Here's why Lila Cockrell's legacy as San Antonio mayor is so important

by San Antonio CurrentSeptember 4, 2019
Mayor Lila Cockrell prepares to christen the San Antonio Museum of Art by breaking a bottle of beer against its façade.
Mayor Lila Cockrell prepares to christen the San Antonio Museum of Art by breaking a bottle of beer against its façade. Courtesy Twitter / @SAMAart

By Sanford Nowlin | San Antonio Current

Following the death this week of Lila Cockrell, San Antonio's first female mayor, plenty of politicos and pundits have stepped forward to praise her leadership and civility.

Those can be some downright vague terms, especially for residents too young to remember Cockrell's terms as mayor, which came between 1975 and 1981. So, we asked Heywood Sanders — a professor of public policy at UTSA and Current columnist — to help us unpack what they mean.

One vital thing to understanding Cockrell's legacy is that the city's 1977 shift from at-large elections to single-member districts happened during her watch, Sanders said. By giving 10 geographical slices of the city the ability to elect their own representatives, council gained its first sizable contingency of non-Anglo members.

An embarrassing 1978 bond defeat came after council split support for the measure along racial lines — and that sounded a wakeup call, Sanders said. Cockrell quickly gleaned the significance of working behind the scenes to build consensus in a way prior mayors hadn't been forced to do.

"She recognized the imperative to build a broad, supportive coalition on the council," Sanders said. "To that end, she was a skilled political operator."

Or as former councilwoman Lynda Billa Burke told Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia, "She did so much — and so quietly."

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That ability to build consensus can be the biggest determinant in the success or failure of any modern San Antonio mayor, political observers point out.

At the same time, Cockrell was a master at appealing to voters by appearing to be an apolitical force working solely for the benefit of the city at large, Sanders points out. Her warm, grandmotherly demeanor helped in that regard.

Even after her time as mayor, Cockrell put those skills to use in her support of then-mayor Julián Castro has Pre-K 4 SA and her extensive work for city parks.

"I think that ability to do politics while appearing nonpolitical was instrumental to Lila Cockrell's success," Sanders said. "That's something very difficult to pull off these days."

This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.

The San Antonio Current, San Antonio's award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city's premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.

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