A Modest Proposal for the Texas Legislature’s Special Session

[The following post originally appeared on TribTalk.]

Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the Texas Legislature’s special session next month looks a little light, so here are a few proposals he should add to his list.

  • Change the name of Welfare, Texas, for obvious reasons, to Self-Reliance. The town has had 137 years to adopt a better name, but has failed to act. You know why? Because it’s lazy.
  • Require women seeking abortions to write letters of explanation to their fetuses, and to read them out loud.
  • Shut down zoos’ pro-homosexual agendas in Texas. Most people aren’t aware, for example, that politically correct zookeepers at the San Antonio Zoo are housing three adult female elephants together — without any males. How much longer can these elephants remain just friends?
  • Initiate a state takeover of Texas pawn shops, auto-title and payday loan companies, and plasma centers— the components of our state’s robust poverty industry. Use the profits to fund property tax cuts. In years in which property values go crazy, lawmakers can provide additional relief by raising the interest rates on the state’s customers and maybe trimming what it pays for plasma.

The first three items are straightforward. If our lawmakers can’t agree that the name Welfare is a hideous coffee stain on our state map, that fetuses are owed an explanation or at least a heads-up, and that our zoo animals shouldn’t be forced to be gay, we are lost — with a capital L.

My fourth proposal, however, is going to take some work. It’s visionary, though it does kind of pick up where the Texas Lottery leaves off. And like anything that tosses out the old thinking, it will be wildly controversial.

There’s no getting around the fact this would be a huge government intrusion into the free market. But we have an opportunity here to finally deliver real relief to Texas taxpayers and to adequately fund public education, including any future school-voucher program. All we have to do is get up the gumption to take this step.

It’ll help to begin thinking about the poor and the working poor in two new ways.

  1. Poverty is a natural resource.
  2. We, the people who have given our consent to be governed by the State of Texas, have the strongest claims on the poor through our investments in welfare programs, Medicaid, and public schools.

As the private-sector poverty industry learned decades ago, Texas is a booming market. About 16 percent of our population lived below the poverty line in 2016, according to the Center for American Progress. That’s a ton of opportunity.

Just look at auto-title and payday loans. In 2015, Texas customers took out $1.7 billion in new loans, and refinanced $2.4 billion in debt, Texas Appleseed reported in January. They paid $1.58 in fees for every dollar they borrowed! And that’s just one part of the industry. Think about the lakes of plasma the poor sell every year, and all the iPads, laptops and jewelry they pawn.

Under my plan, profits from these businesses would flow to everyday Texans instead of corporations, most of which are smart enough to figure out other ways to make money.

The fate of my proposal will come down to whether our state lawmakers are willing to take bold, unprecedented action to finally lighten the little guy’s load. I have to say that under the inspired leadership of Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, I am extremely optimistic about our chances come July 18.

It’s the Name Recognition, Stupid

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The fake-named Felix Culpa, a frequent SanAntoniomizer contributor, wrote the following post partly in response to my masterful analysis of the June 10 runoff election in District 9.]

The local political commentariat was shocked – shocked! – by the election of John Courage as the District 9 city council member. District 9 is on the north-central part of the city; if you were aiming for it, you could use the intersection of Highway 281 and Loop 1604 as crosshairs. It’s an area that’s growing rapidly, and it’s chock full o’ Republicans.

Yet Courage, a well-known Democratic activist (and shopworn political candidate) sailed to a relatively easy victory in his runoff against local economic development official Marco Barros, who did not lack for conservative credentials.

This has the politicos baffled, and grasping for increasingly unlikely explanations. Have the demographics in the district undergone a seismic shift? Did San Antonio swing to the left overnight? Did the cabernet-sipping whities up on the North Side refuse to vote for a guy named “Barros” because they imagined him as a vato, cruising though their neighborhoods in a low-rider Impala?

Jesus, people. I don’t deny that any of those reasons may have played a small role in the election. But for real answers, maybe you should, I don’t know, ask someone who lives there.

I live in District 9, and I was not at all surprised that Courage won. Not because of my ideology (I’ll get to that in a minute) but because of his name recognition, such as it is.

Here’s a story I think is illustrative: In the general election, a jumble of candidates littered the ballot, and I had no idea who most of them were. I did know John Courage’s name – it’s easy to remember, and I recognized him as the token candidate that Democrats offer up from time to time in races (U.S. Congress, state legislature) they know a Republican will win. So I voted for him. And hey, guess what? He made the runoff.

Between the general election and the runoff, I lost track of who Courage was running against. But I didn’t lose track of Courage. He had yard signs all over the place. I’m an old man and I get my exercise by walking 5 miles all over the streets of District 9, and I couldn’t miss the cutesy  signs that read, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” with John Courage in smaller type below.

Who was his opponent? I had no idea. If that guy sent campaign info to my house, it didn’t register with me before it hit the recycling bin. If he knocked on doors on my street, it wasn’t when anyone in the Culpa household was home. If he left a door hanger, it blew away.

If he campaigned at all, in fact, that effort was completely lost on me. It shouldn’t have been – I voted in the 2016 Republican primary. My name and voter data were easily accessible. But no one from that side of the race asked me for my vote. Literally until the District 9 runoff ballot popped up on my voting machine, I would not have been able to tell you who John Courage was running against.

I almost didn’t vote in the runoff; I didn’t like either mayoral candidate. But I did think it would be awesome if a liberal were elected in the Trumpistan that is District 9. So I zipped over to Bradley Middle School, where I was greeted by a coterie of perky Courage volunteers. “We’d like to ask for your support of John Courage!” they enthused. “You already have it,” I told them. No one else was there. The other guy in the race, who I wouldn’t have been able to name if you paid me, sent nobody to greet voters on their way into my polling station.

So I fully expected Courage to win. It was very easy to vote for him, even if (as I hinted earlier) I weren’t ideologically predisposed to vote for him anyway.

And boy, was I. When the gentleman whose glowering mug looms over this blog expressed his puzzlement at why Courage won, I offered him my top five reasons. Here they are, verbatim.

  1. Fuck you, Donald Trump.
  2. Gotta balance out having a religious nut as your mayor. Wait, she isn’t winning? Too late.
  3. The poor dumb bastard has been the Dems’ sacrificial goat in so many elections, it’s time he actually won something.
  4. The fact that I can’t remember the name of his opponent tells you something about how the right takes 9 for granted.

Thus: Even if you solve for ideology/protest votes and sympathy votes, name recognition and retail campaigning – not any of the racial, ethnic or other conspiracy theories – accounts for Courage’s “surprise” victory.

At least to me. But what do I know? I just live there.

Campaigns Suck. Don’t Work on Them.

[WARNING: The Self-Indulgence Rating on the following post is 9.2 on the 10-point scale. That effectively means only the writer’s parents would be interested in reading this piece. Unfortunately, both of his parents are dead… Make that a rating of 9.4.]

TheCoolerMy favorite William Macy movie is The Cooler. He plays Bernie Lootz, a slouchy middle-age man who works in a Las Vegas casino. Bernie’s job is to stop the hot streaks of high-rollers just by walking among them and making small talk. He is a black hole for luck. Loss and heartbreak follow him everywhere.

I’m thinking about starting a political consulting firm based on that business model. Hire me to “volunteer” for your opponent’s campaign, and I’ll take it from there. Interested? Here are my references: Mayor Ivy Taylor and former State Rep. Mike Villarreal.

I was Villarreal’s communications director when he ran for mayor in 2015, and served as the spokesman for Taylor’s re-election campaign until last Saturday. You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking the full blame for both losses — that would make me a narcissist in a way. No, the defeat of every campaign that started with a good chance to win a mayor’s race is multifaceted, with dense clusters of small misreadings and misallocations, missed opportunities, petty animosities, and plain bad luck.

By the way, I am an inveterate gossip and not obnoxiously scrupulous. Nevertheless, I will not dish on either campaign. No, you’d have to pay for it. Joking. Unless you’re willing to pay for it. Let me know.

Anyway, my point is that while every defeat has a bunch of parents, I was at the inception of two of the biggest campaign fails in San Antonio over the last two years. From that I conclude that maybe I’m not the greatest campaign spokesman in the world.

Hence this post’s title: “Campaigns Suck. Don’t Work on Them.” “I Suck at Campaigns” would make more sense, but screw that. I wasn’t that bad.

I obviously got tired of The Cooler thing. But I still love the movie.

Anyway, I left the San Antonio Express-News, where I was the business editor and a weekly columnist, to scratch a politics itch in late 2014. Villarreal had called me out of the blue asking me to handle communications for his mayoral campaign. I said yes in an embarrassingly short amount of time. In my head, I was going to become a dinner operative.

A dinner operative is a consultant like either of the two Christians (Archer or Anderson), Colin Strother, or Kelton Morgan. Imagine you’re a politician. You’d meet your dinner operative for drinks and a meal at, say, Southerleigh to plot your next campaign, talk poll results, trade gossip and political intelligence, or figure out how to work your colleagues on City Council or Commissioners Court or whatever. The two of you would look spectacular and powerful, and everyone in the dining room would want to know what you’re talking about.

Turns out, only the two Christians, Strother, Morgan, and maybe one or two others get to be dinner operatives. And from what I’ve heard, it’s not exactly House of Cards-grade  material they’re working with. Not by a long shot.

Most people who manage to eek out a living from campaign politics are at best lunch operatives, and their venues are usually a convenient Jim’s Restaurant or Mexican Manhattan or some place like that. Coffee operatives are closer to the norm.

They also spend a shocking amount of time eating Cheezits and drinking burnt coffee at campaign headquarters, which just a few weeks before had been a store where one could score great deals on off-brand cellular service. And the work? Trying to find a fresh approach to the 36th email in which you’re trying to wheedle supporters out of another $25.

Uh oh.

I sound like a spouse in a run-of-the-mill divorce. I start out wanting to acknowledge my failings and my culpability, only to discover as I’m talking that it was your fault all along.

Time to just end this.

So I stand in the dingy hallway outside the courtroom. I seethe as I look campaigns in the eye for the last time, and I say, “Fuck you, campaigns. Fuck you very much.”











A Little Courage and a Little Racially Polarized Voting

It feels rude to suggest racism — excuse me, racially polarized voting — played even a teensy role in John Courage’s shocking victory in District 9 on Saturday. It’s the kind of thing Squidward would say.

Nevertheless, racism, or RPV, did play at least a teensy role in Saturday’s outcome.

What I feel like when saying racism played a role in John Courage’s election in Council District 9

The reason writing that feels so douche-baggy is because progressives want it so badly to be true that District 9 is different now. They want it to be a new electoral front for their kind of candidates. Just check their Facebook and Twitter posts. To say RPV had a hand in the result is like telling your kid the tooth fairy died of complications from a venereal disease.

But, post-Hillary and post-post-Bernie, who can blame them for being so happy to have something to be happy about?

Progressives’ head rush is justified in that the most conservative district in San Antonio elected one of the most liberal candidates running this year for any City Council seat. To say Courage’s win was unexpected would be a big understatement.

Democrats and independents strongly suspect it came down to President Trump and the way he’s warped our politics top to bottom. To easily excited lefties, Courage’s victory feels transformational. Jeez, Bernie Sanders gave Courage a shout-out before Election Day — and he won!

I suspect the less caffeinated Courage voters are like my friend Felix Culpa, a SanAntoniomizer contributor who is fake-named for the famous Roman Republic stripper. Felix listed his reasons for voting for Courage in a text message: “1. Fuck you, Donald Trump.”

Anger at a sleazy, historically ineffective and disliked president doesn’t sound to me like the makings of a real realignment on San Antonio’s North Side.

Apart from the Trump factor, I’m sure Courage’s campaign team would say they ran a masterful ground game, and maybe they did. Just like all winning campaigns, and a surprising number of losing campaigns, ran masterful ground games. (Side note: I was the spokesman for Mayor Ivy Taylor’s re-election campaign, which was flawless, the 10-point loss notwithstanding.)

All of that said, I’d like to make a few observations.

  1. I worked in the City Council District 9 office for nearly two years, until April 30. Please trust me when I tell you that, judging from the email and phone calls the office received from constituents, the district did not become any less conservative during my time there. Many of them worried about the onslaught of undocumented immigrants and whether San Antonio was really a “sanctuary city” but was just being low-key about it. These preoccupations only intensified with the show-me-your-papers S.B. 4 in the recent Legislature.
  2. Marco Barros made no bones about his conservatism. He said all the right things to get elected in District 9, and his campaign had the money to make sure voters heard every word.
  3. Look at the “under vote” in the District 9 election — 799. That means nearly 800 voters walked into their polling sites, voted for mayor, and then, when it came time to choose a councilman, they said, “No thanks.”

Bear with me here.

So, Barros was the clearly identified, lone conservative in this race. And it’s not like Courage ran a Trojan Horse campaign. He focused on the basics — city services, streets, drainage, etc. — but he never hid the fact that he’d run as a Democrat against Republican incumbents in the Texas Senate and Congress. In fact, other Democrats look at Courage and whisper admiringly among themselves, “Wow, kinda libby, right?”

So given the unmistakable choice between a liberal and a conservative, 800 voters said nah, and 8,489 others picked Courage (52.65 percent) over Barros (47.35 percent, or 7,633).

The limb I’m about to go out on is wide enough for a pup tent, a couple of folding chairs, and a gas grill.

With everybody still sweaty from the S.B. 4 fight — coupled with District 9 voters having elected only one minority candidate in our city’s modern history (Elisa Chan, not Elise Sanchez) — Barros was running in part against his surname. And he lost.