operate shelters, and work with the communities.”

In District 3, Phyllis Viagran, the sister of current Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, was elected on Saturday. That gives the Viagran family potentially ten years of representing the South Side. Phillys Viagran said her platform focuses on addressing domestic violence and getting people back to work during and after the pandemic, but she also wants reliability from the city’s utilities — especially amid talks of rate increases.

“We need to make sure that the community feels like their utilities can be trusted,” Viagran said.

District 5, which encompasses San Antonio’s West Side, elected Teri Castillo — a housing advocate with a hearty list of endorsements. She said neighborhood stabilization needs to be prioritized by the city council.

“Whether you live on the East Side or the West Side, folks are feeling the economic pressure of the real estate industry,” she said. “So we need to be sure we’re investing in homeowner rehab programs, programs that already exist but are severely underfunded, so that we can ensure our residents all throughout San Antonio — not just in District 5 — can afford to stay in their homes and aren’t vulnerable to predatory real estate practices as we experience all this economic investment.”

Castillo notably received the endorsement of former Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders. She also had the backing and political power of social justice, grass roots and activist organizations like the Texas Organizing Project and Democratic Socialists of America — as did McKee-Rodriguez in District 2.

The addition of McKee-Rodriguez and Castillo on the city council may mean higher odds of left-leaning and progressive policies being introduced and then approved by an already slightly left-of-center council.

“I expect that Teri and I are going to continue to fight for those things that the community has been asking for for so long,” said McKee-Rodriguez. “There was a lot of resistance with paid sick leave. There was a lot of resistance with the non-discrimination ordinance — a lot of things that working class people want and those policies that organizations like TOP are asking for. We’re going to be champions of those.”

While state law doesn’t allow for city elections to run on party lines, the political leanings of council members can often be apparent. District 9 Councilman John Courage was the only incumbent to survive a runoff. He defeated a far right-leaning candidate in the far North Side district, which often leans more conservative.

‘I’ve told people that I run right down the middle because I want to serve everybody,” Courage said. “It doesn’t matter, if you’re a Democrat, Republican, Liberal or Progressive, there’s not a Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole.”

Courage — who like Castillo received an endorsement from Bernie Sanders in his first election in 2017 — said although he has supported Democrats in the past, he is a centrist and believes most of the council is moderate.

“Some are fiscally conservative, some people may say they are Progressive, but that’s in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “I don’t look at it that way."

Regardless of political leaning or sway, the council will have its hills to climb. Among other issues, it will have to handle the undecided police contract amid calls for discipline reform, the winter storm utility failure, and the recovery from the pandemic.

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