San Antonio’s Strangest Election: Robert Marbut Remembers the The Alamodome

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The Alamodome ... not a "dome" in the literal sense. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Alamodome ... not a "dome" in the literal sense. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Editor's note: Robert Marbut Jr. was a young aide to then-Mayor Henry Cisneros when he was asked to research the feasibility of a domed stadium for San Antonio. He was soon tasked with turning that vision into an action plan. Marbut became the field general charged with making it happen while political and business leaders campaigned for public and legislative approval.

Marbut directed the Dome Petition Drive and was campaign manager of the city election. He also was founding President and CEO of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation, now known as San Antonio Sports.  Today he is a tenured full professor at Northwest Vista College.

Dr. Robert Marbut. Robert was also the founding President and CEO of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation, now known as San Antonio Sports. Dr. Marbut has been a college professor for over 20 years and is a tenured full professor at Northwest Vista College.

Robert Marbut

“Yes sir, Shirl said you wanted to see me?” I asked. I was 25 years old, fresh out of graduate school, and for one year had been working for Mayor Henry Cisneros, running his campaigns and special projects office called Committee for Progress.

“I want to know how San Antonio can get a dome stadium," Henry said. "I want you to go learn everything possible about dome stadiums and then write me a white paper on how to do it.”

One of our first orders of business was to meet with local architect and amateur sports enthusiast Ralph Bender. For some time, Ralph had been urging Henry to position San Antonio as an amateur sports mecca.

Red McCombs, former Spurs coach Larry Brown and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Photo courtesy of red McCombs.

Red McCombs, former Spurs coach Larry Brown and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Photo courtesy of red McCombs.

Henry, Ralph and I met for lunch at the Ariel House one Friday in December 1985. Henry expressed concern that voters would never support a tax for a dome stadium. Ralph said prophetically, "If you get all of the amateur sports community on board, we could win an election." I concurred.

This became the starting point of an eight-year journey to build and open the Alamodome. The lunch also was the seminal moment in the formation of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation.  The three of us would later become the founding three incorporators.

Strangest of Bedfellows

By the time the election occurred in 1989, virtually every person in San Antonio had taken sides for or against the Alamodome. The proponents and antis were not necessarily who political observers thought they would be; the teams for the opposing sides looked more like they had been randomly drawn out of a hat.

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Read his Alamodome Commentary here.

The pro-Alamodome team was led by Cisneros, with the support of the amateur sports community, which wanted events like the U.S. Olympic Festival and NCAA Final Four and was led by Bender and me. The business community was on board to promote economic growth and was led by Cliff Morton, Joe Krier, Bob Coleman and Bill Greehey.

To everyone’s surprise, organized labor supported the Alamodome effort and was led by Bob Salvatore. A group supporting pro sports was led by Jim Eskin. Once the proposed Alamodome site was selected for the Eastside, the African-American community joined in support and was led by T.C. Calvert, Joe Linson and the coalition of Eastside ministers. Even iconic Express-News columnist Paul Thompson had become a huge supporter.

COPSmetroAlliance_logo

The anti-Alamodome team was led by the strangest of bedfellows. On the left was COPS/Metro Alliance, one of Cisneros' closest allies during his first five years in office. On the right was the Homeowner Taxpayers Association, led by C.A. Stubbs, a long-time adversary of COPS/Metro and every major initiative ever advanced by Cisneros.

Helen Dutmer. Read her Alamodome commentary tomorrow, Friday 17, on our homepage. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Helen Dutmer. Read her Alamodome commentary tomorrow, Friday 17, on our homepage. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Additionally, Councilwoman Helen Dutmer, the "Margaret Thatcher of City Council," was fanatically against the Alamodome. And an unorganized group of habitual voters pseudo-named CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) strongly opposed the project, too. The anti-team also had its own Express-News columnist in Roddy Stinson who happened to office next door to Thompson.

This was the civil war of San Antonio elections. Saul Alinsky’s political concept of “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” was in full display.

The middle saw the Alamodome as economic development. Among the opposition forces, the left wanted the money to be spent on more important priorities and the right did not want any new taxes of any kind.

Even though it was the unholiest of alliances, the opposition had an anti-Alamodome voting bloc that approached 70% of habitual voters. Statistically, there was no way the Alamodome election should have ever passed.

(Read more from our week-long series recognizing the Alamodome's 20th birthday on May 15, 2013: Great Cities Have Great Gathering PlacesSan Antonio Goes Major League — It Started With the AlamodomeThe Alamodome, Now 20, Made San Antonio a Bigger, Better City.)

Needed Legislative Authorization First

A major section of my Alamodome White Paper to Henry was about how existing domes had been financed.  Existing domes at that time had been funded mostly by a variety of long-term taxes.  In every case the tax was authorized by legislatures – not citizens.

We thus needed the support of the Texas Legislature and the Governor to authorize some sort of tax to fund the construction and maybe the ongoing operations of the dome.

In addition to financing, my White Paper covered several other key strategic issues:

  • Most domes broke near even on internal building operating costs, but once the long-term debt service costs were added into the budgets most domes struggled financially.
  • The domes with strong operating budgets had around 50-80 event days a year.
  • The best high value economic impact events were amateur sporting events like the Olympic Festival, major college events like the Final Four, football games of any kind, mega conventions and major events like the Billy Graham Crusade.  These high value events drew overnight visitors whereas events like baseball, regular season pro-basketball and small concerts drew few out-of-towners.
  • Domes located in the central core had higher economic impacts and better operating profits.

Armed with this information, Henry and I started lobbying the Texas Legislature during the 1987 regular session. We knew we needed legislative authorization in order to create a tax to fund the construction. Not knowing what type of support we might get, we floated several types of taxes: a sports and entertainment tax, a special district, incremental tax district, tourism tax, etc.

After more than a dozen meetings with the Bexar County delegation and the leaderships of both houses, there was virtually no support for a tax of any kind. Most members were out-and-out dismissive of our effort, calling it crazy.

Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol. Photo by Daniel Mayer.

Simultaneous to our lobbying effort in Austin, the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation was putting together the final bid packages for the Olympic Festival and a Men’s NCAA Final Four Regional Basketball Tournament.

We did get interest from out two state senators, Sen. Cindi Krier and Sen. Frank Tejeda. They both thought if we could win the Olympic Festival bid that it could create a catalyst to pass a bill. But there was a huge problem with this: Timing. The final U.S. Olympic Committee decision was set for Saturday, May 31 at 4 p.m. and the Sine Die end of session was set for midnight, Monday, June 2 - only 56 hours apart.

In less than 56 hours we would have to lay out, mark up and pass a bill out of a House Committee, have the bill slated for final passage by the House Calendars Committee, then pass the Full House with three readings/votes, then lay out, mark up and pass a bill out of a Senate Committee, pass the full Senate on three different readings/votes, maybe have a joint House-Senate Committee conference committee, then back to both the House and Senate for Final passage.

Our best case scenario, if we encountered no procedural opposition and if the House and Senate bill versions kept the exact same language, would be the orchestration of 14 different rounds of voting in the last 56 hours of the Session. This was a task that had never occurred before in the history of Texas.

May 31, 1987: Olympic Festival Bid Day

A delegation of 187 of San Antonio’s top civic leaders had flown to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. This was a Noah’s Arch of San Antonio’s civic leadership. “Everybody that was anybody” was on that Southwest Airline charter flight.

Joe Krier

Joe Krier

The bid trip was orchestrated by Greater Chamber of Commerce CEO Joe Krier and me in my role as President/CEO of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation. Two months before, with the help of Phil Barshop, Joe and I had called on Herb Kelleher, SW Airlines chairman, in his Dallas Love Field office, asking if we could borrow a Boeing 737 for the bid trip. Since it was a one-day trip on a Saturday, Kelleher had said yes.

San Antonio’s bid presentation outshined our chief competitor, the city of Los Angeles. Our slide show, produced by Quest Productions, was amazing and our bid documents were glitzy. As the Los Angeles’s bid group of 10 people exited the Olympic Auditorium, 187 crazed San Antonians entered the auditorium, led by the SAISD’s all-star high school mariachi band playing “La Negra” in full force.

Until the first question was asked, the energy of the delegation was amazingly contagious. Then the Olympic Committee chair asked, “(We) have been burned before by cities who said they would build facilities and did not ... tell us more about the Alamodome ... as your featured facility hosting Opening Ceremonies and three sports. Is it under construction yet? And if not under construction, when is the scheduled start date for construction and how is it being financed?”

U.S. Olympic Committee

A collective gasp went through the room. In a moment, we had lost the Olympic Festival Bid and we had lost the authorization effort for the Alamodome (so we thought).

A true chicken-and-egg dilemma had emerged. We needed to win the Olympic Festival bid in order to have a shot at passing the Alamodome legislation in Austin. Yet we needed the legislative authorization to win our Olympic Festival bid.

While the plane was still in the air going back to San Antonio, the Olympic Committee announced that San Antonio had lost the bid. Los Angeles had been awarded the 1991 US Olympic Festival. Krier and I had been chosen to stay in Colorado for the official announcement.

Post Olympic Festival Bid

Unbeknownst to Krier and I, his wife Sen. Cyndi Krier, and my then-wife Mary Hartman (a legislative aide to Cyndi) had called the San Antonio delegation mid-flight via the Southwest Airlines operations center and told Cisneros that they had an idea about how to get legislative authorization for the Alamodome. With a captive audience of 187 newly minted Alamodome activists, Henry got on the plane’s intercom and made one of the best impromptu speeches of his life, memorably saying he “was tired of getting kicked in the teeth” because of San Antonio's lack of facilities.

The next day, the Sunday newspaper headlines led with Henry’s “kicked in the teeth” quote. The theme of the articles, with background information from Olympic officials, was San Antonio would have won the bid had the Texas Legislature given authorization for the Alamodome tax. Television coverage Sunday echoed this theme in their lead stories.

With 187 of San Antonio’s most influential movers and shakers upset and the collective sport community furious, the Bexar County delegation found itself back-peddling in the last 36 hours of the Session. Many legislators said they would now support the Alamodome authorization if they could vote.

The problem was we had to win at least 14 different votes in less than 36 hours before the close of the Session. Additionally, because of legislative procedural rules, no “new” bills could be submitted in the last 72 hours of a session. Specifically, the rule stated that no bills could be considered in one house unless it had passed in at least one of the chambers.

This meant we had to be added to a bill that had already passed one house.

With the sudden face-saving rush of support for the Alamodome by so many legislators, Cyndi Krier and Mary Hartman had found a way to truncate the voting processes. They found it in HB 2008 - The Corpus Christi Transit Act Bill.

Nine months earlier, as part of my research on possible tax funding sources, I developed the idea of “borrowing” the VIA sales tax for five years. VIA had been holding back a half percentage point sales tax to fund a possible light rail project in the future.

The VIA tax was perfect for this situation. It would provide enough funds to construct the Alamodome with no long-term debt service, thus positioning our operational budget at near break even. VIA would benefit since it would protect the tax from being taken by another governmental agency. For local residents, it was a relatively small tax increase that would go away, and out-of towners would pay a significant portion of the tax.

With the leadership of our two senators, Cisneros and I set out to win authorization with less than 36 hours before Sine Die. For the most part, we split our efforts: Cyndi Krier and I focused on the Republicans while Tejeda and Cisneros worked the Democrats. With so little time left, even a small procedural challenge would derail our Hail Mary Play.

Our “simplified” game plan was to amend HB 2008 in the form of a committee substitute. Then have the House Calendars Committee hear the bill and schedule it for a floor vote. Next pass the amended HB 2008 version on the House Floor with three readings. Simultaneously it would be brought up in the Senate as a committee-of-the-whole, thus bypassing the need for a long committee debate. Throughout we needed to keep the House and Senate versions exactly the same in order to avoid a House-Senate conference committee.

During the last 24 hours, we faced challenge after challenge of sub-rosa opposition. Yet, because of all the negative media focused toward the legislature for losing the Olympic Festival bid, no one wanted to openly oppose the authorization bill.

Even then, two major challenges emerged.

First, conservative Bexar County House Members Alan Schoolcraft and George Pierce would only support the bill if it was a direct vote of the citizens and if the election was first called for by 10% of the registered voters. This meant we would need about 57,000 certified signatures to call for an election and then we would have to win the vote. Ironically, the petition drive effort would later garner and organize a ground swell of support from many folks who had never voted before, like amateurs sport enthusiasts and football fans.

Frank Madla

Frank Madla

Our second potential major stumbling block became liberal Bexar County House Member Frank Madla. Madla was closely aligned with COPS/Metro and felt funds should be spent on other priorities. We found out through the grapevine that Madla had plans to kill HB 2008 on a procedural point of order. About 25 minutes before the bill was scheduled to come to the House Floor for a vote, WOAI-AM radio's sports talk host Jay Howard called Madla on his private phone line at his House Floor Desk. Frank answered his phone, assuming it was his staff, but instead found himself live on the Jay Howard’s Sports Talk Show.

Jay asked Frank live on the show if he still supported the Olympic Festival bid. Frank said yes. Jay then talked live on the air about how the Festival bid and Alamodome bill were intrinsically interwoven. Then to Frank’s shock, Jay said live on the show that he had heard a rumor that Frank was going to try to kill the bill using a procedural point of order. Jay said he could not believe Frank would do such a thing since he supported the Olympic Festival so much.

A long silent pause followed. Then Jay asked Frank point-blank if he was going to try to kill the bill on a procedural technicality. Frank, penned-in now, said he would not raise a point of order.

With 23 minutes left before the midnight close of the 1997 Session, the House joined the Senate in final passage of HB 2008, which originally was the Corpus Christi Transportation Act. Governor Clements signed the bill into law a few days later.

Dome Petition and Election

San Antonio was now authorized to have a petition drive to call for an election to use the half percent unused VIA sales tax for five years. Led by amateur sports enthusiasts and Eastside activists in yellow hats, more than 78,000 signatures were gathered, making it the largest petition drive in the history of Texas at that time.

Alamodome at sunset. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Alamodome at sunset. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Still, every poll taken throughout the campaign by the media and the pro-Alamodome campaign showed the Alamodome election loosing – at times by more than 20%.

The polling data was so discouraging that Cisneros stalled the call for the election to see if there was any way to finance the Alamodome privately. During that time, Bill Greehey almost single-handedly kept the campaign alive by hosting civic breakfasts two to three times a week to build support for the Alamodome. After it was determined private financing would not be viable, the election was finally called.

It was the craziest election ever in Bexar County. With the massive voting block of COPS/Metro, HTA and CAVE supporters, the antis should have been able to easily defeat the Alamodome.

Even the last internal pro-Alamodome campaign poll four nights before election day showed the Alamodome down by seven percentage points.

However, the polling was off because it was not picking up this massive group of first time voters. In the end, the computerized signatures of mostly amateur sports enthusiasts and Eastside residents proved to be the winning difference in the election. The Alamodome won by four percentage points.

 

Coming tomorrow: Of all the people involved in the fight over building the Alamodome, Helen Dutmer was the elected leader who lived closest to the long-abandoned former Alamo Iron Works site – and adamantly opposed its construction.

 

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San Antonio Goes Major League — It Started With the Alamodome

The Alamodome, Now 20, Made San Antonio a Bigger, Better City

Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

Thinking Big and Brutal: An Architect Examines Hemisfair Redesign

Sports: A Hole in the Fabric of Downtown

The Spurs Family celebrates 25 years of giving back

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2 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Strangest Election: Robert Marbut Remembers the The Alamodome

  1. I’m always heard it called the Greisenbach house and that because of its historic classification can’t be torn down or altered. About 15 years ago there was some talk to make it into a ticket office though.

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