A Plan to End VIA’s Pauper Status

As most of you know, VIA Metropolitan Transit is embarrassingly underfunded.

For riders, that means a lot of waiting around for too few buses and too many transfers. Thousands of their hours are wasted every day at VIA’s 7,193 bus stops.

That’s because VIA gets a sliver of the sales-tax dollars that public transit agencies in other major Texas cities receive – one-half cent for every $100 compared to a full cent in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston.VIA

Here’s how the tax works: the state of Texas imposes a sales tax of 6.25 percent; on top of that, cities, counties, transit authorities, and special-purpose districts are allowed to tack on another 2 percent.

Unfortunately, we are maxed out. The city of San Antonio receives 1 percent of the sales tax, VIA gets 0.5 percent, and the remaining 0.5 percent is split between aquifer protection and linear parks (0.125 percent), pre-kindergarten education (0.125 percent), and the Advanced Transportation District (0.25 percent) – for a grand total of 2 percent. The ATD sends half of its tax revenue to VIA, which is better than nothing, but not by a huge amount.

To raise VIA’s funding to where it should be, we’d need to let the other voter-approved uses expire and ask voters to OK giving VIA the combined 0.5 percent.

Which won’t happen because it would be a real pain in the ass. Pre-K, the ATD, and aquifer protection have ardent supporters who would raise hell. Besides, voters approved each of these initiatives. And I’m pretty sure zero is the number of officials willing to stand up and say, “Pre-K for SA is great, but mass transit is actually closer to a core function of local government.”

By the way, don’t even think about touching the city of San Antonio’s 1-percent slice.

But, look, we’re not about hard choices at SanAntoniomizer. We want you to be happy, your brow unclouded. So we’ve come up with a work-around.

Here’s what we’re proposing: Disguise VIA as something that we really care about and in which we are willing to invest significant public dollars.

The following are the steps VIA’s board of trustees need to take:

  1. Hire an expensive brand consultant to come up with a new name that totally obscures what the bus agency does. Maybe something like VeloCity or, even better, VeloCity Human. By making the name incomprehensible, you’ll give people the impression that this is a company on the move, with big, undefined changes afoot. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even move its headquarters.
  2. Work out a deal with developers to build a breathtaking new office building at the Pearl, preferably a structure so green the walls will actually be fashioned out of native grasses. Think about it. How many millions of public dollars, through incentives and bond financing, have flowed into the Broadway corridor over the Decade of Downtown so far? It’s VeloCity Human’s turn to scoop up some of that beautiful money with a Pearl HQ.
  3. This is probably the most crucial step: VeloCity Human’s trustees must convince one of the suburban cities in which the company operates – say, Elmendorf – to put together a relocation package for its headquarters, which is currently located on San Pedro Avenue. Suddenly it’s a competition! What are you going to offer, San Antonio and Bexar County peeps? After all, you surely don’t want to be the ones accused of “losing” VeloCity Human to Elmendorf. It’s true that such a move would have no impact on the regional economy. Economics aren’t that parochial. But good news for VeloCity Human – relocation politics are.
  4. Work out a hefty package of giveaways to secure your move to the Pearl. This will be tricky. Because VeloCity Human is a public-owned entity, it doesn’t pay property taxes. So no tax abatements or tax rebates. Instead, the company will have to negotiate a bunch of big grants and zero-interest loans.
  5. Once the deal is done, and VeloCity Human has settled into its new home at the Pearl, trustees will be in an excellent position to go to the city and county, and say: “As you know, what we do is very important to the community. It must be because we’re headquartered at the Pearl, and you spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help us get there. Also, as our new name hints, we’re changing our business model. Just consider these nine words: Technology platform, multi-modal things, disruption, millennials, and driverless stuff. We’ll leave these duffel bags on your desk. Please pack them with tax revenue, and we’ll drop by tomorrow to pick them up. Thank you.”

There’s no reason to think this scheme won’t work. It’s certainly more compelling than blathering on about making life better for people who have to take buses to get to work, school, or the doctor.

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.