In San Antonio mayoral race, a fight for city's future

Tuesday's runoff is a contest between two very different men - and a stage for a Hispanic rising star.

Phil Hardberger is all smiles as he meets with influential San Antonio Hispanics over heaping plates of chilaquiles, machacado omelettes, and refried beans. For the first time since he entered the mayor's race eight months ago, he is leading in the polls.

But a three-point difference is not a clincher in this predominantly Latino city, as Hardberger readily admits at the breakfast. "I know some of you have taken heat for supporting me," he says. "But you won't be disappointed.... I want you at my side for the next four years."

This spring, two major US cities had the opportunity to elect Latino mayors: Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, and San Antonio, its eighth largest.

Antonio Villaraigosa pulled it off last month by becoming the first Hispanic mayor of Los Angeles since 1872.

But San Antonio's new mayor is still undecided as voters return to the polls Tuesday in a runoff between Mr. Hardberger and Julián Castro, both Democrats.

A tradition of Hispanic officials

While many talk of Latinos' growing political clout nationwide, San Antonio has a long tradition of Hispanic elected officials. Indeed, it's been almost a quarter century since Henry Cisneros became the first Hispanic mayor to ride to victory in a major US city.

But a Castro victory would be significant in another defining way, underscoring Texas' unique relationship with Mexican Americans. "There is a different sensibility here," says José Limón, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "In California, there is this odd way in which people look through you and around you if you look like me. But in Texas, they look at you - sometimes hard, like they want to kill you, but at least they see you."

That's because while Anglos and Latinos may not be best friends in Texas, they are not strangers. Since the early 18th century, Hispanics have dominated South Texas - and that long history and dense population has fostered Anglos' respect.

That understanding, in turn, has diminished wariness of immigrants. Texas, for instance, rarely follows the anti-immigrant trends of other states. Even President Bush - raised on Lone Star sensibilities - has made enemies by promoting traditionally Democratic immigrant-friendly ideas.

But in some ways, that long relationship with Hispanics has made it even harder for Hispanics to win at the Texas polls, says Mr. Castro in his campaign office. "There's not as much excitement," he says. Indeed, when Mr. Cisneros was elected in 1981, the number of voters doubled to 155,000. But in this year's May race, the number was down to 115,000 while the city had grown from 740,000 people to 1.3 million.

The Castro brothers

Castro has degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and speaks of his vision for the city as if reading a term paper aloud.

Indeed, many here say the differences between Castro and Hardberger may have more to do with age than ethnicity. Castro is 30 and Hardberger, 70.

After graduating from Harvard, Castro moved back to San Antonio and worked as a lawyer before running for city council in 2001. His twin brother, Joaquin, had won a seat in the Texas House the year before.

They were raised by their single mother, Rosie Castro, a member of the Raza Unida movement and longtime political activist in San Antonio who dragged her children on block walks and to farmworkers' rallies.

The two prodigies are creating a stir in political circles, but Hardberger has convinced many here that the city needs a more seasoned presence at the helm: The outgoing mayor, Ed Garza, was only 32 when he was elected in 2001.

San Antonio has a long history of young mayors, with about 10 under 35 since the the city's inception. But many believe Mayor Garza has given youth a bad name - and hurt Castro's chances - with two terms marred by fraud and ineffectiveness.

Hardberger pulled ahead in the polls several weeks after the May election, most likely because the third candidate, city councilman Carroll Schubert, was eliminated. He was the only Republican, and analysts speculate that his more conservative supporters will now go to Hardberger.

"I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'You're endorsing Phil Hardberger? Why not Castro?' says Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez, who hosted the Hardberger breakfast. "I tell them, 'Castro will have his day and I will be there to support him. But right now, we need experience.' "

Hardberger has plenty. He is a former appellate judge with three college degrees. He has been a reporter for the Waco News Tribune, a pilot in the US Air Force, has served in the Peace Corps, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He is personable, with a slight Texas twang. He is also breaking an unwritten rule in San Antonio that the mayor must come from the city council - so he's considered an outsider, with all the accompanying allure and liabilities.

And like many Anglos here, he has worked closely with Hispanics and believes he has enough of their support to win the mayor's office - though he admits Castro will get far more Latino votes.

"That's only natural," he says.

For his part, Castro watched the Los Angeles race closely, taking notes on how to win Hispanic votes without alienating Anglos. But with four years on the city council, he believes the San Antonio race comes down to who has the "right experience."

Now it's a matter of convincing voters.

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