If Texans treated city hall like they do football, Trinity University would lay claim to a star-studded segment of San Antonio’s starting lineup:
Representing the District Eight city council seat: the consensus builder, Manny Pelaez ’97; At city manager: the man in the trenches, Erik Walsh ’91, M’94; And your two-time defending mayor: the risk-taker, Ron Nirenberg ’99.
“All three of us are so different,” Nirenberg says, “but we have complementary leadership styles.”
San Antonio, Nirenberg explains, runs a council-manager form of government, with a mayor and 10 council members forming a deliberative body, and a city manager tasked with turning their policy decisions into professional recommendations. Having a mayor, councilman, and city manager all with the same alma mater, Nirenberg says, creates a governing team with incredible chemistry.
Pelaez, says Nirenberg, “is our star wide receiver. He’s a lawyer, he’s talented, he can put people at ease. When you have a big issue you want to debate, you give Manny the ball.”
Walsh, Nirenberg continues, is the offensive lineman. “Erik is team-oriented, collaborative, builds morale. He’s our team captain, the guy in the trenches doing the hard work that people don’t always see, but it’s incredibly important. And that’s an easy choice: Erik actually played that position for Trinity’s football team.”
And that makes Nirenberg—reluctant as he is to step into the spotlight—the quarterback. “You want your mayor to be able see the whole field, and to call the right plays, and get it done.”
Running America’s seventh-largest city is a tough enough job on its own. But there’s no playbook for what this trio has encountered over the past year, where San Antonio has stared down an international pandemic, economic and social unrest, and the onset of natural disasters such as statewide snowstorms.
How does San Antonio move forward in the face of these obstacles?
According to Nirenberg: with vision. For Pelaez: with a go-big-or-go-home attitude. And for Walsh: by getting back to basics.
A Vision for the Future
For a South Texas city that’s experienced its share of notable “shoot-from-the-hip” mayors, having a self-described “critical thinker” at the helm might seem like a change of pace.
But don’t let Nirenberg’s analytical approach fool you. Right now, he’s leading San Antonio decisively through one of the toughest stretches of its modern history.
“We’re running on adrenaline right now—and it’s been that way for 12 months,” he says.
Facing spiking virus cases, natural disasters, and vast social upheaval—and yes, there’s still a city to keep running—Nirenberg prides himself on being able to remain focused on the bigger picture: “I’m committed to a vision of San Antonio being an inclusive, culturally rich, and diverse place, but also a city that is one of the premier cities in our country.”
Ironically, the only part of this future that Nirenberg didn’t originally envision was himself.
“I never had a goal to be mayor,” he says, pointing to his original career in public policy research and a stint at Trinity’s KRTU jazz station as his original passions. “I had no interest in office until I started getting involved in SA 2020,” a community visioning project launched by then-mayor Julian Castro in 2010.
But when Nirenberg, the husband of H-E-B executive and former Hispanic Chamber of Commerce chair Erika Prosper, became a new father, the family decided to plant roots in San Antonio forever. “I realized that my passion is community building—improving our city and doing my part to leave this city a better place for my son,” he says. “I came home one day, told Erika, ‘I need to be doing this community-building full time, so I’m running for city council,’ and she said, ‘You know what, you’ve already made up your mind, so let’s go.”
In just a few short years, Nirenberg went from not knowing how to run a campaign to winning and then serving on a council spot. Then, he defeated former mayor Ivy Taylor (who assumed the office after the departure of Castro) for the mayoral seat in 2017. After being re-elected in 2019, he’s gearing up for another election in May 2021.
We’ll spare you the full re-election pitch, but in short, Nirenberg says, “I got into this field without lofty personal goals, so I can take risks—implementing bold ideas, going out on limbs where you’re going to pay a political price.”
Occasionally, those risks include reaching out to stakeholders with a different vision from his own. It’s a move Nirenberg says he learned at Trinity: learning to work with people who have different views, backgrounds, and expectations.
“That’s really what critical thinking means. How do you examine and distill information coming from different places? That’s what Trinity taught me, and that’s the touchstone of leadership itself,” Nirenberg says. “My leadership style is, by nature, collaborative. I want the best ideas to win, so I try to bring as many people with divergent views to the table as possible.”
But as collaborative as Nirenberg prefers to be, he’s also the first to admit that leaders are eventually challenged to make decisions. And in the middle of an international pandemic, for example, these decisions need to get made faster than usual.
“We have to be willing to abandon the bureaucracy to make things happen in the middle of a pandemic,” Nirenberg says. “We still need collaboration, we still have to work together, but that also means we aren’t waiting around for folks who can’t—or won’t—shift gears politically to come up with solutions. I believe there are important, fundamental values for which we cannot compromise.
“If I’m going to be bullheaded in city hall,” Nirenberg adds, “it’s in defense of values, human values, that are nonnegotiable.”
And when it’s time to envision this type of major action, Nirenberg looks to one of the biggest voices on the council dais.
Go Big or Go Home
Pelaez is made for major moments.
“I came to city council thinking that San Antonio was the seventh-largest city in the United States, but we don’t act like it,” he says. “We celebrate that we’re a ‘big small town,’ but we’re a ‘big small town’ with 1.5 million people and some huge problems.”
Even before the advent of COVID-19, San Antonio grappled with major issues such as poverty, displacement, domestic violence crises, and subpar international relationships. Pelaez notes that the city was “doing victory laps for economic development that happened a decade ago.”
“Can you believe,” Pelaez adds, “that a year ago we thought our biggest problem in San Antonio was electric scooters?”
Pelaez has been tackling these issues even before coming to council. After majoring in communication at Trinity and earning his J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law, Pelaez held positions as managing counsel for Toyota Motor Manufacturing, chairman of Brooks City Base Board, and as a trustee for the VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority.
But as a councilman, Pelaez wants San Antonio to keep thinking bigger.
“When I hired my chief of staff, I told them: On any given day, if you find me only making small decisions, remind me to think bigger,” Pelaez says. “Some people can get re-elected just by showing up—and yes, we can and will fix that pothole on Babcock and UTSA Boulevard or the broken swing set in that park, but that cannot be all we do. We cannot allow small stuff to distract us from the big things.”
And as bigger and bigger problems mount, seemingly by the week in Texas, Pelaez says San Antonio must consider how these problems can exacerbate each other.
“As we’ve had to move into more isolation, that also affects our city’s domestic violence crisis, because now fewer people who are trapped can get help,” says Pelaez, who served for a decade as volunteer general counsel for the Bexar County Battered Women and Children’s Shelter. “One third of our San Antonio women have or will have a domestic violence story to tell—a much higher rate than anywhere else in Texas. We have to treat this like it’s an epidemic, too.”
When these obstacles seem overwhelming, Pelaez says he leans on the work ethic he developed at Trinity.
“At the end of the day, you can talk about solving problems all you want, but the actual work is what you’re hired to do. At Trinity, they throw you into the deep end. You pull all-nighters. You develop a love affair with caffeine,” Pelaez says. “And that’s what helps as a city councilman when you realize that crises don’t just happen between 9-5. We’ve got shootings and street racers in the middle of the night. Water mains break. We have hospitals with all their beds full from COVID-19. Here, you understand, in sharp value, the value of work. And that’s what I take from Trinity: There’s no half-assing your work.”
But dreaming big is not a one-person show. With nine other members on the city council, Pelaez knows that you need to build consensus to solve major problems. And that consensus really comes down to community building.
“At Trinity, ‘community’ is a verb,” Pelaez says. “When you see what a community, a real community, can build working together as a group of people, you can’t help but get hooked on that. At the end of the day, there’s no more powerful force than that.”
For all the big dreams and ideas that come with a city council job, the past year of isolation has shown Pelaez that the little moments can add up, too.
“I’m not good at much, but I’m good at being with people,” Pelaez says. “Being in the same room with my neighbors and the communities I represent has always been important to me. Right now, I can’t high-five my neighbor whose kid just got into college or hug someone whose mother just passed away. And in San Antonio, we’re a hugging city. I’m starving to have those moments with my constituents again.”
Finding the Fundamentals
Those same constituents might not be hugging Erik Walsh on a daily basis, but whether they know it or not, he’s also a big part of their support network.
As city manager, Walsh proposes and oversees San Antonio’s annual $2.9 billion budget, managing more than 12,000 employees spread across 40-plus offices. From airports and police stations to parks, libraries, senior services, and more, he says San Antonio’s basic municipal services play an invaluable role in residents’ lives.
“Going back to high school, I was always interested in local government because it wasn’t just politics,” Walsh says. “Trash pickup has to run every week. The 9-1-1 emergency system, the traffic signals, the streets, our airport, all have to be running. These services touch everybody, every day, not just during emergencies. We all rely on them, regardless of who is in power.”
During a year when hundreds of thousands of residents have lost power, been affected by pandemics, or suffered any number of hardships, simply returning to a pre-2020 normal seems like a lofty goal. But it’s a challenge that Walsh says San Antonio is up for.
“We have a responsibility to be level-headed. Even in the midst of an emergency, services have to continue,” Walsh says. “Pandemics, disasters, these things will pass. But the city’s role is key to making sure we return to normal.”
And the only way the city of San Antonio is going to do that, Walsh says, is as a team that supports each other.
“I’m a team sport guy, and I always have been. I’m a firm believer, whether it’s in the private sector or in government, that any organization has to have that mentality. This is not an individual sport,” Walsh says. “So as a leader, it’s my job to make sure we embrace that. At city hall, I understand our strengths and weaknesses as a team, and how we cover each other’s weaknesses. I’ve got my own weaknesses, so I welcome people who can help me cover those. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown professionally, and that’s something I can point back to my time at Trinity.”
As a Trinity undergraduate, Walsh recalls seeing the value of a strong support network firsthand. Balancing a rigorous academic schedule as a political science major with a strong football career that culminated with an All-SCAC (Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference) honorable mention season as a senior, Walsh says he owes much of his current success to supportive professors and classmates.
“The atmosphere at Trinity created by students and faculty acts as a community within itself,” Walsh says. “Going to Trinity was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Walsh earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Trinity in 1991 and a Master of Science in urban administration from the University in 1994. (This program has since shifted to an undergraduate major in urban studies.) Shortly after obtaining his master’s, Walsh became a budget and management analyst for the City of San Antonio and has worked for his hometown ever since.
But as high as Walsh has climbed, and as complicated as his tasks have become, he has always been a “back-to-basics” type of guy.
“I know everyone says this, but in college some of the most valuable things you learn are the basic things, like time management,” Walsh says. “Playing football forced us all to balance our priorities. Eventually you’re going to be balancing a demanding career with family, other obligations. Had I not stressed (time management) in college, my life today would be harder to deal with.”
This commitment to time management is even helping Walsh’s team find silver linings within the challenges of the pandemic-era workplace.
“The last place I envisioned myself as city manager is sitting by myself in an office, talking to a laptop. But we’ve turned around and done things like have employee town halls [online], and it’s pretty powerful when you have 1,800 employees on at the same time. Before (the pandemic), I could not have gotten to 1,800 people in one day.”
And as Walsh works around the clock to keep supporting San Antonio’s residents, he says it’s nice to have a support network of his own in city hall.
“It’s unwritten, unsaid recognition that Ron, Manny, and I had the same type of experience at Trinity,” Walsh says. “We may have been there at different times—I’m the oldest of the three of us—but the fact that we have walked the same grounds and hallways, had the same social interactions, that’s comforting. It gives you a level of familiarity, even if you’re just meeting (another alumni) for the first time.”
Routes to Leadership
This type of connection extends far past San Antonio’s city hall. Across countless cities, workplaces and career fields, Tigers of all stripes are stepping into similar leadership positions.
And Walsh, Nirenberg, and Pelaez each have words of encouragement. Nirenberg encourages all Trinity grads to be patient with their vision.
“Elected office wasn’t the goal for me—it became a vehicle for building the city that I dream of,” Nirenberg says. “So, find what you’re passionate about, whether it’s an academic subject or a career field, and place yourself in a community that you love and appreciate. Your path will lead you to service. You won’t have to seek to be a leader: Leadership will come to you.”
Once you find your calling, Pelaez urges you to make the most of your chance.
“There’s nothing casual about leadership. If you choose this path, the route of leadership, you have a responsibility to not screw it up,” he says. “The decisions you make impact lives, and if the past year has shown us anything, it’s how delicate and precious these lives are.”
And Walsh reminds you to never forget the fundamentals that brought success in the first place, even as new obstacles arise.
“I never anticipated times like the ones we’re all living in now,” Walsh says. “This is a challenging position even during normal times. But with any other leadership position throughout history—things happen. What sets us all apart is how we are going to react.”