San Antonio has a history of electing young, fresh faces to city council—think Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro. In June, voters picked a 26-year-old math teacher named Jalen McKee-Rodriguez to represent the city’s historically Black East Side, making him not only one of the youngest politicians ever elected in the city, but also San Antonio’s first openly gay city council member.
With backing from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Texas Organizing Project, he also represents what some see as an emerging progressive block in San Antonio politics. The Observer spoke with McKee-Rodriguez about his election, discrimination he faced as a former city staffer, gentrification in his district, and other issues facing the city’s East Side.
Texas Observer: You’ve called Barack Obama’s election and Trayvon Martin’s killing eye-opening and defining moments for you growing up. How did those events influence you?
When I was young, it was uncommon to see anyone who looked like me on TV or in politics and in major positions of power, even educators. I never had a teacher who looked like me. I was in eighth grade when Obama was elected, and I remember my mom crying. She was so excited that someone who looked like me, half-Black and half-white, could be president. The election was an early symbol of progress and hope for me.
Fast-forward a few years: When Trayvon Martin was killed, I saw how someone just like me—we were the same age could be villainized and made to look threatening even though he was just a young boy. It felt like a back-to-reality sort of moment, like society was saying, “Yes, we’ll elect a Black man to office, but if you’re a regular, everyday Black person, this is what we’ll do to you.”
You’re San Antonio’s first gay city council member and the first out Black man ever elected to public office in Texas. You’ve also been vocal about discrimination you faced working at city hall. What can be done to strengthen protections for LGBTQ people at the local level?
The chief of staff in the office where I worked was older, religious, and I would describe him as homophobic. He wasn’t comfortable with my hair or my clothes. He would say that my outfit wasn’t manly or that I wasn’t masculine enough.
If something like the discrimination and harassment that I faced can happen at city hall, then really who is our nondiscrimination ordinance protecting? I’ve been asking for an office of civil rights, with a legal team and a civil rights coordinator to investigate claims of discrimination within the city. Right now, San Antonio’s ordinance only applies to city employees. I believe I have the support in the community to expand the discrimination ordinance, but I think that other city council members are hesitant. And that’s a sad reality. Workers in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Educators in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Opposite-sex couples don’t get in trouble when they talk about their partners at work, but that still happens to same-sex couples in this state.
What have crises like the pandemic and winter freeze revealed about the needs in your district?
In the beginning of the pandemic, people thought there could be lockdowns and started stockpiling food and resources, but on the East Side, we already have a food desert. On the North Side, where it’s predominantly white and middle-class, they have abundant resources. Often we have to leave the district or leave our side of town to have access to things that other people have in their neighborhoods.
During one of my first city council meetings, we talked about the pain felt during the freeze. The pain was real for
my colleagues and their constituents on the North Side, but when you have communities that are already marginalized, where houses aren’t winterized or don’t have insulation, the pain is real but the impact is definitely not the same.
In San Antonio, we use a lens of equity when we allocate city resources, specifically funding for infrastructure. I think we need to commit to that further and look into all departments, all city resources, all development plans that we’re promoting and incentivizing as a city and seriously ask ourselves: Is this promoting equity? We need policies that allow the East, West, and South sides to catch up to where everyone else is.
San Antonio has been a poster child for police union protections that shield rogue cops, yet a recent ballot measure to limit the union’s negotiating power failed. What can be done now to increase police accountability and oversight?
When you look at which sides of town supported that measure, the May election showed that communities like mine—the sides of town that are the most heavily policed—are also areas of town where people most want police reform and accountability. It’s frustrating because the city and police union are often fighting for reforms and solutions that are just Band-Aids. As we saw during this election, people who oppose reform will demonize it as defunding or abolishing police. When we want to allocate more money to domestic violence prevention or substance abuse counseling in order to get at root causes of crime, it’s turned into, “Oh, they’re trying to get rid of the police.” Sadly, I think we’ll see a lot of meaningless debate on that front.
San Antonio’s East Side has been a flashpoint for gentrification in recent years as the city tried to spur downtown development. How do you limit predatory development?
For the past several decades, city council members from all across San Antonio have been hand-picked by developers. Developers are really the major funding sources for campaigns here. There are usually dozens of developers contributing the max dollar amount, which can get someone through an entire campaign. That has made campaigns very lazy. They don’t reach out to the community. They don’t really solicit funds from other sources. It’s very much a pay-to-play situation. That’s led to luxury apartments being built next door to a house that should really only cost $70,000 or $80,000. Then more investors come in and flip the house for $400,000, or they get council to rezone the area even when the community doesn’t want it.
I’m committed to working with everyone—developers, community members, all stakeholders—but developers are never going to be the priority for me. A lot of development that I’m now being briefed on, projects that my predecessors approved or encouraged, it’s just dropping luxury apartments in the middle of a community with high poverty that desperately needs more affordable housing. It’s very clear that my community is not the population these projects seek to benefit. I want whatever development keeps the community intact and benefits the residents who are already there, not development designed to draw people in from out of town or out of state for the purposes of a wealthier tax base.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.