On June 10, Ron Nirenberg did the unthinkable: After two terms as a Councilman for the Northside District 8, he defeated Mayor Ivy Taylor by a convincing 54.59 to 45.41 percent margin (the first time in 20 years that a candidate defeated a San Antonio mayor seeking reelection), and he did it his way: neither embracing nor renouncing his progressive credentials, instead concentrating on action and issues. When Taylor uttered her low blow (“liberal Ron,” she called him during a debate), Nirenberg just continued hammering his message even though he was probably fuming inside. And the message resonated loud and clear with voters … or at least with the handful who voted (a pitiful 13.9 percent of registered voters). Those kinds of cheap shots “further [underscore] why people don’t want to vote … hurt people’s trust, because they think [voting] doesn’t matter,” Nirenberg told Out In SA.
On June 21, his first day in office, Nirenberg added his name to the list of Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination, and 10 days later served as Grand Marshall of the Pride Bigger Than Texas Parade — becoming the second-ever San Antonio Mayor to do so (the first being Mayor Julián Castro). Those were significant signs of his commitment to not only LGBTQ rights, but everyone’s. As Nirenberg said during a campaign speech in May, “We deserve a city that treats everyone fairly … Whether you’re transgender, bisexual, lesbian, straight or whatever your definition … You deserve to be treated fairly by your city government.”
Only time will tell what Nirenberg’s legacy will be, but his honeymoon with San Antonio is far from over. During his interview with Out In SA, he stated that, instead of cutting his term short for higher office, he plans to be our mayor for the next eight years.
Ron on LGBTQ Issues
How about those rainbow crosswalks?
I haven’t seen them yet! But I’m sure I’ll like them. It’s a way to show that the city is listening, and it’s inclusive of all of its members.
I grew up in a small South American country in the ’60s and ’70s, surrounded by chronic homophobia, not unlike the rest of the world (but, you know, we have that stupid macho thing). I must admit that, growing up, I was prejudiced toward homosexuals and other groups. Were you ever prejudiced growing up and, if so, when did you realize that was wrong? Or did you always feel we are all equal?
I grew up in a very diverse background — interfaith, culturally diverse — and I was exposed to people who were discriminated against. I was sensitive to treating people equally, but I will say that I never grew up around members of the LGBTQ community and probably was prejudiced because of it. What changed for me is that I went to school and I started meeting people and I became friends with members of that community, and that helped me understand and be more sensitive to their concerns. Now I want to continue living up to those values of equality and fairness, entitling people to the dignity that they deserve.
What was the best part of being Grand Marshall in the Pride Parade?
I’ve never been in a parade where people were happier [laughs]. Part of that happiness stems from the fact that there were hundreds of people lined up along the road who, I think, had a sense of relief that they had city leadership that believed that they mattered again.
Do you have a favorite local drag queen?
[Laughs]. What’s the name of the sisters that always perform in the Cornyation? I forgot their name, but that would be my answer.
The Pointless Sisters?
Yes! The Pointless Sisters.
Do you think we’ll have a citywide employment non-discrimination ordinance during your tenure?
We have one.
But only for public employment, not private.
What we have covers a huge part of the public sphere. It does not cover private employment. I believe that we will have as strong protections as you will find anywhere in the United States under the law.
Is that a “no”?
It is not a “no,” but I think it will have to be studied in terms of what the city can do with the existing legal framework of employment law. As a matter of values, I can say confidently our city will seek to have as strong non-discrimination protections as can exist locally under the law.
Are you keeping the three-person LGBT advisory committee established by your predecessor?
Yes. In fact, I’ve appointed a liaison (Juany Torres) to interface with my staff, but it’s really the work of this committee that’s going to be important. We will definitely have and utilize this committee to ensure that we’re staying in front of issues that will arrive. We haven’t reconvened them, but I have many persons in mind to serve in the LGBTQ committee. Juany’s appointment is different: I wanted a member of my staff to be the link between this committee and the actual office staff. That’s her role as the Director of Community Engagement.
Do you think the Office of Equity (formerly known as the Diversity and Inclusion Office) needs more authority to determine cases of discrimination?
I believe they need as much authority as needed to perform that function. I’ve talked with [Chief Equity Officer] Kiran Bains and we’re going to bolster the resources made available to her office. My hope for that department is that they continue to be the resource for the city to establish an equity mindset in everything that we do and also be the conduit to the community for receiving and addressing complaints as they relate to non-discrimination.
Would you support an ordinance to ban conversion therapy to change a person’s sexual orientation or identity?
I [would] have to understand what that ordinance would include. But I’m certainly against that kind of [conversion therapy] and I’d certainly agree with the spirit [of such an ordinance].
Are you going to the Human Rights Campaign’s San Antonio Gala or Stonewall Democrats banquet?
I usually attend the HRC functions. I didn’t know Stonewall [was having] one. But I’ll go wherever I’m invited. (According to SDSA secretary Carolee Moore, “One is in the works for February 2018 … and the mayor is definitely on the invite list.”)
You’ve embraced the LGBTQ community, but it seems it has also embraced you. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel good, because my goal has been to be a mayor for all of San Antonio. That [support] means that marginalized members of the community, people who have felt voiceless, people who are underrepresented, believe that they have a champion in the mayor’s office, and that makes me feel really good.
Ron on Politics
What’s your personal balance of your first 100 days in office?
I think it’s been going very well. I campaigned and won an election based on a very forward-looking agenda and a bold vision for San Antonio, and I believe that the actions that we’ve taken in the three months that I’ve been in office have spoken directly to that. People were very excited and enthusiastic about this new administration and think that we’re walking the walk.
You were confident early on, but did you expect to beat Taylor by such a large margin?
In my heart, yes, I was. In my head … I believed we would win but [we were] bracing for a tight one. But in my heart, I felt this is where the vast majority of San Antonio is, and it just mattered whether or not we could inspire enough people to believe in our vision to get to the polls to prove it.
This is the second time in a row that you won as a progressive, first coming from a Northside district, and now you won the big one without compromising or “going center,” like most supposedly liberal politicians do. And, so far, you haven’t pissed too many people off. Are you a new kind of progressive, who masters the art of integrity yet is able to work with everyone? What’s your secret?
Well … I think it’s almost a post-partisan world, certainly at the local level. I’m an independent, I don’t affiliate with a party. People use the word “progressive” or “liberal.” I don’t identify with that. I believe in progress and I’m unashamed about it. But the difference for me is that … a few things: One, I’m genuinely interested in people, so I listen to them, first and foremost; but also, I’m willing to work harder than anyone else and I’m sincere about it. What I said on the campaign trail is no different than what I say as mayor or as councilman. People long for that kind of representation. They’re so used to the spin and the doublespeak of politicians that they’re looking for someone who just says what he or she believes. I am looking for that as a voter. That’s how you build trust, even if it’s with someone you disagree with: You build trust by doing as you say and saying as you do. And that’s what I’ve tried to do as a public servant.
When former Mayor Ivy Taylor threw out that “liberal Ron” line during the debate, you seemed to embrace the term and didn’t even respond. But what did you think at that moment?
I had to step outside and get some air. I didn’t like it. That, and the mailers that came along with it … It’s dirty politics. However, I’ve been through this before when candidates that are overwhelming favorites begin to see that they’re losing and they get desperate and start attacking personally. I saw that during my first race and I saw it again during this mayoral race. It was sad. I had to get some air; I was angry, but then I reminded myself that this is the sign that we’re winning and decided to stay on course and not fight fire with fire, but rather be the leader that I would want to elect myself if I was a voter.
Were you angry because of the term itself or because it was dirty politics?
No [it wasn’t about the term] … I always play fair and I always defend the fact that I’ve never put out a mailer or said something on a campaign trail that wasn’t true. We work on contrasts; we talk about issues; we show how we have differences of opinion — but I’ve never, you know, stooped to a personal attack or said something that distorted reality. So I was angry about the fact that I always want politics to restore trust in people and, when politicians resort to those kinds of measures, it hurts public trust. That’s what I was angry about. It further underscores why people don’t want to vote, because they think it doesn’t matter, and that’s what I was upset about.
At a national level, do you really think real change and democracy are possible if we don’t get rid of the Electoral College?
If voting districts continue being gerrymandered the way they are in Texas, change is going to be very slow. If voting districts go back to more closely following the principles of equal representation, change is coming like a tsunami in the country. And that’s because the demographics don’t lie and … the United States, like everywhere else in the world, is rapidly urbanizing. People are living in cities, not out in the country, because that’s where the resources are, that’s where the jobs are. If voting districts reflect that change, you’ll see that happen.
You’re a very accessible mayor — very active on social media and even willing to reply to my own text messages on Election Night. It would be very easy for you to have someone else reply to unimportant stuff, yet you find time to remain close to your constituents.
I’m their voice. If they don’t have access to me, then they’ve lost their voice. Accessibility, being available, listening is the fundamental responsibility that I have.
Do you promise you’ll stay mayor for at least one term before moving to greener pastures or seeking higher office?
I’m an independent. Work is done at a local level. Even for the President of the United States, the change he is trying to affect will all be done at the local level. I’m exactly where I want to be and I plan to be mayor for eight years. But that obviously requires 1.5 million other people to agree with me.
Ron on Fitness
Once on my Facebook page, I shared your MD Monthly cover and added a silly comment: “My mayor can kick your mayor’s ass.” Immediately, my friends in Los Angeles started trolling me, arguing that first you’d have to kick Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s butt. I didn’t even know Garcetti worked out, but a challenge is a challenge: Could you beat him, UFC style?
I don’t have the answer to that question, but there is only one way to find out [laughs] … But he’s a good guy. I admire his work.
How has your fitness regime changed since you took office?
It’s been hard to find a consistent workout time — even when I began as a general manager of a radio station (KRTU), which was a 24/7 gig, or when I had a pretty hectic schedule in the council office. I continue to work out when I can, but I’m [dealing with] a back injury right now, so that’s been the primary setback. But I still find time. It’s important for my mental health.
Give me your ideal workout regime and what you’re doing now.
Ideally I would be working out a four-day split where every body part gets trained once for a week. Heavy weights, cardio twice a week. The workout that I do now is a three-day split. I’m training with weights roughly three times a week and my cardio is walking from the chamber to City Hall.
I’m 53 and I have a beer belly — and I don’t even drink! Is there any hope for me?
Of course there is hope!
Really? What should I do? More abs, running, fasting?
Strength training and eating well is your best way of changing your physique.
Give me a daily regime, and I’ll do it.
The simplest thing you can do is start resistance training three times a week in a range of about 10 to 15 repetitions, a few sets for each body part and, the best thing you can possibly do at this point…
What do you mean “at this point”?
[Laughs] … you need to eliminate all refined sugar and processed carbohydrates from your diet. Stop drinking soda and stop eating things that have simple sugars — if it’s in a package, if you have to unwrap it, don’t eat it.