Mudslinging: A Mainstay in SA Mayoral Politics
May 18, 2019 - San Antonio
Article By: Jonathan Guajardo - Editor, SA Sentinel
San Antonio is a city laden with political drama. So much drama, in fact, that each new mayoral race seems to bring with it more than the last. This newest race between incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg and District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse stands out among all others as one of the most dramatic contests in recent memory, and Friday’s release of a 2009 police report describing an alleged spousal dispute between Brockhouse and current wife Annalisa seems to point to an increase in the amount of political mudslinging seen in the Alamo City.
Before this particular race was even a dream in the eyes of Brockhouse and Nirenberg, however, the strains of heated political discourse took root in San Antonio. As far back as the Lila Cockrell vs Jon Monfrey Race, a heated dialogue has captivated the attention of the city’s citizens. According to an April 4, 1977 article in the New York Times, Monfrey “vigorously attacked the leadership of Mayor Cockrell.” These attacks centered around issues of land development and utility prices including the city’s $500 million lawsuit against its natural gas supplier, Coastal States Gas Corporation. This suit led to a substantial increase in natural gas prices to a level “10 times greater” than the amount San Antonio should have paid. Monfrey contended that “with his business experience he could have won the city a better deal.” It should be noted that, at the time, Lila Cockrell was embroiled in a runoff for her second term as mayor and would go on to win the election and serve as one of the city’s most notable political figures, holding the office from 1975 until 1981, and then again from 1989 through 1991, after Henry Cisneros finished his eight-year mayoral tenure from 1981-1989.
Another notably volatile political race featured then District 8 Councilman Nelson Wolff running for his first term as mayor against former mayor, Lila Cockrell. Beginning with an ad from the Wolff campaign stating that Cockrell rewarded “her friends with fat city contracts,” the war of ads intensified with Cockrell launching several ads of her own at her challenger. According to an April 12, 1991 article in the San Antonio Express-News, “Cockrell fired back with an ad that Wolff was ‘crying wolf’ with unfounded charges and that honesty is the mark of her public record.” Wolff would later respond with an ad of his own, painting former Mayor Cockrell as a politician who wanted to “make excuses for her past,” while portraying himself as a veritable agent of change. The article goes on to describe how Cockrell said that Wolff “stooped to negative campaigning and mudslinging because that is the only way he has a chance to beat her.” Wolff, still a prominent local figure, would end up winning the election and serving two terms as mayor of San Antonio from 1991-1995.
Six years later, in 1997, another feisty mayoral battle would develop between 1995-1997 Mayor William E. “Bill” Thornton and challenger, 1993-1997 City Councilman Howard W. Peak. The battle was sparked by a series of radio and television ads run by Councilman Peak against his political opponent, which accused Thornton of insider deals and an inconsistent voting record as mayor. According to an April 10, 1997 article in the San Antonio Express-News, “even before Peak’s TV hit, Thornton was angry about Peak’s radio ads which accused him of taking credit for other people’s work.” The article further described how Thornton described Peak’s campaign as “the most negative, mudslinging campaign in San Antonio history.” Comparisons were immediately drawn between Peak’s attack tactics and Nelson Wolff’s ads from 1991 against Lila Cockrell. Peak would go on to win the election and would serve four terms as mayor form 1997-2001 and would be counted as the city’s last Republican mayor.
More recently, a fair amount of mudslinging took place in the race between former Mayors Phil Hardberger and Julián Castro and Councilman Carrol Schubert in their 2005 mayoral race. This embroilment centered around a telephone survey attempting to discredit both Hardberger and Castro. According to a February 25, 2005 Express-News article by Rebeca Rodriguez, “The survey tactic, known as push-polling, is typically used to spread negative information about opponents by asking potential voters if they would vote for a person if they knew certain information.” Many at the time, including Castro, blamed Councilman Schubert, seen as an unlikely third candidate. According to a March 3, 2005 article again by Rodriguez in the Express-News, the survey stated that, “Castro is ‘a councilman from the West Side’ and that Hardberger ‘has made millions of dollars suing doctors and small businesses.’” Despite the attacks being directed at both candidates, Hardberger took aim at both of his opponents, releasing a subsequent radio ad stating, “Make no mistake. These obscene phone calls are the work of Julián Castro or Carrol Schubert.” Hardberger later stated that whoever organized the poll “should beware of committing libel.” Hardberger would go on to win the election and serve as mayor from 2005-2009 with Julián’s four terms following from 2009-2014.
Also worth considering is the previous election cycle between then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg and incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor (mayor from 2014-2017), a race which again ended in a runoff, with the challenging councilman taking the reins away from Taylor. Throughout the campaign, Taylor took shots at Nirenberg, attempting to brand him with the term Liberal Ron, because of his left-leaning policies and endorsement from Julián Castro and Phil Hardberger. According to a June 11, 2017 MySA.com article, “Kelton Morgan, Nirenberg's campaign consultant, said he thought it was attempt to draw their campaign down into dirty, mudslinging politics — and they refused to take the bait.”
The moral of this short trip through mudslinging memory lane is that what we are currently witnessing in the race between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse is just another, albeit more heated, rhetorical battle between two candidates vying for the top political position (other than city manager) in San Antonio. 2019’s race has featured everything from a targeted series of digital ads run by both candidates on social media and television outlets to Nirenberg’s continued attacks at Brockhouse’s past, in which the Mayor has continued to bring up two alleged domestic abuse incidents against the councilman, despite no charges resulting from either incident, with the 2009 report being expunged from the record entirely. Brockhouse’s wife, Annalisa, stood by her husband at every turn, defending him on Facebook late Friday night, “I have never been a victim before, but Ron Nirenberg has made me feel like one with his constant attacks on my character, my family and my husband.”
In just two short years, it appears that the Nirenberg campaign has evolved from a scrappy challenging campaign unwilling to get involved with “dirty, mudslinging politics,” into a well-oiled political machine intent on winning a second term. Whatever the outcome of the election on June 8th, it appears that, if the trend is to continue, this legacy of mudslinging will live on in Alamo City politics for years to come.