Hardberger makes pick for District 8 race
By Josh Baugh / Express News
Former Mayor Phil Hardberger has a long-standing policy not to involve himself in other people’s political campaigns. But rules, like eggs, are made to be broken.
Hardberger has decided to enter the fray in the District 8 race with a robust endorsement of Ron Nirenberg. And he’s definitely not walking on eggshells.
Egg references are likely to be a mainstay in the District 8 race, in which frontrunner Rolando Briones, the owner of an engineering firm, claimed in a local magazine article that he’d been fired from the San Antonio Water System for refusing to swallow a raw egg, shell included.
According to federal court documents, Briones lost his job for accepting gifts from SAWS contractors.
On Thursday, San Antonio Express-News Columnist Brian Chasnoff exposed the discrepancy, and Hardberger seized the moment that evening at a fundraiser for Nirenberg.
Holding an unassuming brown egg, Hardberger stood in the banquet hall at La Fonda on Main Avenue and told a fable about Briones’ attempt to use the media to recast the egg incident — which happened more than a year after he’d been fired — to suit his campaign, supporters recounted.
Briones maintains he didn’t lie, that the bizarre egg incident was representative of a tainted management culture at SAWS and that the way it was used in San Antonio Man magazine was “a misunderstanding.”
“I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was there,” he said. “And what the story didn’t say was that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It gave me the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning my own business.”
Briones said he now contracts with SAWS as well.
But Hardberger sees things differently.
“I think (Chasnoff’s column) shows something. It shows that a person would be willing to not only bend but actually fabricate facts to suit his own ends,” Hardberger said in an interview. “So, I don’t know if Ron would eat a raw egg or not, but if he told me he did, I would believe him, and if he told me he did not, I would also believe him.”
Though the egg makes good political theater, it’s a story that broke long after Hardberger decided that he’d make an exception to his no-endorsement rule.
He recalls only one other exception — for Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, “because I’ve known him since he was president of the student body at UT.”
The former mayor’s Nirenberg endorsement hinges, he said, on the qualities he sees in the 35-year-old associate general manager for Trinity University‘s KRTU radio station.
“It came in my belief in Ron, not from any disbelief in Briones,” Hardberger said. “I never have actually talked to (Briones), but I felt that Ron was the candidate of choice, regardless of who’s going to run against him. It’d just be hard to beat him in terms of what he brings to the table.”
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said that if Hardberger is well respected by voters, then his endorsement will likely signal that they should take a harder look at Nirenberg, considered to be the underdog in the District 8 race.
The endorsement “sort of directs your attention to (Nirenberg) and most voters don’t spend a lot of time doing due diligence, digging into the background of candidates for city office,” Jillson said. “And so any time attention is directed to a candidate, that is a good thing. And if the person directing attention is well respected, on the margin it could help.”
Hardberger also was one of seven living mayors to publicly back the successful Pre-K 4 SA campaign, championed by Mayor Julián Castro in 2012.
Former Hardberger political consultant Christian Archer said the endorsement will help Nirenberg in a number of ways. Hardberger is a prolific fundraiser, a trusted political icon in San Antonio and his support is exclusive, Archer said.
The endorsement “is going to raise a lot of eyebrows,” he said.
Nirenberg said he was humbled by the endorsement and knows that it brings with it a “huge responsibility.” He and Hardberger say they share common values about how the city should be run.
The two aren’t longtime friends. Hardberger recalled Nirenberg asking for meetings, where he introduced himself, told the former mayor he was running for office and asked for ideas.
Hardberger said he knew the meetings were leading to a request for support, but they weren’t like most appeals for help.
“He came to me first for ideas, but most people, when they come to you for ideas, they’re about five minutes of your ideas and about 95 percent of selling themselves,” Hardberger said. “With him, it was the opposite.”
Those conversations were steeped in the minutiae of government.
“We didn’t get into the politics of it — what’s popular, what’s not, and so forth,” Hardberger said. “But we did talk about what’s important to San Antonio.”
Hardberger said he liked Nirenberg’s “nuanced” position on protecting the quality of Edwards Aquifer water and ensuring there’s not too much concrete preventing water from getting into the ground.
“But yet he’s smart enough to know that development is part of the growth of the city. You’ve got to have a certain amount of development, a certain amount of money coming in,” Hardberger said. “Business interests are very important to the running of the government, but a public official’s job is to control that, not to simply hand the keys to one section of the community and say, ‘Do anything you want to do, no matter what.’ That’s bad.”
Hardberger was referencing the source of Briones’ hefty campaign account, rife with contributions from members of the development community.
Briones did not deny that he would represent the development community if he’s elected but continually referenced his would-be constituency.
“All that matters is the voters,” he said. “I’ll always have their best interest at heart. … I’ve talked to voters along the way, and I’ve assured them that I’m there to represent them.”
Hardberger continued to meet with Nirenberg, and eventually with former District 8 Councilwoman Bonnie Conner, Nirenberg’s campaign treasurer, as well.
“But I had this kind of rule, and at some point I told him I don’t endorse candidates,” Hardberger said. “And then I got to thinking about how much good he could do and maybe I should rethink that — when you have an especially qualified candidate.”
Though Hardberger has put all his eggs in Nirenberg’s basket, he’s not signaling a new emergence in political campaigns.
“I’m pretty well going to stick to the rule. I’m never going to do much endorsing,” Hardberger said. “To be honest, sometimes I think it weakens the endorsement if you’ve got this favorite and that favorite and you’re endorsing this one and that one, and I don’t want to do that. I want to be few and far between. And I want to have really good reasons.”