San Antonio has become a kind of Berkeley of the Southwest, a progressive, economically vibrant and Democratic-leaning city of 1.3 million in Republican-dominated Texas.
This got a lot of spit-takes from Texans on Twitter last night, because San Antonio is nothing like Berkeley. San Antonio is about ten times more populous, about twenty times bigger physically (more sprawing, I mean), vastly less affluent (the median household income in SATX is about $20k less than it is in Berkeley)--but at the same time, arguably more economically vibrant (6.6% unemployment in May 2012, compared to 8.6% in Berkeley). San Antonio is also more centrist than Berkeley. It has a progressive tradition; Castro's parents are a part of it, both having been community organizers. But that's often been offset by the city's more conservative constituencies: active-duty military, military retirees, business Republicans, socially conservative Hispanic voters. So these days the city produces young Democratic stars like Castro and his twin brother Joaquin, who is expected to win his congressional race this year, but also establishment Republicans like Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House--all of whom are quite moderate.
With all of that said, Fernandez's broader point is true. Castro's forthcoming DNC keynote will cast a new spotlight on the unexpected progressive aspects of San Antonio. Bike-sharing, downtown revitalization, sustainable energy initiatives, multimodal transit...it's all there, and in some respects San Antonio is even ahead of overtly progressive Austin, which is a kind of a--well, nevermind.
But what's striking about the changes in San Antonio is precisely that they're happening in a city that's not like Berkeley, or Austin, or Portland, or any of the others that you would expect to get out in front on issues like this. This is not a self-consciously progressive city; the barriers aren't just political but economic, because San Antonio isn't a rich city.
The approach, then, has been pragmatic rather than idealistic. The need for public support is ineradicable; many of the infrastructure investments have been directly authorized by voters via bond initiatives. Castro's current cause--universal pre-school--would be funded by a small increase in the sales tax, which is, of course, regressive; Castro's reasoning is that it's worth it because everyone benefits from universal pre-k, and voters will weigh in in November. At the same time, little happens in Texas without the business community's involvement, and the private sector has also taken a prominent role in San Antonio's shift. The cloud computing company Rackspace already made a big impression on the metro area by putting its new headquarters in a formerly derelict mall, and now its CEO, Graham Weston, is talking up his plans for a philanthrocapitalist urban renewal program.
This is, in general, the way that Texas cities make progress. Houston's ongoing greening initiative similarly relies on buy-in from both the public and private sectors. And it suggests that San Antonio's approach is actually a challenge to Berkeley's, rather than an echo. A city doesn't need to be progressive to make progressive changes, if the changes reflect good common sense. Some of San Antonio's strategies wouldn't work elsewhere; a city with less projected growth, for example, should be more wary of major bond initiatives. But San Antonio's pragmatism could make it a useful role model for other cities.