For District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, the path to public office was spurred by a desire to improve the lives of the students he once taught. However, it took a while for him to come to the realization. If you had asked him in recent years, when he was teaching math to high school students, he wouldn’t have seen himself sitting in City Hall, as he does before me in his new office on a bright July morning.
I catch a glimpse of a mirror leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung, and a grocery bag filled with what looks to be decorating supplies. A smattering of papers and mail covers the councilman’s desk before he and his assistant hurriedly sweep them into drawers. “I found a ketchup packet!” the councilman laughs.
McKee-Rodriguez, who now serves San Antonio’s East Side, sits down at his newly-organized desk, and poses. He stiffens for the camera. It’s been more than a month since he won a runoff against incumbent Jada Andrews-Sullivan, and exactly a month since the councilman took office, but he doesn’t quite look comfortable behind the desk. McKee-Rodriguez picks up the landline on his desk, staging a candid “Councilman at Work” photo, and laughs, along with the rest of us, at the moment. The air relaxes, and so do we.
As we walk to the conference room we’ll be talking in, McKee-Rodriguez, 26, tells me he’s an introvert—he didn’t expect to become a politician.
“People like me don’t run for office very often, much less win, so I’m taking this for all I can get,” McKee-Rodriguez said.
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1995, McKee-Rodriguez is the son of two military veterans, and moved eight times by the age of 17. Out of all the places his family lived, McKee-Rodriguez favored his time in Honolulu, where he graduated from middle school and attended high school through his junior year.
Although McKee-Rodriguez didn’t plan to go into politics, his family wasn’t surprised by his decision. “He’s extremely intelligent, talented, and caring,” Michael McGee, McKee-Rodriguez’s stepfather, said in a phone interview. “I mean, he never had aspirations to be a politician growing up, so it was a little strange, but he’s always been about the people.”
McKee-Rodriguez’s interest in politics took shape in 2016, sparked by the election of former President Donald Trump. He was a math teacher at Sam Houston High School on the East Side when he took interest in Andrews-Sullivan, who was also new to politics.
When Andrews-Sullivan ran for the District 2 seat in 2019, McKee-Rodriguez became her campaign manager—while continuing to work as a teacher full-time. After Andrews-Sullivan won the election, McKee-Rodriguez became the councilwoman’s communications director, but left in fall 2019 after filing complaints about alleged harassment from Lou Miller, Andrews-Sullivan’s chief of staff. According to the complaint, McKee-Rodriguez believed that Miller discriminated against him as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, telling him to “tone (his) outfits down,” the San Antonio Express-News reported during the runoff.
“Miller is not one of the newest of times, and we have to remind him it’s OK to be old, but it’s not OK to bring old ways,” Andrews-Sullivan told the newspaper. “And so that’s what we’re working on.”
McKee-Rodriguez’s suits are a trademark of his personality: McGee describes his son as always having an eye for fashion, through which he expresses his creativity along with art and music growing up. Dr. Van Lac, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Economic and Leadership Policy Studies, remembers the young councilman in classes over the past two years, “always dressed to the nines.”
On June 5 at Tucker’s Kozy Korner, the night he unseated his former boss, McKee-Rodriguez said, “When I was in City Hall, I was wearing an all black outfit with leopard print and the chief of staff said I wasn’t professional enough, nor manly and masculine enough. We just proved that animal print is professional enough, and we just unseated those two.”
‘They deserve optimism’
Advocating for future generations is the driving force behind the former teacher’s passion for politics. He describes his first year of teaching at Sam Houston in 2018, when he taught math, telling me that many times he’d come home from work, sit in his car, and cry.
In the ZIP code of 78220 on the East Side where Sam Houston resides, the population ranks far below the city average, according to the Statistical Atlas. The median income there is $30,500 compared to the city average of $48,200. In the three ZIP codes that compose the near East Side—78202, 78203, and 78208—the median income hovers lower around $25,566.
In San Antonio, roughly 18.4% of the population age 25 and older do not have high school diplomas. In 78220, it’s 30.2%.
“When you’re in a position of trust like that, you have people who tell you their stories, some things you can relate to, some things you can’t. And it’s heartbreaking,” McKee-Rodriguez said, “and I think what really pushed it over the edge is that our students know all the ways they’ve been disenfranchised. They deserve optimism, they deserve to feel hope, and they deserve to feel as though the world is theirs in the way that other kids do.”
McKee-Rodriguez decided to run for council in November 2020, after growing frustrated with his community pushing matters of education and family policy to the state. Although it’s true that the state dictates classroom policy and curriculum, McKee-Rodriguez had different ideas for how local government could support San Antonio’s youth.
“What I see is the opportunity to advocate for the parents who have to send their kid walking to school in the streets that don’t have street lighting or don’t have sidewalks,” the councilman said. “It’s things like that that the city can have an impact on, but we don’t, and we don’t view things through a lens of what’s going to help our kids, our families.”
McKee-Rodriguez also believes that stable representation is important; the District 2 council seat has been a revolving door in recent years. The councilman is the first openly gay, black man to serve on San Antonio’s City Council, and plans to serve for as long as the district will have him.
“My biggest priority, in the broad sense, is that the people prioritized on the dais are the working class, rather than developers or corporations,” McKee-Rodriguez said.
Even before McKee-Rodriguez took office, as councilman-elect, he aired his concerns about such matters, when a city entity granted the Friedrich Lofts project a full property tax exemption, but with not enough affordable units in return, as he described it.
“I don’t believe that this development meets our affordable housing needs,” McKee-Rodriguez said then. “My stance is: I believe the affordability threshold needs to be below 60% (of the area median income).”
The councilman believes that he can make the most impact through the FY 2022 budget, which the council is currently in the process of developing. At a budget goal-setting session on June 25, the councilman proposed a street lighting index which would show the city how many street lights exist (right now, neither the city nor CPS Energy has an exact number, according to McKee-Rodriguez), and where the lights are located, so the city can prioritize poorly-lit streets—a problem that dominates the East Side—in future improvement projects.
City budget town halls
Next week, the city kicks off a series of town hall meetings on the budget. McKee-Rodriguez will be holding his at 6 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Ella Austin Community Center, 1023 Pine St. View the complete schedule at saspeakup.com. Watch them at sanantonio.gov/tvsa.
In the same session, McKee-Rodriguez also proposed a new office of crime prevention, which would employ criminologists and data analysts to make budget and policy recommendations on housing, infrastructure, and transportation programs that could reduce criminal violence in the city.
McKee-Rodriguez is also planning a partnership with Alamo City Studios, a local studio rental space near downtown, to create an after-school program for East Side students to learn content creation, marketing, and media industry skills.
‘Our large family’
As the councilman and I talk, he shares his insight into his love for District 2, and for San Antonio. McKee-Rodriguez came here in 2013 when he relocated from Kentucky to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) as part of the UT’s Coordinated Admission Program, which grants students admission to the University of Texas at Austin after completing a year at a UT system school. According to his father, McKee-Rodriguez planned to transfer over, but couldn’t leave San Antonio once he got here. San Antonio reminded him of his time in Honolulu, where a sense of familial respect and community quickly assured him that this was home. The councilman graduated from UTSA in May 2017 with a bachelor’s in communications, and served as a City Year member at Davis Middle School from 2017 to 2018. He then taught at Sam Houston from 2018 to 2019. He returned to UTSA in fall 2019 to pursue a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership, which he plans to complete in spring of 2022.
I ask him about his district, what he sees that others may not.
He tells me the East Side is a resilient community that cares about one another. He tells stories of neighbors checking in on each other and sharing rides throughout the pandemic, of people sharing groceries and resources when the winter storm prevented them from going to the store. He also talks about his time as a teacher, where he glimpsed the future of the district through the eyes of his students.
“I see my students as a huge indicator of what the district is,” said McKee-Rodriguez, who has left teaching to focus on his duties as a council member. “I see very creative, talented, resilient individuals, people who have had to overcome so much. So resiliency is a big part of the district, but we shouldn’t have to be as resilient as we know we are.”
Now, the former teacher’s days have shifted from lesson planning to meeting with fellow council members and community leaders. As he finishes his masters degree, the councilman is determined to maintain the same excitement he built up throughout his election campaign and fulfill the promises he made as a candidate.
“Above all, I see people who truly care for one another in our community,” he adds, “in our large family.”
San Antonio native Maggie Ryan is pursuing a bachelor’s of arts in English Language and Literature/Letters at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She recently completed an internship at the Heron through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. Follow her @m_rrye on Twitter.
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