SAN ANTONIO — It's more a question of who than if.
With the crowded race for San Antonio mayor all but guaranteed to go to a runoff, discussion as the Saturday election nears has increasingly centered on who can sneak into the final round along with former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.
She's presumed to be holding the lead — if a slight one — among four serious contenders in the race set off by Julián Castro's departure last year to join President Obama's Cabinet. The other three major candidates are former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal and current Mayor Ivy Taylor, who was picked by her City Council colleagues to finish Castro's term. All are seen as Democrats, though the election is nonpartisan.
"Leticia's in front probably by a dime," said Kelton Morgan, a San Antonio political consultant. "The real fight right now is between Ivy Taylor and Mike for second place, for a spot in the runoff."
With dozens of debates — Villarreal counts more than 50 — and 14 declared candidates, the race has been part slog, part circus. Near the end, the top four contenders feigned attentiveness Wednesday night as a cowboy-hat-wearing perennial candidate named MamaBexar showed up — uninvited, by one account — for one of the last forums.
Enlightening policy debates have been few and far between, according to election watchers. Some substance surfaced earlier this year amid the city's stalemate with the San Antonio Police Officers Association, though the issue seemed to dim once the union threw its support behind Van de Putte. More recently, the race has devolved into a series of ethics allegations.
"The fact is all of them are playing very small ball, and that's frankly disappointing — that none of them have real grand plans given the challenges the city's going to have to face," said Walt Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The candidates, of course, would disagree. Van de Putte and Villarreal are vying to tap into anxiety that the city's growth is leaving some people behind, touting the bridges they built in Austin. At the Wednesday forum, Villarreal acknowledged to a restive questioner that it sometimes feels like there are now two San Antonios. "In some ways, we're growing like two cities — one north of [Interstate] 410 and one south of 410," he said.
With records as elected officials ranging from several years to decades, all four contenders are leaning heavily on their resumes. "You have a lot of combined experience. Nobody doubts that," said Taj Matthews, a community activist who attended the Wednesday forum.
Of the three candidates considered runoff prospects, Villarreal considers himself unique in that he never concealed his interest in the mayor's office, quitting the House in November to focus full-time on his campaign. Van de Putte swore she was not interested in the mayoral race while campaigning last year for lieutenant governor, while Taylor won the interim appointment partly because she assured her City Council colleagues she would not seek a full term if they picked her to fill the opening.
"Some say it's just politics," Villarreal said of the reversals by Taylor and Van de Putte. "I say we need to set a higher standard, and that is a message that voters are attracted to, setting a higher standard in city government. This is a relevant issue. You have to ask yourself, 'How important is it to keep your word?' The average voter believes it's very important."
Speaking with a likely voter while block-walking Thursday, Villarreal did not dance around the topic. Pitching himself as the most "straightforward" candidate, he reminded the voter he "didn't say I want to be lieutenant governor, lose big, then run for the seat."
Despite her strong standing heading into Saturday, Van de Putte has not always been dominant. After what was seen as a sluggish start, some supporters urged her earlier this year to shake up her campaign, which until then had been staffed by many of the same people who worked on her unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. In February, she mostly cleaned house and hired a new campaign manager: Christian Archer, a veteran strategist who helped engineer winning campaigns for former mayors Castro and Phil Hardberger.
A month later, Van de Putte drew fire after transferring about $300,000 from her statewide account to her mayoral campaign account. The move raised questions about whether Van de Putte, already a fundraising force in the race, was skirting local campaign finance laws, which are stricter than the state's. Villarreal filed an ethics complaint with the city, and Van de Putte ultimately returned some of the cash.
In recent days, campaign finance questions have again flared up. More ethics complaints are flying over Villarreal's ties to a group airing ads against Van de Putte, as well as Taylor's failure to report income stemming from her husband's business.
The bluster over the mundane world of campaign finance is unlikely to move voters, according to political observers who have watched the steady stream of mini-scandals. Heading into Saturday, some are instead training their fascination on the unconventional coalition Taylor has the potential to build.
Taylor, who hails from San Antonio's largely Democratic East Side, has made some moves in her short tenure as mayor that have endeared her to unlikely political allies. In one of the bolder examples — shortly after taking office — she effectively derailed the city's controversial plan for a downtown streetcar system.
Observers say her approach has contrasted with that of her predecessor, who flipped San Antonio's weak-mayor form of government on its head to push a progressive agenda.
"There's a big sense all over the city that all of the momentum San Antonio has had — this city on the rise for the past eight, 10 years — that the momentum came to a screeching halt the day she sat down in the mayor's chair," Morgan said. Taylor's camp did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet what has hurt Taylor in liberal circles has boosted her in conservative ones, especially on the city's affluent North Side. She won over the religious with her opposition in 2013 to a nondiscrimination ordinance intended to protect the LGBT community. At a North Side megachurch, she recently called the debate over the ordinance a "waste of time," a comment that fired up her evangelical audience but for which she later apologized.
Mike Gallagher, one of Taylor's biggest backers on the City Council, said her crossover appeal is no secret. Asked how he would describe her political views, the North Side councilman replied, "Straight down the middle, and I mean that sincerely."
"Without question I think she has had a lot of appeal on this side of town," Gallagher said, adding that Taylor has caught the attention of conservatives with her emphasis on the core functions of municipal government. "Instead of having programs that are ego-driven, instead we've watched her get back to the basics."
In any case, the candidates are bracing for low turnout in a city that has been fatigued by a seemingly endless series of elections since November of last year, many triggered by mayoral hopefuls vacating their previous posts.
"My chief concern is getting our voters to the polls," Van de Putte said Wednesday. "We know that we had only 5 percent of the registered voters show up to vote early, and that is a big part of it."
Angling for that second spot in the runoff, Villarreal did not let voters forget the stakes as he went door to door Thursday in a neighborhood in his old House district. "It's going to be a close race," he told voters. "A very close race."
Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.