On November 8th 2016, 61% of people from Wichita Falls voted for Stephen Santella for Mayor of our great city. He has been politically involved in our community since 2002, with accolades such as Board Member for Leadership of Wichita Falls (V.P. of Fund Raising), North Texas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Crime Stoppers of Wichita Falls, as well as being on the board of trustees for Christ Academy, and Vice Chairman for the Association of General Contractors. In 2012 he was among the 20 under 40 Class and was selected as the Hispanic Person of the Year in 2017 at the 12th Annual Leadership Banquet hosted by Zavala Hispanic Cultural Initiative and Midwestern State University’s Bilingual Education Student Organization. He served as Councilor for District 1, which led him to become the first Hispanic mayor of Wichita Falls. I spoke with our new Mayor about his start, his rise, the controversies that come with the job, and his ideas for the future.
“Since I was in college. I was that political geek. When my friends were watching ESPN I was watching CSPAN. I didn’t have an opportunity to actually be in politics until my late 30s. Once you start a family, you put all that on the back burner… the kids started getting grown, that’s when I first ran for a seat on the city council. Then a year and a half later, I’m running for Mayor.”
The campaigning process can be brutal. What was it like running for Mayor?
“That was a hard fought battle. It takes all day, every day, 24/7 and when you’re done… you’re done. Come November, you’re just glad it’s over with, whether you win or lose. I had booked a speech or some sort of event almost every single night for about two months straight. 104,000 citizens… I spoke to them all. I’m glad I did because you get to meet a lot of people that way. Not just for campaigning, but you get to be aware of what your community looks like.”
While you were campaigning, what were some of the things you noticed the community was concerned about?
“The biggest concern people had was our economic growth… 50 something years of non-growth. A lot of people were concerned with schools, which is not my bag… that’s the Independent School District. There’s a lot of things that are taking care of themselves… Sheppard Air Force Base, doing great, Midwestern State University, doing great. I get emails and Facebook messaging everyday of concerns in this town… you realize the common theme is economic growth.”
What were some of the eye openers for the job itself?
“When you’re a councilor, you’re privy to a lot of things the citizens are not. When you’re a Mayor, you’re privy to a lot of things the councilors aren’t. The biggest thing for me was the amount of information I get from our City Manager… on police needs, fire needs, when we have a sniper situation… these are things the councilors don’t know, but they let you know because you’re the representative of the citizens. The craziest thing for me was the emergency management. Floods and tornadoes… if a tornado hits this town, I’m it. I have to sign a declaration of disaster, send that to the Governor, then he sends it back. I’m not just a guy who votes on public policy. You have a lot of support. Another part, to me, was the legislative piece, the interaction we have down in Austin. I wanted to be active. Windmills: I fought hard. I was back and forth to Austin several times. So I need to be active, and that’s active in our community and active down there in Austin.”
Lately, you’ve gotten some negative feedback from the community on some touchy issues… how are you handling that?
“I love it. I think people think I don’t want the negative feedback… I want that more than the positive reinforcement feedback. The hotel issue… so many people think, “Man, why are we building this? The city owns this thing, we don’t need to build it.” It’s the misinformation. I love the educational part of my job. Just today, I had a citizen who was writing on some of the LGBT topics and the hotel issue, and called me a “Wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Well of course, I always put my number out there, call me anytime you want, you can email me, Facebook message me, Twitter, Instagram… however you want to get a hold of me, you can get a hold of me. Took me 10 minutes and then she realized, “Whoops, I think I made a mistake.” It’s because most people run around with misinformed… they don’t want to hear the truth. Key board warriors: it’s easy to get on Facebook, type me a message, call me whatever you want and then they’re surprised. “Wow, I got an answer from the Mayor.” You sure did. Here’s my phone number.. call me. They never do. Here’s a city council meeting, first and third Tuesday, they never come to them. It’s a lot harder to be part of the process. I’ve taken time out of my life to be part of this process. Yell at me from the key board, but if you want to be part of the process, I will interact with anybody. Lunches, dinners, after hours… I’m usually typing a letter or email until midnight every single night because I care about the citizens.”
Tell us about what you have planned for downtown Wichita Falls.
“That’s a huge deal for me. When we go through a strategic plan, I ask “What are we going to do in the future?” You get the council and the city staff and we sit down and go through a two day process with a professional. Then we try to extract what we think is the information needed to progress Wichita Falls. Both city staff and council are aligned in thought… downtown development. MSU wants it for their kids, Sheppard Air Force Base wants it for their soldiers. Almost every civics group I talk to gets excited about it. Why not try to do something that’s nice for the town? Revitalization. Clean up Attebury, light up downtown, give us more restaurants… that’s what people are going towards. We already know the eateries are there, the bars are there, the entertainment district’s going to form there. I’d love on a Friday night for me and you, James, to walk down the street, grab an adult beverage, go eat somewhere… go to a music venue… walk across the street to another music venue. That’s what the citizens want.”
You got me with that one… downtown live music is something that’ll always get my vote. The Mayor is looking forward to “helping lead this community on its next journey” which includes focusing on SAFB, MSU and community. Again, he is open to discuss all matters concerning this community, so give him a shout.