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End Near in Bruising San Antonio Mayoral Race

A photo finish is expected Saturday in the San Antonio mayoral runoff, which features interim Mayor Ivy Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte vying for the city's top job.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor (left) and former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte are set for a runoff for the city's top job.

After weeks of bruising attacks — and at least one hand left unshaken — the San Antonio mayoral race is coming to a close. Presumably. 

"It might not end on Saturday," said Manuel Medina, chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party, raising the prospect of an election night too close to call, spawning recounts or challenges. "It might be that close." 

Whoever eventually wins the hard-fought runoff, the outcome will be historic. Incumbent Ivy Taylor, appointed to the office after Julián Castro left last year for Washington, D.C., would be the first black person elected to the position. Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte would be the city's first Hispanic female mayor.

Higher-than-expected turnout during early voting has both sides claiming momentum. The campaigns say they are especially encouraged by new voters entering the picture, perhaps a measure of enthusiasm largely missing from the rapid-fire series of elections Bexar County has held over the past several months.

If anyone has a lead — however slight — heading into Saturday, it is Taylor, insiders agree. But they say it is nothing Van de Putte cannot overcome with a strong turnout operation come Election Day. 

"We know based on data that our voters vote early," said Justin Hollis, Taylor's campaign manager. "The challenge, as with any campaign, is just getting the rest of your voters out." 

The office is nonpartisan, but Taylor is viewed as appealing more to conservatives than Van de Putte, a Democrat, and party politics have long factored into the race. 

In the homestretch, Taylor has been looking to use that to her advantage, painting Van de Putte as an uncompromising partisan who will say anything to score political points. Taylor has even reached back to 2003 to criticize Van de Putte's involvement with the Texas Eleven, a group of Democrats who fled the state to shut down the state Senate in protest of redistricting legislation. 

In turn, Van de Putte has sharpened her criticism of Taylor as an untrustworthy steward of a city on the cusp of prosperity. She has pulled no punches, highlighting reports that Taylor and her husband were unwilling to pursue criminal charges against a gang member who shot at his car and bail bonds business. 

"How can the citizens of San Antonio expect you to stand up for the safety of our families when you won’t stand up for the safety of your own family?" Van de Putte asked Taylor at one of the five runoff debates. 

Taylor has contended the incident is off limits, and tensions came to a head earlier this month when she refused to shake Van de Putte's hand at the end of another debate. Since then, the incumbent has been unapologetic about the snub. 

"In Texas, if a person attacks your family then smiles and extends her hand, you don't shake that hand," Taylor wrote on Twitter shortly after the debate. 

Van de Putte's family also has been in the spotlight. Her husband, Pete, has had to answer for federal tax liens against his flag-making business as well as unpaid local property taxes, issues he resolved after the San Antonio Express-News brought them to light.

The at times vicious back-and-forth has left some political observers looking forward to the day after Saturday. 

"It's gotten more personal and in fact there's been very little of substantive policy issues, and we do have a lot of issues that need to be addressed in our local government," said Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary's University. "And there's things that hang in the air right now until the end of the election," Flores added, citing several issues including the city's contract negotiations with police and firefighters.

The police and fire unions are backing Van de Putte, but it is the endorsement of elected officials from the East Side — which Taylor represented on the City Council before becoming interim mayor — that has drawn attention in the lead-up to Saturday.

"Ivy is from District 2, but her policies and the things she's done as mayor — nothing has supported District 2," said District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick, accusing Taylor of failing to deal with stubborn unemployment and violent crime in her own backyard. "She took the district for granted as being able to get those voters easily."

Taylor has racked up her own runoff endorsements, including that of former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who finished fourth in the May 9 general election. The third-place finisher, former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, decided not to endorse in the runoff, but his treasurer, Mike Beldon, threw his support behind Taylor.

Beldon, former chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes Taylor wins but expressed concern that an "onslaught of dollars" from Van de Putte — who has vastly outraised and outspent Taylor — could take a toll on the incumbent. 

"She's not perfect — none of us are," Beldon said of Taylor, lamenting that the "hatchet job that's been done on Ivy is really, really sad."

Fueling the bare-knuckle politics are clear battle lines, starting with Van de Putte's base of support on the city's heavily Democratic West Side. Taylor has cachet with conservative voters on the city's North Side who can be counted on to turn out in municipal elections, an appeal that even Van de Putte's backers consider a wild card heading into Saturday.

"The thing that makes me the most nervous is the kind of far right-wing fanatics that have surprisingly latched on to Ivy Taylor, and so it always becomes a classic battle in San Antonio — the North Side versus the remaining seven districts," said Christian Archer, Van de Putte's campaign manager. 

Hollis maintained Taylor has assembled a "diverse coalition of people throughout the entire city of San Antonio that are tired of politics as usual." In an interview, he did not let it go unmentioned that Van de Putte, who won re-election to the Senate in 2012 and unsuccessfully campaigned last year for lieutenant governor, has been "running for three different offices now for three years." 

Democrats have been abuzz with claims that Taylor is getting a boost from conservative forces such as Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. AFP's Texas chapter has denied any involvement in the race.

The dicey matchup has left some political prognosticators scratching their heads as Saturday nears. Beldon called the runoff a "mixed bag," predicting Taylor will win the early vote but need to hold her own come Election Day if turnout then favors Van de Putte.

"It's hard to read," said Beldon, long a key endorser in San Antonio mayoral campaigns. "I think this one's going to be really tight."

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in San Antonio.

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