On October 30 San Antonio’s new mayor, Ivy Taylor, stood behind a lectern at Club Giraud, a private dining club situated downtown on the banks of the city’s famous river, and faced a crowd of business leaders. Only hours before, Taylor had pushed through a unanimous city council vote to build a $3.4 billion pipeline that will bring water from Burleson County, 140 miles away, to San Antonio. For more than thirty years, a long line of mayors had promised to secure a supply of water for San Antonio, which has drawn exclusively from the diminishing Edwards Aquifer. All of them failed. Building on the work of her predecessors, Taylor corralled the votes and received the credit.
“I must tell you that I feel the weight of history tonight,” said Taylor, who was dressed in a white suit and stood straight on tall heels. Her dark hair was neatly cut into a chin-length bob, and a gold cross studded with small diamonds hung from her neck. The only line on her smooth face was the crease of a broad smile. “At long last, we have gotten this done.”
History is very much on Taylor’s mind these days. When Julián Castro resigned as mayor last July to become U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the city council chose Taylor to serve out his term. In that moment, Taylor made history as San Antonio became the largest city in the United States ever to have a black, female mayor. Her appointment defied the demographics of the city, which is overwhelmingly Latino and only 7 percent black. She was chosen in part because she vowed not to run for mayor when her brief term ends next summer. However, soon after she took the oath of office it became clear that Taylor sees herself as a player, not a placeholder. Six days into the job, she made headlines when she reversed Castro’s decision to support the local transit agency’s ambitious plan to build a downtown streetcar system. Opponents of the streetcars, many of them Anglos who live in plush neighborhoods north of the city, argued that money should be invested in expanding the city’s highway system, not in public transportation in the city’s center. Taylor’s position signaled her willingness to align herself with conservative business leaders, even though she is a Democrat.
In October Taylor made what is, arguably, an even bigger move: she backed away from her definitive position on not running for mayor. “It wasn’t my intention to run,” she says. “But I am thinking seriously about it. I’ve received a lot of support and am considering it.” Much of that support has come from the mostly Anglo business community. Billionaire Red McCombs and energy magnate Bill Greehey were among the sponsors of the $500- to $1,000-per-person dinner at Club Giraud, which pulled in $60,000 for Taylor’s officeholder account.
When Taylor raised the possibility of running, she probably assumed that her most serious opponent would be Democratic state representative Mike Villarreal, who made his mayoral intentions known in May. Villarreal, a local son who was the first in his family to graduate from college and has a masters in public policy from Harvard, likely would have been an unbeatable opponent in a city dominated by Hispanics. But in November things got interesting, when state senator Leticia Van de Putte, fresh from her defeat in the lieutenant governor’s race, announced that she would run for mayor as well.
Historically, mayoral elections in San Antonio have been contentious fights between Hispanics and Anglos, most of them San Antonio natives with insider status. Taylor, by contrast, is black; she was appointed rather than elected mayor; and—perhaps most important—she’s not from San Antonio. She’s not even from Texas. She’s from New York City, a place as temperamentally different from San Antonio as one could imagine.
Late on a recent morning, the 44-year-old mayor sat at a table in city hall and described her background and how she got to Texas. “I was born in Brooklyn, but I grew up in Queens,” she said. Neither of her parents went to college, and they divorced when she was a child. “It was a very strict upbringing. My sister and I weren’t allowed to wear slacks; we didn’t go to movies or listen to secular music. Our life revolved around the church.” She went to public school, where she excelled before entering Yale University, from which she graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies. Later, she received a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In the summer of 1997, while a graduate student, Taylor accepted a ten-week internship with a coalition of affordable-housing organizations in San Antonio. She attended church services at the Greater Corinth Baptist Church on the East Side, the city’s predominantly black neighborhood. On her first visit to the church, a man named Rodney Taylor sat in the pew in front of her. After the service, he leaned over and asked her to lunch. They dated that summer, married two years later, and eventually settled on the East Side. By then she had taken a job as an urban planner in a small department at city hall that encouraged inner-city development. Six years later, she moved to a nonprofit affordable-housing provider. She also volunteered with the city’s planning commission and served on the board of a homeless shelter. As the years passed, she developed a base of support, and in 2009 she was recruited by East Side leaders to run for the city council: she had the right credentials (an Ivy League degree), the right message (economic development), and the right style (consensus building). She won the election by 54 votes in a runoff.
During her five years as a council member, she took two controversial stances that demonstrated her instinctive nonpartisanship and her social conservativism. In September 2009 she lost a fight in her own district when her fellow council members, led by Castro, voted against her recommendation to deny a zoning request for a one-hundred-bed halfway house on the East Side. Taylor supported the point of view of black residents who argued that halfway houses are invariably located in minority districts. A majority of the council gave more weight to the testimony of Catholic nuns and progressive Anglos.
Then, in 2013, she was one of only three members of the council to vote against a nondiscrimination ordinance that would protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. When criticized, Taylor said, “I will not sacrifice my core values and beliefs for political gain. And if that was the expectation for me as a black woman, you’ve got the wrong sister in this seat.”
Asked what she learned from the zoning controversy, Taylor offers an answer slightly more pointed than the usual boilerplate. “I didn’t do my own lobbying, and I misjudged the lack of loyalty of my fellow council members,” she said. “Ordinarily, the position of the council member in whose district the case resides is supported by the other members. That didn’t happen in this case.” And while Taylor has given assurances to LGBT leaders that their voices will be heard at city hall and has convened a committee to implement the ordinance, she has not changed her position.
“People assume that because I’m soft-spoken and appear timid, I am hesitant to lead,” said Taylor. “But that’s not who I am. I’m not timid and I don’t go along. I don’t have time to be timid. I want to get things done.” Taylor is aware that her subdued style is distinct from that of her predecessor, a dynamic figure with a national profile whose three terms as mayor resulted in significant job creation, development of downtown San Antonio, and a pre-K education program.
After the frenzy of the Castro years, the sense in many quarters is that San Antonio needs a less partisan mayor, someone who stays close to home. “I want to keep the political drama down,” said Taylor. “I’m a planner by trade. I like the analysis and details of local government. I don’t much like politics.” Her goal for the six months she has left in her term is to stick with bread-and-butter issues: balance the city’s budget, resolve a long-standing dispute with the city’s police and fire unions, and expand Castro’s education initiatives.
In that respect, Taylor, should she decide to run, would offer a record free of partisan fracases and therefore a different choice from Van de Putte, a leader of the Democratic party, or, to a lesser degree, Villarreal, who has out of necessity worked closely with Republicans in the House but identifies first and foremost as a liberal Democrat. Given the city’s demographics, either of them would be the clear favorite in a race against Taylor.
But there is a long-shot scenario that might convince Taylor to run, in which Van de Putte and Villarreal split the Latino vote and Taylor, buoyed by heavy Anglo and black turnout, prevails. And San Antonio’s Latino community does seem puzzled about whom to support. One well-known local academic reports that he recently had lunch with a Latino district judge, and when the academic leaned across the table and asked, “Are you going with Leticia or Mike?” the judge shook his head and said, “I’m giving money to both of them.”
Such ambivalence on the part of local Hispanics may prompt Villarreal and Van de Putte to spend most of their time and energy going after each other. If that happens, Taylor shouldn’t be counted out. After all, she isn’t an outsider anymore. She’s the mayor.