Political establishment works to pave way for Perry’s successor, but newcomers plan to have their say

By April 18, 2023Uncategorized

A group of neighborhood leaders, political advisors and former officeholders that have long enjoyed influence over District 10’s representation on City Council are once again flexing their muscles in the race to replace Clayton Perry. 

The Northeast Neighborhood Alliance sprung to action after a November hit-and-run car crash left Perry politically vulnerable, rallying support for Marc Whyte, a 42-year-old lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the 2018 Republican nomination for Texas House District 121 when former House Speaker Joe Straus retired. 

As of last week, however, Perry’s legal troubles have been resolved as he finishes out his third and final term. Meanwhile, Whyte’s opponents are challenging the idea that a little-known newcomer can replicate Perry’s success in a district that’s sent conservative voices to the City Council while supporting Democrats for higher office in recent years.

Despite a relatively late start to the race, fundraising reports covering Jan. 1 through March 27 indicate Whyte, with the alliance’s support, raised more money than any other candidate on the ballot this May, with the exception of Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“They believe in anointing and appointing,” longtime labor organizer Bob Comeaux, said of the neighborhood group’s influence on District 10. Comeaux has sought to rally support for candidates running against the group’s candidates and is helping bike activist Bryan Martin this year. 

In a nod to the influence of the coalition of neighborhood associations, last year City Council unanimously chose its leader, former Councilman Mike Gallagher, to serve in Perry’s place so the latter could seek treatment after the drinking and driving incident.

Later Gallagher and the other former officeholders were also instrumental in urging Perry to clear the path for Whyte, who has been endorsed by Perry and seven other former District 10 councilmen. He also has the support of the police and fire unions, the San Antonio Board of Realtors, Straus and Bexar County Commissioner Grant Moody (Pct. 3). 

Perry won the seat in a hard-fought runoff with environmental lawyer Ezra Johnson in 2017, and held it through a spirited rematch in 2021, when District 10 voter turnout was roughly 23.5%, according to data provided by SA2020

Less than two years later the same district gave Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke 54% of its vote in the 2022 midterm, an election in which the district’s voter turnout was close to 50%.

“[Municipal elections are] a matter of organizational skills … but progressives are more organized in District 10 than they were in 2017,” said Johnson, who pointed to the formation of the North East Bexar County Democrats as an example. “There’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into laying the groundwork for that and I think if it comes down to a ground-game battle, we could see a change of direction here.”

In an interview last week Whyte said he believes the district remains center-right in its politics. 

“Clayton Perry would have walked into office again,” said Whyte. “I think a very conservative candidate can win this seat.”

Behind the scenes, however, Whyte’s been tapping his political network to prove he can be effective in a nonpartisan council role.

Pauline Rubio, a former Democratic precinct chair who sought the temporary appointment, is helping his campaign craft policy proposals, and former Leadership San Antonio classmates helped him raise money last week. 

Whyte also tried unsuccessfully to consolidate support from conservative candidates, asking another District 10 contender, Madison Gutierrez, to join his team. 

“He said that I seemed like a very nice person and he wanted to have me on his team,” said Gutierrez. “Unfortunately I feel like I really have to do this for myself.”

Political opponents say Whyte will need those relationships, and his fundraising advantage, to expand his support beyond the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance and emerge victorious in a seven-candidate field.

While there’s little daylight between Perry and Whyte’s political ideologies, a poll conducted in January for Johnson and shared with the San Antonio Report suggested the two potential opponents were hardly interchangeable to voters. 

Video footage from the night of Perry’s car crash had shown him looking severely inebriated, lying on the ground in his backyard. Still, independent voters ranked Perry first as their first choice to represent District 10, while Whyte was nowhere on their radar.

Johnson, who ranked a distant second in the poll, said he passed on the race because voters had already rejected him twice. 

Newcomers on the ballot

This year the North East Bexar County Democrats and a coalition of unions, called the Organized Labor Council, are instead coalescing behind Martin, a first-time candidate. As of March 27 the 38-year-old had raised roughly $2,600 for the race. 

Though Comeaux said he just met Martin roughly six weeks ago, he was impressed by the candidate’s small business experience running an electric bike company, and hosted a meet-and-greet event for him at his home last week. 

Joel Solis and Robert Flores are each running for City Council after long careers in government relations, Solis as an international trade expert for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and Flores as a lobbyist for oil and gas and technology companies in the Texas LegislatureThey’re joined at candidate forums by political newcomer Rick Otley, a former journalist and high school teacher who has worked in the community for more than 40 years. 

The Northeast Neighborhood Alliance hosted a candidate forum Monday night that drew roughly 200 attendees and an appearance from Nirenberg.

“This shows how involved District 10 is in elections, not only for your own councilman, but for the mayor as well,” Perry said at the event at the Tool Yard.

Top of mind for attendees was Proposition A, a proposed charter amendment aimed at police reform that, among other things, would require police to issue tickets instead of make arrests for some nonviolent crimes. That provision alone has made the entire proposition toxic among many of the city’s neighborhood groups and caused most candidates to come out against it.

“It’s just a disguise to bring in a bunch of little things, and the really big thing is to decriminalize criminal behavior,” Otley told the Tool Yard crowd. “…I’m against it, and I can tell by looking at you, you’re against it, too.”

Just one candidate, Martin, told the forum attendees that he supports the proposal.

Martin defended cite and release, which he said was first instituted under former Gov. Rick Perry, and the idea of a justice director who doesn’t have law enforcement experience. “We don’t want the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. 

In an interview at Act 4 SA’s Proposition A launch party last month, Martin said he believed the charter amendment didn’t upset young homeowners nearly as much as it would seem at the neighborhood association meetings.

“My opinion is the older you get, the more scared you might be [of crime],” Martin said of that dynamic. “There are a lot of scare tactics out there, but really, at the end of the day, your neighbors are not your enemy.”

The inside track

Whyte first got involved in politics in 2012 when he, at the request of state Rep. Lyle Larson, went to Ohio to door-knock for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Over the next 10 years Larson and other GOP officials helped groom Whyte for political office. 

Gallagher put him on the city’s Ethics Review Board and the Port San Antonio board. After finishing fifth in the Republican primary to replace Straus in 2018, the eventual winner of that race, state Rep. Steve Allison, helped get Whyte an appointment from Gov. Greg Abbott to the state’s Public Transportation Advisory Commission. 

“This is a little bit surreal for me because as you all know, I’ve been here involved in the Northeast neighborhood Alliance for the past seven or eight years, sitting right now where all of you are,” Whyte told attendees at the forum Monday.

More recently Whyte was Perry’s appointee to the Zoning Commission, while also serving on the board of the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance. Through those roles Whyte said he learned how to work through one of the council’s stickiest problems: balancing the businesses community’s desire to develop with neighborhood leaders’ desire to protect neighborhoods. 

“One of the things that I’ve really liked about him is he engaged everyone, the community, the homeowners associations and the applicants,” said fellow zoning Commissioner Marco Barros. 

That approach has won Whyte some allies among Republicans who want to see more collaboration among future leaders. 

“Marc is a conservative, but he’s willing to work with other people and he listens to different points of view,” said Straus. “I really think we could use more people like that and like him in government today.”

From activist to candidate

Although he isn’t a longtime District 10 resident, Martin says his progressive politics are becoming more common in a district that’s attracting young families. 

“District 10 is a lot less conservative than it used to be because folks like me are coming into the district and buying homes, either from Austin or the parts of Texas or the parts of San Antonio,” Martin said

He was born in South Austin and studied fine arts at Texas Tech, then returned home and worked at Central Market. He moved to San Antonio for his wife’s job in 2014 and began advocating for bicyclists in a city where the bike culture was well behind that of Austin.

As the executive director of Bike San Antonio, a nonprofit bike advocacy group, Martin pushed for a commuter route connecting the Northside to downtown via Broadway Street. He has since transitioned from executive director to board member of Bike San Antonio after launching an electric bike business, Bronco Bikes.

Martin has the support of other progressive candidates who ran in District 10 in 2021, including Johnson, Emily Norwood and Gabrien Gregory.

A long career as a lobbyist

Flores started his career in sales and marketing for book companies. He said he fell into a legislative affairs role by accident while working at Harcourt Brace, but eventually opened his own lobbying business representing a wide variety of interests, from oil and gas to technology companies.

“Robert’s overall knowledge of almost every issue that was before the Texas Legislature is what appealed to us, and the fact that he could go into any office, Republican or Democrat, and be welcomed,” said Andy MacFarlane, a founder of one of San Antonio’s first internet companies who hired Flores to work on telecom issues in the early 2000s.

He hopes to bring an engineer’s approach to city government. 

“It’s a different mindset,” said Solis. “You’re always wanting to get to the root cause. … Once you have that nailed, then you can move forward with a solution to resolve the problem.”

The rest of the field

Otley, age 66, is a former journalist who worked for the San Antonio Express-News, KENS-TV, The News of Texas and CBS Newspath. He’s currently a teacher at Madison High School, where he teaches English and journalism. He’s been an active participant in candidate forums.

Gutierrez, age 33, is currently pursuing a degree in business administration and entrepreneurship at St. Philip’s College with plans to open her own business. She does marketing and fundraising for organizations that help women and children, while also homeschooling her four children.

“I just decided … I already do so much for the community … why not run for city council?” Gutierrez said of her decision to run. 

Margaret Sherwood is from Washingtonville, New York, and moved to Texas in 2020. She graduated from State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill with a degree in business administration, according to her résumé.

“I’m backwoods country,” Sherwood said of her upbringing. “I’ve probably ridden more horses than a lot of guys in San Antonio.”

She currently works as a property manager at Public Storage off Austin Highway where she said she lives on site. Sherwood is an avid follower of politics, and was inspired to run after growing frustrated with the homeless population and ongoing road projects.

“We were tech guys, we would go in and kick over trash cans until we were heard, and [Flores] suggested better ways to get things done,” said MacFarlane.

Flores considers himself a conservative and talked up his long working relationship with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at Monday’s forum.

After moving on from lobbying several years ago, Flores now works for a San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides housing to veterans. He also sits on the board of the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce.

He said he would use his lobbying experience to help the city’s economic development efforts, and to find creative funding solutions for public police initiatives.

National political experience

After receiving an electrical engineering degree from St. Mary’s University, Solis started his career as a quality engineer at Friedrich Air Conditioning.

Solis twice followed his wife’s career with the Air Force to Washington, D.C., most recently from 2012 to 2021. While living in D.C., Solis worked for the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, setting standards for energy efficiency, then for the National Electrical Manufacturing Association (NEMA), where he worked on industry standards for international trade. 

While working at NEMA Solis served on his industry’s accreditation committee, where he was elected chair three times. 

Despite his very technical background, “working with regulators around the world, working with other companies, working in a trade association, it’s all about your people skills,” said Tim Duffy, whose industrial automation committee is a NEMA member and worked closely with Solis. 

After the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, Solis said he and his wife were motivated to return home to San Antonio and help “turn Texas blue.” Solis said he began volunteering as a deputy registrar for the Bexar County Elections Department.

Perry appointed him to the city’s Building Standards Board in 2022, where he said he was exposed to the problems renters face trying to hold bad landlords accountable. “It shocked the conscience,” Solis said.

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