Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The biggest surprise in the San Antonio city elections two years ago wasn’t Ron Nirenberg’s defeat of incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor, though his runoff victory did startle some, especially since she outspent him $725,000 to $371,000. The biggest surprise was in District 9.
The far Northside district has long been a bastion of chamber-of-commerce style conservatives such as Joe Krier (the actual former president of the San Antonio Chamber), businesswoman Elisa Chan, Kevin Wolff (now the only Republican on the Bexar County Commissioners Court), and attorney Carroll Schubert.
San Antonio Area Tourism Council CEO Marco Barros fit the mold perfectly, so much so that Krier endorsed him. And few laughed when Barros said he expected to get as much as 70 percent of the vote in a runoff against John Courage, who most definitely did not fit the mold.
Courage is an unabashedly liberal candidate who repeatedly had run for office against such Republican stalwarts as U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who recently retired, and State Sen. Donna Campbell. The last election Courage won was for the board of the Alamo Colleges District – but it was so long ago (1980) that it was then called the Bexar County Junior College District.
Yet Courage beat Barros by six points.
In the election’s aftermath it was widely assumed that Courage’s political orientation would make him a sitting (or lame) duck almost certain to be defeated when he ran for re-election. After all, on major issues he has split with Clayton Perry, who represents the equally conservative Northeast Side District 10.
Courage has supported the “equity lens” budget that paid special attention to low-income council districts that have been neglected in the past. He did not join Perry and District 6 Councilman (and mayoral candidate) Greg Brockhouse in a vote to cut the city’s tax rate and provide a homestead exemption.
Courage also has reacted favorably to reports calling for major new investments in low-income housing, a massive mobility plan, and “sustainability” measures designed to deal with climate change.
But – surprise! – no one from District 9’s traditional chamber-of-commerce culture bothered to file against Courage. And don’t be surprised if Barros endorses him.
Courage is very likely to win re-election for two reasons: his performance and the weakness of his opposition. Let’s begin with the latter.
Courage has three opponents. Nicholas Balderas lists himself as a web developer, real estate agent, and former pharmacy technician at H-E-B. Richard Reza Versace lists himself as a kenesiotherapist assistant and personal trainer. Neither is considered a threat.
Courage’s other opponent, Patrick Von Dohlen, could give him a race. He trailed Courage two years ago in the first round by only 467 votes.
But Von Dohlen is a cultural conservative, not a chamber-of-commerce conservative. Before this campaign his most recent public political action appears to have been joining two associates as the only three from San Antonio to sign a letter by Texas business owners in 2017 calling for passage of the so-called bathroom bill that major business interests adamantly opposed in the last Legislature.
The web page for Von Dohlen’s business, The Von Dohlen Knuffke Financial Group, lists him as chairman of the San Antonio Family Association. It is a conservative Christian group that opposes contraception and abortion. The organization also “encourages those that struggle with same sex attraction to seek assistance. Please contact us for help.”
The association’s home page also raises concern about the city’s climate change initiative: “Are you ready to go all electric ‘CarbonNeutral’? Families BEWARE.”
Von Dohlen’s campaign website lists general issues such as transparency, infrastructure, fiscal responsibility, and public safety – but not the issues of the Family Association. I called his office Monday to learn more about his campaign, but didn’t hear back.
The main reason Courage is likely to win is his performance as a council member. He has voted “conservative” on several issues, including against a water rate hike to fund the Vista Ridge pipeline and against $38 million to renovate City Hall without voter approval. And he has found that few of his constituents are angry after he explains why he has voted for such things as the “equity lens” budget and sick pay.
But most importantly, as he acknowledges, he has paid attention to the nuts and bolts of local government, which are largely divorced from political ideology. First, he has been a full-time councilman. As a 67-year-old retired teacher, he can live easily on council pay added to his pension. That means he attends every neighborhood association forum and other event that he can.
It also means that he, together with an able staff, can respond to the very real issues that don’t show up on political talk shows. An example: “There was an elderly woman in a nice neighborhood who couldn’t take care of her pool anymore,” he said. “The water was green and the neighbors were complaining about the mosquitos. So we took care of it.”
Other “issues” include such things as speed mitigation on residential streets and drainage clearance. As he reminded voters during his campaign two years ago, there aren’t liberal or conservative potholes.
Courage believes he was able to win two years ago partly because of the name recognition he built up over the years running as a Democrat in a Republican area. But once the label was removed in the nonpartisan city council race, he was able to get through to voters as a neighbor.
He said he and his block walkers started the campaign not by asking people for their vote, but by asking them what problems or concerns they had that city government could address. Then, when he made a second round of knocking on doors, he could tell people what he planned to do to address their concerns.
“I’m doing the same thing again this time,” he said. “I’m already knocking on doors.”
Some pundits and politicos have suggested that the passage of two of the three city charter amendments proposed by the firefighters’ union indicates that there is a great deal of anger directed at City Hall. Courage disagrees.
“I don’t find anger at City Hall,” he said. “I find people are basically supportive of city government.”
If that’s true for Courage’s conservative corner of the city, it’s good news for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose playing field is both larger and more progressive.