Progressive causes lose big in San Antonio and El Paso charter elections

Voters wait in line outside Cody Public Library in San Antonio on Nov. 3, 2020. (Clint Datchuk For The Texas Tribune, Clint Datchuk For The Texas Tribune)

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Voters in San Antonio and El Paso delivered resounding defeats Saturday to two ambitious ballot propositions that progressives had championed.

At the same time, voters in Austin overwhelmingly approved a measure to increase oversight of the city’s police.

The fights in San Antonio and El Paso, however, had drawn the most statewide attention. In San Antonio, the state’s second biggest city, progressive were pushing a wide-ranging proposition that sought to decriminalize abortion and low-level marijuana possession and require police to issue citations rather than make arrests for some nonviolent offenses. And in El Paso, the ballot proposition aimed to phase out the city’s reliance on fossil fuels, among other proposals to combat climate change.

On Saturday night, 72% of voters in San Antonio had weighed in against Proposition A, with over half of voter centers reporting. In El Paso, 84% of voters opposed Proposition K in early voting.

Mayors of some of Texas’ biggest cities were also on the ballot Saturday, but none faced serious opposition, leaving much of the spotlight to fall on the ballot propositions. They came as progressives increasingly turn to local government to enact an agenda that is dead-on-arrival with the Republican-dominated state government.

In San Antonio and El Paso, progressives encountered intense opposition from law enforcement and business groups, which massively outspent them. The San Antonio battle had especially attracted attention given that it was the first time Texas voters had a chance to directly weigh in on abortion since the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. That triggered a near-total ban on abortion in Texas.

“We hope this defeat sends a strong message to those activists seeking to circumvent statewide laws that protect unborn babies from abortion,” Amy O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion Texas Alliance for Life, said in a statement. “Gimmicks, like the bundling of the decriminalization of abortion with other measures, did not work in San Antonio. Texans won't stand for it, and our cities deserve better.”

Proposition A, billed as the “Justice Charter,” was about much more than just abortion. It sought to overhaul policing on a range of issues, with supporters arguing it would reduce jailing and free up resources to focus on more serious crime. Opponents countered that it would only incentivize more crime.

City officials had said all but one provision of the proposition were inconsistent with state law and thus unenforceable. The city’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, came out against it despite previously aligning himself with progressives on some of the issues. He was among the mayors facing nominal opposition Saturday night and easily won another term.

Despite the abortion provision, much of the campaigning around Proposition A focused on a proposal to expand the city’s cite-and-release policy. Currently, San Antonio police have the discretion to either make an arrest or issue a citation for a range of Class A and B misdemeanor offenses, such as theft from a business of less than $750. Proposition A would require citations for those offenses and expand the list of offenses eligible for citations.

In El Paso, the so-called “climate charter” aimed to reach beyond the city’s operations and attempt to set clean energy goals for the entire local economy: 80% clean energy by 2030 and 100% by 2045. It would call on the city of El Paso to create a new climate department, produce climate impact statements for major city decisions and rethink local policy at all levels to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It would also require the city to explore buying El Paso Electric, which is privately owned.

Proposition K had drawn the support of Beto O’Rourke, the former statewide Democratic candidate and member of the U.S. House from El Paso.

On Saturday night, Proposition K organizers said they were disappointed in their loss but noted they were up against the “wealthiest oil and gas interests in the world.”

“Success has been delayed, but our movement was not defeated,” Ana Zueck Fuentes, campaign manager of Sunrise El Paso, said in a statement. “This is just the beginning of the fight for climate action here in El Paso and beyond.”

Erin Douglas contributed reporting.

Disclosure: El Paso Electric has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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