Vote of Confidence
Ed Garza, the new mayor of San Antonio, is now the most powerful hispanic politician in the country.
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At 32 years old, Ed Garza, San Antonio’s newly elected mayor, has deep, boyish dimples and has served only two terms on the city council. But Garza insists that in political years, he’s practically an old man. “I was a seasoned block-walker at the age of eight,” he says, grinning widely. “That means this is my twenty-fourth year in politics.” Then too there is the heavy legacy that Garza carries with him that makes him seem so much older. When he swept into the mayor’s office with a two-to-one victory over his Anglo opponent last May, Garza stood on the shoulders of the two other major Hispanic public figures in San Antonio: Henry B. Gonzalez, who died in November at 84, and former mayor Henry Cisneros. As if that weren’t enough, in the wake of Antonio Villaraigosa’s failed bid to become the mayor of Los Angeles, Garza is now the only Mexican American mayor of a major U.S. city, giving him a position of national importance.
Before Garza was born, his parents, Evangelina and Martin Garza, moved out of the West Side, the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood that produced both Gonzalez and Cisneros. To Garza’s parents, Gonzalez was a hero because of his one-man stands against segregation bills in the Texas Senate. Like an entire generation of Mexican Americans, the Garzas deeply believed in Henry B.’s primary message—that they must assimilate to succeed. By the time Ed was born, they had bought a small home in the Jefferson neighborhood, which was then a primarily Anglo middle-class neighborhood just northwest of downtown. They pushed their two sons to speak English and join the Anglo mainstream. “Our neighbors on three sides were Anglos,” recalls Garza. “We visited my grandparents on the West Side, but my parents were part of that generation that wanted more for their children: a better neighborhood and a better education.”
When Garza was twelve, his parents took him downtown to a car dealership to celebrate an extraordinary victory. Cisneros, then 33, had been elected the first Hispanic mayor in modern San Antonio history and the first to lead one of the nation’s ten largest cities. Henry C., whose parents had also pressed assimilation, had become the next generation’s Henry B. With his degrees from Texas A&M and Harvard, Henry C. was the symbol of success, proof of the wisdom of Henry B.’s advice. Amid the jubilation that night, Garza remembers realizing that an important barrier to his own development had been torn down. It took Garza twenty years to become the second Hispanic mayor in modern history. He did it by modeling himself after Henry C.—as well as learning from Henry C.’s mistakes.
Like Cisneros, Garza went to Texas A&M. He earned both a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and a master’s degree in urban planning. Like Cisneros, Garza’s style is nonthreatening to Anglos. He is tall, handsome, wears dark business suits and red ties, and speaks impeccable English. In fact, Garza is so much a new-generation Hispanic that the language he struggles with is Spanish, not English. (His fiancée, Anna Laura Gonzalez, is a bilingual-education teacher and says Garza is her number one student. The two are to be married in October.) More important than their similarities—the Aggie connection, the businesslike demeanor—are the many ways that Ed and Henry C. are different. Almost nothing about Garza’s mayoral election ran true to the winning pattern laid down by Cisneros.
In 1981 Cisneros won against John Steen, a prominent Anglo businessman, by doubling the Hispanic vote and making a strong showing in the city’s primarily Anglo North Side. Garza, on the other hand, won the North Side outright—even though his primary opponent, city councilman Tim Bannwolf, was from there. That feat made Garza the first Hispanic in Texas to blur ethnic lines so completely. As anyone who has read recent census data now knows, the Hispanic population in Texas is going up, up, and up. In 1990 it was 4.3 million. Last year it was 6.6 million. By 2025 it’s projected that there will be between 7.7 million and 13.8 million Hispanics in Texas. By then, all politicians in Texas will win like Garza did—they won’t have to run on race. Garza carried eight of the ten city council districts and, according to precinct-by-precinct returns, beat his opponent in the three historically Anglo districts 45 percent to 40 percent.
How did Garza do it? For starters, the suburbs of San Antonio are not what they used to be. Garza estimates that one third of the North Side’s District 8, once almost exclusively Anglo, is now Hispanic. Unlike Gonzalez and Cisneros, Garza did not grow up in the barrio. He grew up in the racially mixed suburbs, and they became his natural base. The key to Cisneros’ victory twenty years ago was that he pulled together a coalition of Hispanics, labor, and Anglo entrepreneurs. The key to Garza’s election this year was his astonishing success at fundraising—he raised more than $800,000, much of it from established business leaders—and the increasingly powerful neighborhood associations. Cisneros sold himself to Anglos as a candidate who would bring new jobs to a city that saw itself as isolated from the outside world. Garza sold himself to Anglos by focusing on suburban issues: streets, parks, drainage projects, reducing airport noise, and solving traffic problems. These are not sexy, exciting issues, but addressing them makes a city livable.
In fact, one of the ways he sold himself to the North Side was by distancing himself from Cisneros. Garza’s style is as subdued as Cisneros’ was charismatic; Garza’s speeches rarely inspire standing ovations. Early in the campaign he publicly opposed an idea that Cisneros had floated to raise $100 million in taxes to renovate the Alamodome, which has come to symbolize Cisneros’ many costly and controversial projects to elevate San Antonio to big-city status. Cisneros argued that the tax would increase the city’s chances of attracting a National Football League team; Garza said that the issue was a low priority. While Cisneros was officially neutral in the race (he has known Garza for years, and Bannwolf had worked as an intern in his office), his mother, Elvira Cisneros, block-walked for Garza on the West Side. As Henry B. did when Henry C. was elected mayor, Cisneros has been complimentary and is giving him room to become his own man.
If Henry B.’s cause was civil rights and Henry’s C.’s challenge was economic prosperity, then the challenge for Ed Garza—and his generation of laid-back suburban guys-next-door—is where to lead Texas. “I don’t feel any pressure to be extraordinary. Unlike my father, I’m not the first in my family to graduate from college. Unlike Henry Cisneros, I’m not the first Mexican American mayor of San Antonio,” says Garza. “I’m free to be myself.”