Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The San Antonio City Council’s decision last week to remove Chick-fil-A from a multimillion-dollar contract with another company to operate food and retail shops at San Antonio’s airport continues to draw criticism from local business leaders, some elected officials, and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Paxton has called for an investigation into the vote.
“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken,” Paxton wrote in a letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”
The decision made national headlines, and the narrative has become engulfed in rhetoric. A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights weighed in with a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Wednesday, writing, “I urge the City Council to rescind its ban of Chick-Fil-A. Failing that, I expect Chick-Fil-A will sue the City Council members in their official and personal capacities.”
The mayor responded to a request for comment late Thursday: “The City’s Attorney’s Office is reviewing the letter. I am withholding comment until we have had adequate time to analyze it.”
At the local level, the matter has become a campaign issue with City Council elections just over five weeks away.
The airport concessions agreement requires contractor Paradies Lagardère to drop Chick-fil-A from its proposed list of restaurants.
At least one of the six Council members who voted in favor of ousting Chick-fil-A, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), says he regrets his vote and wishes Council had more time to consider the contract and research Chick-fil-A’s practices. One developer, who says he works with the Georgia-based fast food restaurant, says they have told him the company is no longer interested in a planned new store.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) introduced the motion to oust Chick-fil-A based on the fast food chain’s association with anti-LGBTQIA groups. “I stand by the decision of the City Council’s vote,” Treviño said Thursday.
On the day of the vote, Pelaez said all airport visitors should feel welcome in San Antonio and not be greeted by a restaurant that many consider to be a “symbol of hate.” He also criticized Chick-fil-A’s policy to close its restaurants on Sundays.
But he said Thursday he now regrets some comments he made during the Council’s discussion last week.
“I did some soul searching. … I was wrong,” Pelaez told the Rivard Report. He said he stands by his comments about wanting more local businesses that are open on Sundays at the San Antonio International Airport. However, comments he made about Chick-fil-A’s discriminatory practices were “rushed” and not based on research, he said.
“I own my own words. Sometimes we’re called upon to swallow them … this time they don’t taste good,” said Pelaez, who faces several challengers on the ballot this year, including Frankie Gonzales-Wolfe, a political consultant and transgender woman. “If I could do it all over again, I would have voted … to delay to B Session” for further discussion and analysis.
Ahead of the final vote, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) asked for a vote to do just that. Council members Art Hall (D2), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Greg Brockhouse (D6) joined Viagran in backing the motion to delay, but the measure failed. Viagran abstained from the final 6-4 vote.
There are at least 30 Chick-fil-A franchises located in San Antonio, all closed on Sundays for “rest and worship.” The Georgia-based company’s CEO is Dan Cathy, whose stated views against same-sex marriage and charitable contributions to anti-gay organizations prompted boycotts and counter-boycotts in 2012.
“We would welcome the opportunity to have a thoughtful dialogue with the city council and we invite all of them into our local stores to interact with the more than 2,000 team members who are serving the people of San Antonio,” said Chick-fil-A in a statement released after the vote. “We hope they will experience for themselves that Chick-fil-A embraces all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
On Wednesday, local developer Mark Granados of GFR Development learned from a Chick-fil-A real estate representative that the company has decided it will not open one of its fast-food stores at a site Granados is developing here.
“They told us they’re not doing any more stores in San Antonio – that’s all they said,” said Granados, who has built Chick-fil-A restaurants at other sites in the city. “So I can’t tell you that them not doing our deal or stopping work has anything to do with the council [vote], but we have a proven track record with them, we give them very high performing stores. … They already told us they like the site.”
Chick-fil-A did not respond to questions Thursday seeking confirmation of any plans for future stores.
Granados called the vote against Chick-fil-A a fiasco brought on by city election politics. Among the eight candidates challenging Treviño for his seat is Justin Holley, a local hotelier collecting support from prominent business leaders. Holley is gay.
“Roberto Treviño is seeing all the support Justin Holley is getting and so he throws out this whole LGBT thing to show the LGBT community, which has a big footprint in District 1, ‘I’ve got your back,'” Granados said. “It’s a political move, and the problem is it’s a disaster for everybody else.”
More discussion should have occurred before the vote took place, Holley said on his campaign Facebook page. “This is not the way decisions like this should be made, we CAN do better! This decision sets a bad precedent and discourages other businesses from coming to San Antonio.”
During the council meeting, Treviño cited Chick-fil-A’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior” as cause to keep them out of City facilities because “San Antonio is a city full of compassion.”
Treviño also called for the City’s Office of Equity to review such contracts in the future.
San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce had been working on an official statement on the matter, is President Renee Garvens said Thursday. The chamber announced its support of City Council’s decision on Saturday.
“Outside of politics or the moral obligations not to support a Chick-Fil-A in the airport, the appearance of discrimination threatens Texas’ reputation as welcoming for all businesses and families,” the press release reads. “Chick-Fil-A, through their charitable giving, has become a symbol of corporate discrimination.”
The chamber encouraged the City to continue its “unapologetically welcoming” position that promotes economic growth.
“It’s getting a lot of national attention right now and the rhetoric has become very divisive,” Garvens said Thursday, “And we want to make sure we’re representing our members appropriately on this issue.” Click here to download the chamber’s statement.
The fact that San Antonio is in the middle of an election season, she said, “adds another level.”
Brockhouse, who is challenging Nirenberg in the race for mayor, issued an apology letter to Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s CEO.
“You are welcomed in San Antonio!” Brockhouse wrote. “The recent actions of our City Council do not reflect the overwhelming belief in our City that you are a valued business and community partner. In spite of the appearance of this decision, San Antonio is a welcoming City that values diversity, faith, and inclusivity.”
Nirenberg has stood by the process that the City executed to award the concessionaire contract and said before voting that 15 percent of the airport’s revenue is generated on Sundays.
The San Antonio Restaurant Association sent a letter to Nirenberg and City Council on Thursday calling the City’s contract review process flawed. The letter was co-signed by leaders of the San Antonio Tourism Council, San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association, San Antonio River Walk Association, and National Association of Women Business Owners.
“We strongly argue that the action and subsequent public backlash is indicative of a lack of consistency of said process,” the letter stated. “… The vote last Thursday to make a material change to the proposed bid was outside the RFP requirements. These requirements already include the adherence to the City’s non-discrimination ordinance which protects city contractors and subcontractors against discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity, among others.”
The associations called on City Council to address the “discrepancies in the consistency and integrity of your decision-making process.”
Some of those opposed to the Council’s action said consumers – not elected officials – should be permitted to decide which businesses they choose to frequent.
“Many people admire the company because they do close on Sundays, saying corporately they take that stance in order to provide their employees a day to rest with their families and worship if they choose,” local Catholic Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller said in a statement. “… Let the marketplace decide, and consumers will select which businesses to support – or not support – with their dollars, as they always do.”
Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) said City Council’s decision is another example of “retaliating against individual beliefs and thoughts.”
“… If you can’t stomach someone else’s opinion that’s your prerogative, but your job as an elected [official] is to defend their right to have an opinion – not to pass judgment in the form of retaliation,” he wrote in a statement.
The commissioner, who is the lone Republican on the commissioners court, and his father, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, are often on opposite sides of controversial issues. Not this time, it seems.
“Companies should not be judged by their political views but by their products and services,” Judge Wolff said in a text message. “Chick-fil-A is an excellent company that should have [been] approved.”