A Dad-First Political Insurgency in Texas

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Ron Nirenberg’s campaign was supposed to be over by now. A two-term, 40-year-old San Antonio councilman, Nirenberg wasn’t supposed to have much of a shot at unseating incumbent mayor Ivy Taylor. But politics are unpredictable and Nirenberg, who has campaigned as a concerned and deeply involved father, is in a run-off for a role leading a city that has spent the better part of the last fifty years serving as a laboratory for city planning innovation. What does Nirenberg envision? Family-friendly infrastructure projects and innovation. Why is he pushing that idea? Because he stayed at home with his son. He knows what that’s like.

The former program director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Nirenberg is an Independent and a wonk going up against a Democratic mayor who has put a strong emphasis on experience in elected office. Nirenberg has less experience–that is just a fact–but his message about the experience of parents and, in particular, fathers, seems to resonate with the electorate. 

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Fatherly spoke to Nirenberg about his campaign, how being a father changed his politics, and ‘BBC Dad.’

More than most politicians, you’ve campaigned as a dad. You talk a lot about kids and about your own experience as a father. Obviously, that’s quite relatable, but is there a broader reason for taking that approach?

That’s not always easy to do; politics is oriented towards the short-term game and the next election. But if we’re looking through the eyes of our children and grandchildren, it’s a lot tougher to make the right decision in the face of those short-term thinkers.  

You’ve spoken about your experience being home with your son. What was that experience and how did it alter your thinking?

We tried having a nanny and, honestly, we never felt comfortable. My wife and I just kind of felt like we wanted to be there, be more present for him. About six weeks into our trial run with the nanny, we still had this feeling of discomfort that we weren’t doing everything we could for our son’s first year of life. I spoke with my wife and we decided to make the leap into stay-at-home parenting. Because I was working in San Antonio for a public policy center in Philadelphia, I’d already established a home office. The big transition was having my son as a co-worker.

I saw the BBC video with the guy on the telecom and his daughter wanders in. Let’s say I can relate directly to that experience. 

Has the “Stay-at-Home Dad” thing been a political liability or an asset?

To be clear, this was in the first year of my son’s life (he’s eight now) and I haven’t gotten any negative feedback directly. I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that direct parenting is the most important job you can do to benefit a community. So many of the ills of our society are connected to the fact that parents aren’t present in their children’s lives. People who choose to have a direct role, even at the expense of career opportunities, ought to be lauded.

Has being a father — and a very present one at that — affected your political outlook?

Everything I do as a council member and elected official, and even as a candidate, is done through the eyes of my son and his peers. If our elected officials were more concerned about the impact of their decisions on future generations, we might end up with better policymaking than we have in our current environment. I want my son to have a memory of me as a father and as a public servant and that has been a compass for my career. 

What does that translate to in terms of policies?

I’m a strong champion of growing green space so families have a healthier environment for recreation. I’ve also been working on air quality issues. Children can grow up without issues from the air they breathe. A lot of the infrastructure work, particularly around public transportation, is meant to be able to allow families to get to work and school on time and get home to spend time together.

I think, at the end of the day, when you’re considering the next generation in policymaking, all the policies and initiatives the city undertakes start to be about the betterment of families. 

Even the seemingly smaller stuff.

We have an initiative to make sure libraries are staying open adequate hours so children can do their homework and families can spend time in learning facilities. It is extremely important. 

It seems likely that parents right now are trying to shield their children from politics because of the divisiveness of rhetoric and the potential to sow seeds of distrust in institutions. Does that worry you as a politician or as a dad?

If you look at the latest rounds of elections at any level, the civic discourse is in the gutter. Our political system owes our children better than that. They should grow up believing government is a noble profession and that it’s worth their time and effort. 

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