IN THE SECOND WEEK OF JANUARY SAN ANTONIO MAYOR Bill Thornton stood before ten city council members and about two hundred civic leaders to deliver the annual State of the City address. Just under an hour later, after droning on about such things as the pressing need to “speed toward a new millennium,” Thornton announced the obvious: that San Antonio is racially diverse. “My friends,” he said, “no one or no group should be left out as we set our direction and then work our course.”
Thornton need not have worried about anyone being left out. In fact, the 52-year-old oral surgeon has the opposite problem: With the May 3 mayoral election just around the corner, too many people, not too few, are fighting over the city’s future. After one term in office, Thornton now finds himself in a free-for-all race that he could conceivably lose. Despite having $250,000 in his campaign war chest and the advantage of incumbency, he still faces four serious challengers—two council members, a flashy water activist, and a well-connected Hispanic businesswoman—for a job that pays $50 a week.
The question is, Why? Part of the problem is Thornton’s autocratic personality. It seems he can’t quite put behind him his days as a high school drum major in Abilene: “If you’re going to be in the band,” he reasons, “you might as well be out front.” Yet the main problem is the diffuse nature of power in San Antonio. The city’s modern era, which began with Henry Cisneros’ election as mayor in 1981, is over. The coalition that backed Cisneros was made up of middle-class Hispanics, young professionals, and developers and businessmen not aligned with the city’s old establishment. Yet the promise Cisneros offered of economic rather than political power, of growth and high-paying jobs lifting a large Hispanic population from poverty to middle class, failed to materialize, and the coalition came apart.
Today the city has serious woes, and opinion about how to address them is deeply divided. Economically speaking, the old establishment has mostly eroded—except for Frost and Broadway banks, which are still controlled by old San Antonio families, the downtown retail and financial sector has largely been taken over by outside interests—and the establishment’s political power base has evaporated as well. “I think we’re in a baby-sitting mode right now,” huffs automobile magnate B. J. “Red” McCombs, who isn’t supporting any of the five candidates.
Indeed, what these would-be mayors of San Antonio are offering is retro politics—a piece of the political past. Thornton, for instance, is the kind of candidate the old Good Government League fielded twenty years ago. He is a civic booster, a businessman motivated by noblesse oblige. Unfortunately, he has the iron-fisted style of a league mayor like W. W. McAllister without the backing of a monolithic business community.
Moreover, he seems to go out of his way to offend city council members, so it’s no surprise that two of them are running against him. Henry Avila, a 40-year-old former delivery service manager, represents the part of blue-collar San Antonio that has been traditionally dependent on civil service jobs but is now doomed to extinction. His constituents include the workers at Kelly Air Force Base, 13,000 of whom are scheduled to be let go when the base closes in 2001. The other council challenger, Howard Peak, is a 48-year-old urban planner with a large suburban base: He has sponsored popular ordinances such as a requirement that developers preserve a certain number of trees. Peak has some support among business leaders—notably CEOs Bill Greehey of Valero Energy and Ed Whitacre of Southwestern Bell—and the young professionals who once supported Cisneros. “This city needs to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up,” Peak says. The trouble is that his major theme—long-term planning—doesn’t have much appeal to constituencies who are by nature impatient.
The protest vote will go to Kay Turner, a gadfly who ran against Thornton two years ago and received 47.35 percent of the vote. The fifty-year-old ex-wife of convenience store mogul Tom Turner is San Antonio’s political equivalent of Ross Perot: Her base is the radio talk show crowd, which mistrusts government at every level. Turner first surfaced in 1985, when she led a successful campaign to keep fluoride out of the city’s water supply; in 1991 and 1994 she led the opposition in the referenda on funding surface-water projects to supplement the Edwards Aquifer, and again she prevailed. Though business leaders privately dismiss Turner as a “water nut,” Thornton’s failure to beat her decisively last time makes her a force to be reckoned with this time.
The real force, however, is Maria Elena Torralva, who at 54 has a storybook résumé for a San Antonio mayor. The youngest of nine children, she was born on the southwest side and grew up speaking Spanish. Her father, an Irish immigrant, died when she was two; her mother, a Mexican American, worked as a maid and ran restaurants and a saloon. Torralva eventually taught in the inner-city San Antonio School District and started a bilingual show on San Antonio’s Spanish-language TV station to help her students learn English. In 1975 she was hired by KMOL-TV as the director of Mexican American affairs, a job that gave her contact with the Anglo establishment. In 1984 she was hired as the director of Cisneros’ urban planning group, and in 1988 she was named director of diversity for the Hearst Corporation, which owns the San Antonio Express-News.
Torralva has the support of wealthy Mexican Americans, including auto dealer Ernesto Ancira and wealthy trial lawyers such as Frank Herrera. She even has the blessing of Elvira Cisneros, Henry’s mother. Yet a résumé and endorsements are not enough to defeat an incumbent—you need money. And that is where Torralva has stumbled: Thus far she has raised about $100,000. Moreover, she has never held an elected office and is thin on the issues. In her own way, she too is a throwback, a reminder of the conservative Mexican Americans handpicked by the Anglo power structure.
Early indications are that the election will end in a run-off between Thornton and Torralva, with voters forced to choose between the drum major and the director of diversity. Either way, San Antonio will reach back in time to elect a mayor who offers the comfort of familiarity—and little else.