Ed Garza Takes the Pot

The Mayor is San Antonio's New Favorite Son


It’s the 25th of August, and San Antonio’s Gridiron show is in full swing. Easy laughs for Jenna Bush jokes, and Tom Bannwolf, the North Side Anglo councilman who lost the election for mayor, is skewered at every turn. But the journalist comedians are having a hard time making fun of our new mayor, Ed Garza. They poke fun at his learning Spanish, getting him to take “lessons” from George Dubya and say silly things in Spanish by mistake. They call him a boring technocrat, and he has a bit part in a skit where he calls himself “Special Ed,” but the biggest laugh comes when they announce that he is getting married… and to a woman. It is a relief laugh, in the mild outer reaches of sexual politics, and it has nothing to do with the central issues of his campaign or his current reign as mayor.

Ed Garza is a hard guy not to like. He’s calm and respectful. He listens and tries to please. His mother died just before he turned 18, and he has a quietness and gravity about him that seems especially endearing to older women. At 32, Garza is still the son many mothers would love to take to church and show off in a new suit. He’s been an achiever all his life, not a whiner. He’s Hispanic, but he’s also an assimilator. He’s sympathetic to struggle, but he’s not going to be anyone’s crusader.

Garza won what people in San Antonio called a decisive victory. Perhaps you would think that in a city like San Antonio, home to Henry B. Gonzales (famous Congressman) and Henry Cisneros (high-profile mayor, then a high-profile debacle as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton), a city with a Hispanic population of nearly 60 percent, would have lots of Hispanic politicians and a long line of Hispanic mayors. Not so. Cisneros, who was the first Hispanic mayor of the modern-day city, was followed by a long string of losing bids. There are abundant theories as to why Hispanics failed to regain the position, all of which were carefully weighed during Garza’s campaign. According to Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas-San Antonio, “San Antonio’s electorate is very divided in racial and ethnic terms. Anglo districts vote for Anglos; Hispanics vote for Hispanics.” However, because of what Sanders calls the “turnout differential” an Anglo can more easily win a mayoral election, because Anglos are more likely to vote than Hispanics. If you are an Hispanic candidate you’ve got to get the Anglo vote. Or at least a good chunk of it.

Conventional wisdom has it that in the past, some mayoral hopefuls were too stridently Hispanic and thus failed to gain enough votes from the predominantly Anglo North Side. Others failed to galvanize the Hispanic vote on the west and south sides. Pundits worried that no one had Cisneros’ stature, and that the Anglos and their money would run the city yet again.

Garza, however, diligently and patiently proved the skeptics wrong. He chalked up endorsements early on while Bannwolf made snippy, bitter remarks. He raised money from big Anglo businessmen–not as much as Bannwolf, but enough to start a hum of approval. All through the campaign the press stretched and yearned for some content difference between the two candidates. There really wasn’t any. They both were dutiful city council members who had very similar plans to revitalize the city. Finally Bannwolf began a run of negative ads accusing Garza of unethical behavior on the council. The dirt wasn’t very deep, and it didn’t stick together. Seemingly overnight, Garza was on the rise. Donations increased and the quirky presiding mayor, Howard Peak, who had promised not to endorse a candidate for mayor, was suddenly front and center for Garza.

Garza won where he was expected to win on the West and South Sides, but he also won on the North Side. Anglos voted for him in a way that they never did for Cisneros.

To understand the nature of Garza’s vision, a good place to begin is Jefferson High School. Presiding over the Jefferson neighborhood, the school sits on a rise surrounded by 33 acres of playing fields, old trees and sweeping walks. Built in 1932, it reflects a time when the standard for high schools was not efficiency or cost effectiveness but grandeur, refinement and lofty expectations. Full of mahogany wood and stenciled tile, watched over by a grave etching of Thomas Jefferson himself, the place feels not so much like an institution as a bank baron’s estate. “It was huge to go to Jefferson,” says the mayor, who graduated from there in 1986. “To be Hispanic and say you are going to Jefferson, that was an honor.”

Jefferson used to be very, very Anglo. For at least 30 years after it was built, it was the jewel of the new middle-class Anglo neighborhood on the West Side. By the late ’50s, however, Hispanics were making inroads into both the Jefferson neighborhood and the high school. Garza’s father, Martin Garza, raised in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood farther south, was persuaded by his father to give it a try. Trouble was, in 1958 there were only a handful of Hispanics at Jefferson, and Martin Garza met a wall of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, in the classroom and at football tryouts. (“The other quarterback’s father was the vice principal. They were all Anglos,” he recalls.) After a few months of feeling out of place, Martin dropped out of high school and joined his uncle in the house painting business.

Martin Garza eventually finished high school at Fox Tech, went to college and bought a house in the still-Anglo, middle- class Jefferson neighborhood in 1966 just before he married. He was determined to move up. “We were among the first Mexican Americans on the block,” he said. “The coach that sold me the house told me I was bringing the barrio to Jefferson.” The Garza sons, Martin and Edward, were sent to Jefferson. The demographics of the city, and especially the Jefferson neighborhood, had changed dramatically in the intervening 20 years: Jefferson High School had become 70 percent Hispanic. The sons fared much better than their father had. Martin was valedictorian, while Edward was the junior and senior class president.

“I don’t think that in the scope of things that what I have seen comes anywhere close to what my grandparents or many other people have seen firsthand,” Garza says when I ask him about discrimination. His personal experience is different, indistinct. “I think I’ve felt some subtle discrimination–certainly going from a predominantly Hispanic high school to an Anglo college,” he says of going to Texas A&M. “I was accepted because I was different… but reminded that I was different.”

Garza entered politics young. He ran for student council president when he was 9 and joined his parents in many neighborhood political activities throughout his childhood. At 18 he organized opposition to a city council member, over a plan to revitalize the Jefferson neighborhood, and later took a job working in her office.

Garza says he was advised by Cisneros to get a law degree and by others to go into business, but he found his deepest interest lay in city politics. When he returned to San Antonio from Texas A&M with his masters in urban planning, he quickly won a seat on city council. The comparisons to Cisneros and Gonzales began immediately. “I haven’t even taken a vote yet and you have no idea what I am going to do,” he laughingly recalls thinking. On city council, he became known for his diligent behind-the-scenes work and his talent for pulling the often-contentious and divided council together. He also took risks. He tried to stop tax abatements for development over the Edwards Aquifer and lost. He was a leading advocate for light rail, which lost in a referendum. A year or so later he led a fight to fluoridate the city’s water, an unpopular cause particularly among Hispanics on the South and West Sides. Fluoride passed and Garza solidified his reputation as a city-wide leader.

A few weeks after the election, I followed the mayor to a meeting at St. James Catholic Church held by COPS/Metro Alliance, a community organization with deep roots in the Hispanic south and west sides of the city. At COPS/Metro rallies, a large group of voters–in this case, 600 people from affiliated congregations and schools–ask public officials to pledge their support for programs to help middle- and low-income people. The rally began with song, prayer, and a round of short speeches praising Better Jobs–a sales tax initiative to help fund job training, college scholarships, and after-school programs. Tom Frost, President of Frost Bank and an ardent supporter of Better Jobs, spun out stories in fluent Spanish to the largely Hispanic audience, and amid much laughter, dared the translator to translate it into English.

COPS/Metro leaders had set up a stove in front of the stage where they moved pots of priorities around, dramatizing the political maneuvering among city council members to push Better Jobs to the “back burner.” Leaders invited Garza up to the stove to move the pot forward and crank up the heat. The mayor can look stiff sometimes, a little shy, like a policy aide unexpectedly called forward to rev up the crowd. But here, in front of his Hispanic neighbors and fellow parishioners, he loosened up. He gamely donned the enormous chef’s hat, moved the pot forward and gave it a big stir. The crowd roared, sounding proud to have him as mayor. “I’ll bring the soup if you bring the tortillas!” he promised in English, alluding to his commitment to pass the Better Jobs initiative. “You bring the money and we’ll bring the tortillas!!!” Pat Ozuna, a veteran leader, called back, to drive home the fact that what the organization wants is sales tax revenue. Garza gave a hearty laugh. He had made a promise he intends to keep.

Garza’s Spanish is middling and cautious. He did television ads in Spanish during his campaign, and he says he managed conversations with constituents when he went door-to-door. But the Garza family’s diligent efforts at assimilation took their toll on the mayor’s childhood Spanish. Garza is third generation Mexican-American. His grandparents spoke to him in Spanish, and he replied mostly in English. He says that he and his brother spoke Spanish as young children, but when they got ready for school they switched to English and never came back. Now he has a Spanish tutor, though he is quick to admit that he has slacked off since the election. His fiancée, Anna Laura Gonzales, is a bilingual teacher, and they try to practice together. He sometimes listens to the Spanish-language news in his office. Spanish is like a lost memory, a chunk of his identity that eludes him. “I know it is there,” he says, “it’s just bringing it out.”

Garza knows that his Hispanic identity has been vital in his rise to prominence. CNN wouldn’t be following him around for a special, and The New York Times wouldn’t send a reporter down if he wasn’t the Mexican-American mayor of a big city like San Antonio. There wouldn’t be so much speculation about his political future before he’s had much of a past. The Democratic National Committee wouldn’t have sent out a press release crowing over his victory, a move that took the mayor by surprise.

A Hispanic and a Democrat, he says he has “shied away from a partisan label, almost the same as the ethnic label. I just hate to be put in a category… I’m not forgetting my Hispanic roots, I’m not forgetting my Democratic tendencies, but we have too much work to do to be worried about those categories.”

In San Antonio, council members are elected by districts, whereas mayors are elected by the city at large in a nonpartisan election. The mayor has only one vote on the city council and very little other structural power (the city manager runs everything), but because his is the only city-wide elected office, it carries a certain weight.

The work that Garza has to do has as many layers as a good tres leches cake, and in this historically polarized city the cake is likely to melt and slide off the plate. Three months into his term, Garza appears effective. He’s done his homework on the $1.3 billion budget, and the council is moving through the approval process without the usual lurching and shuddering. He’s got a three-point “Accountability Package” on the November ballot to bring some long-needed reforms to the city manager form of government. Garza has forged important alliances with religious and business leaders and plans to bring COPS/Metro’s Better Jobs Initiative to the voters in May. All this without so much as a hair out of place.

What Garza wants to accomplish goes far beyond keeping the city or the city council running more smoothly. He’s a person who thinks about legacy and what the city will look like 20, 30, even 50 years from now. He’s an urban planner by heart and training, with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and a masters degree in urban planning, also from A&M. If Garza has a political ideology, it is one that centers around place and the built environment. When he evaluates the city he asks questions like: Is this place unique? Will it last for 50 years? Where others might identify a person’s chance to succeed with education, mentors, the economy and job training, even social movements, he sees the physical world as exerting an influence, creating character and a sense of opportunities.

San Antonio is changing fast: According to the latest census statistics it grew 22 percent in the past 10 years. Garza doesn’t like what he sees as growth that dilutes the city’s essence. “We build and continue to have growth in the city that you can see anywhere else in the U.S.,” he complains, referring to the extensive suburban sprawl moving north of the 410 Loop. “To me that is not good for the city because we lose our identity and we lose touch with what makes this city so unique.” He advocates “growth from within” and revitalization of the city’s older neighborhoods.

Mayor Garza’s models are the Riverwalk, the Jefferson neighborhood where he grew up and still lives, and Jefferson High School–all places, he feels, that have an enduring, classic quality and a strong identity that inspires civic loyalty. Generic places, he implies–the long strips of franchise stores and restaurants, the acres of look-alike suburban housing, the quick and cheap public schools–these are the places that leave people with low expectations, feeling ordinary and rootless and therefore likely to disengage from their city, even to leave and take their talents elsewhere. It is the moralism of a city planner.

On a recent Saturday morning, Mayor Garza is at the District One community meeting in St. Mark’s Methodist Church Fellowship Hall. Some 60 citizens–maybe half Hispanic and half Anglo, median age 55–have shown up to listen politely and ask questions about brush pickup, part-time temporary city employees, and the low-performing San Antonio district schools. This is Councilman Bobby Perez’s district, and he is here in jeans and a red t-shirt. Mayor Garza, always carefully dressed, is wearing his usual coat and tie. Perez introduces Garza as a friend and fellow graduate of Jefferson High School. Garza is a few years younger, he jokes, “and we used to put him in a head lock.”

Perez can still be a bully on occasion; he has a prickliness that Garza doesn’t have. Garza gives a talk that borders on a civics lesson leading up to a pitch for the November referendum. He’s measured, very courteous, even stubborn. The contrast is striking: Both are ambitious men, from very similar backgrounds with similar ambitions, but Perez is not mayor, and Garza is, because of his appeal to both Hispanic and Anglo voters.

Will he be swept onto the state or even the national stage? Is he the Hispanic that will pull in a new multiracial base? Right now, he’s content to live out his dream of being mayor, and he insists he’s
not distracted by
ll the attention he’s getting. “All these things I’ve wanted to do, all these things I’ve thought about growing up…” he trails off and then comes back with conviction: “We don’t have to do things the way they have always been done. San Antonio can look differently in 20 years.”

Belle Zars is a freelance writer in San Antonio.