Christian Archer moved to San Antonio in 2005. In 15 years, he has made his mark on local politics, bond projects, and the city’s move politically to the left. He is full of stories and backgrounds of some of the biggest San Antonio stories of the past 15 years.
Justin: Hello. Bienvenido San Antonio, welcome to the Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonio, and a keeper of chickens and bees. On the Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique, and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.[applause]
All right. Welcome to the Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Christian Archer. Christian Archer is a man of many things, I was learning today. I think best-known to me, is you were good friends with my old boss and former mentor and former guest, Mikal Watts. You all worked on a bunch of projects together, but I knew you also ran Julian’s campaign, Hardburgers campaign. You were instrumental in getting Sculley to come to the city and you’re also a filmmaker and author now I read.
Christian: [laughs] Yes. That’s right.
Justin: When’s the movie coming out?
Christian: We’re working on it. In fact, I’m working on it today. We’ve got a guy who is closely associated with Bradley Cooper, who’s now taking over the project and he wants to do a several part series. Back when Mikal got indicted on 95 felony counts, most people thought he was going to prison.
Justin: Because most of the people when that one happens.
Christian: 99.7% of them to be exact.
Christian: When Mikal got indicted, a lot of people thought Mikal was done. His story was just beginning I think. Obviously, it was a terrible, terrible time but I lived it with my best friend, a mentor to me. A guy who I love dearly. I know, we both do, Mikal Watts, he’s just an amazing person. I wrote a book about that experience and what it was through my eyes, to watch somebody go through 95 felony counts and watch a lot of people turn their back on him. A lot of good friends disappear. You really do learn who your friends are. I went to trial with him in Biloxi. We planned basically live there for four months and he defended himself. It was the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in a lifetime, and it was enough to make a movie and a book about.
We’re working on the book, and the movie, right now, the second part to that is we’re looking at an eight-part episodic series on what happened to Mikal because during the trial, I don’t know if you know this, but I filmed the whole thing. Brought in a film crew and shot the whole thing.
Justin: I knew there was a crew, I didn’t think you were actually the one holding the camera, though.
Christian: Well, I wasn’t holding the camera thing.[laughter]
There is actually usable footage of this.
Justin: When did you all start the film? When did you all know you all were going to start making a book or a movie about this?
Christian: You know what, it was funny. What was it that big Netflix hit?
Justin: Making a Murderer.
Christian: What was it?
Justin: Making a Murderer.
Christian: Making a Murderer.
Christian: Had just come out [chuckles], and Mikal and I were talking about this. Obviously, look, there was severe depression. After so many years of not knowing if you were going to get indicted, then the indictment in the trial and all of the above, and just to lighten the mood I told him, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to write a book about it or do a making of a murderer style, a Netflix doc.” It’s like a light bulb went off. It gave him a little bit of hope and a little bit of something to take away from his daily dose of 95 felony counts, which was a brutal, brutal thing to watch. [crosstalk]
Justin: Jesus. Because people who listen to the Watts episode, they’re going to know, like there was the investigation in the raids, then there was nothing for a long time. Then Ron Johnson put a bug in somebody’s ear and next thing we know there’s an indictment. When did the film and bookmaking process start?
Christian: It was really after the indictment. After we read the salacious stuff that Watts didn’t know about, regarding the other people who were indicted, Greg Warren and Kristy Lee, who ended up obviously going to prison for what they did to Mikal. But it was really after the salacious parts of how they blew through his money and all of the lies that they told. It was like, “Wow, you couldn’t even make up that script.” Nobody in Hollywood would buy it if you tried to sell the script. Yet, I got to watch my best friend go through that tragedy of his life in the prime of his career. Right smack dab in the middle of Mikal Watts, his trajectory was like the space shuttle at the time.
Christian: Then it all came crumbling down for four years. It just crumbled around him. It was hard to watch. Obviously, there’s a redemptive part to that, part of what will be included in the series. I think one very important thing it was missed out was here he was. Our close friend preparing for the trial of a lifetime. The pinnacle of his career and he worked a year just tirelessly on this PowerPoint presentation about BP and everything that went wrong. Kind of the, we were all robbed of watching him and his genius at work.
Justin: People who don’t know Watts as a worker, at a different level than you would think. When you say he really worked, that guy’s a different kind of animal when it comes to working.
Christian: Yes, and watch that switch, when he realized I’m going to do this and the decision making of representing himself, which every major, every well-known lawyer in the country called either him or me and said, “You are a lunatic. If you think you’re going to represent yourself against the 95 count felony charge against yourself–“
Justin: To be fair, he had a good co-counsel and Mike McCrum who was going to be trying it with him. It allowed a little bit of extra padding than just literally trying that alone.
Christian: Yes. Justin, it was a beautiful thing to watch those guys battle back and forth during the trial itself. Mike McCrum is a genius. Mikal Watts, he was wanting to know is a defense lawyer and it’s a good thing he had Mike McCrum. It really is, and to watch those guys, it was truly a ballet each day to watch them in court and how they played off of each other. That experience watching the jury, watching the federal prosecutors just do such a horrible job, and two really brilliant lawyers going at them in court, was something special. That’ll be the basis of the first part of the series. The next part, a second season we’ll actually deal with the California wildfires. This is what we’ve been working on for the last three years.
Justin: His first season is kind of part Mikal, but also part of the problems with our criminal justice system?
Christian: It definitely is. There are some real problems with criminal justice reform. I’m not a lawyer. Watching the fight that he had to go through each day, when it came to all of the roadblocks put up in front of someone trying to make a defense for themselves, it was incredible. The power that the federal government had over the judicial system and how they just robbed him of knowledge of, “Well, what are you trying to convict him of?” They wouldn’t give him who was going to testify him. Who’s going to be in court the next day until six o’clock at night. Then they’d give him this long, completely bogus list of 30 people when you know they were only going to call five, but yet we had to prepare for 30 because you didn’t know which ones would actually be called.
Justin, it was the craziest abuse of power. What John Dowdy did, who was the guy who ended up indicting him, the wannabe governor of Mississippi, who was the interim federal prosecutor. He just wanted to notch on his belt. He wanted to bring down a big name trial lawyer, and it was embarrassing what he did to our judicial system, what he did to Mikal. Then the guy quit about a month and a half before the trial started because he knew Mikal Watts was going to whoop his and had that guy showed up in court, he would’ve had his whooped. Instead, these other prosecutors kind of inherited this case and it was an embarrassing thing for the government. Mikal and his brother, David, and Winter Lee, just slammed the door shut, on their case.
But in the end, Justin, when you think about a civil case and how there’s remedies. In a criminal case, “It’s just go home.” You took all of his money, froze all of his bank accounts, destroyed him reputationally, destroyed him during the prime of his career. Then it was, “Oh yes. Not guilty.” “Okay. Go home.” No repercussions, no slap on the wrist. No, “Oh, sorry. We destroyed your life and everything you’d built over your career, but you can go home now.” It’s scary.
Justin: Now Mikal’s rebound has been quite impressive in itself so, “Destroy yes.” I think for most people it would have, but for Mikal, he has bounced back in, I think even a bigger way than he was before, it sounds like.
Christian: Justin, I think the way that he works, we talked about his work ethic, it’s unparalleled. The guy just works his tail off, but I don’t want to speak for Mikal, but I can tell you, buddy, he went through a real depression. I think his brother, David, who’s a dear friend of mine is still suffering from PTSD. Look that year, there was a 99.7% conviction rate. Mikal knew that he was going to go to prison for the rest of his life and his brother, David, was for something that they didn’t do. It took a while for him to get out of that and now I think he’s out of it. I think that he’s just so incredibly driven to go get those four years that were robbed from the guy’s life.
He’s just not going to slow down. He’s just going 1,000 miles an hour. There is redemption. I think that his work ethic and what he’s doing now is trying to get those four years back, but his brother, David, still suffering from it. You can see it in his eyes.
Justin: I can’t imagine. The toll it takes on everybody around you, not just yourself, your family and your friends and reputationly and people abandoning you. There’s just got to be a lot.
Christian: Yes. It was really, really tough to watch somebody who at least in my mind and in my eyes, such a bright light in Mikal Watts to watch him go through it was incredibly impressive.
Justin: I’m glad he had you there to help out and to make sure it got documented because documenting it turned out to be a really good idea. If it had not turned out the way y’all wanted it to, that probably would have gotten tossed.
Christian: Justin, in the end, he ruined the end of my movie. The end of my movie was going to be him going to prison. He wrecked the end of my movie.
Justin: Just have a Choose Your Own Adventure version and people can decide what they want to do. We got off track of my normal process because I was wanting to know about your filmmaking, which now I think I know, but I want to run through a few small things I do with everybody who comes on the show. Obviously, you’ve got San Antonio chops, but how long have you lived in San Antonio? What brought you here?
Christian: I came in 2005. I just come off of the successful mayor’s race in Houston in 2003 for a guy named Bill White and I met Phil Hardberger. My very first meeting, I think I fell in love with him. He was running for mayor in ’05. There were three major candidates running, a guy named Carroll Schubert, who was the Republican North Side city council member. Obviously, Julián Castro was the favorite in that race and was blowing Hardberger and Schubert away. It looked like he might even win without a runoff.
Justin: How old was he then?
Christian: Who, Castro?
Christian: Oh, gosh. [crosstalk]
Christian: I want to say he’s probably 28.
Justin: Yes, maybe.
Christian: He was young. He was coming off a rough period of time in San Antonio’s history. Three of the city council members went to jail for minor bribery charges, but they took $1,000 bribe here and there. We made a joke during the Hardberger campaign that if two more council members went to prison, that they would have their own quorum in jail, so we needed to be careful so nobody else would go to jail, is to be able to hold council meetings inside the Bexar County Jail.
I moved here in 2005 to run Hardberger’s campaign. I really didn’t think that I would stay, didn’t realize how much I would fall in love with the city and like you said in the intro, what a hidden gem the city is. The power that the people have in the city was awesome. In ’05 is when I moved here. I ran Hardberger’s campaign. My every intention was to run the campaign, hopefully, win, and then go on and run another political campaign, but we came from way behind to end up beating Julián in the runoff.
Phil asked me to stay onboard outside of city. I never wanted to go to work for a city. I wanted to be a outside political arm to be able to get things done from outside City Hall. We made some real magic things happen for the city and it was the funnest time that I had in politics, were the four years that Phil Hardberger was mayor.
Justin: We’re going to talk a little bit about Harberger because it wraps into the scaly thing in a second, but you brought me to one of the next things I do with everybody, is some of your favorite hidden gems in the city. Nurnberg brought up a Denman State Park, I think, and some of these things, I’ve never even known about in the city. Do you have any, those hidden places in the city where you tell people, “Hey, you really got to go check out this thing you’ve never heard of?”
Christian: I would say it’s so sad I wrote about it in the newspaper, my favorite little restaurant. My mother [unintelligible 00:14:54] my family is from New Orleans and there’s a restaurant called The Cookhouse, which was my favorite hidden gem restaurant in this tiny little house over off of St. Mary’s. I think it’s maybe 20 tables in the old place and it was some of the best food-
Justin: They shut down?
Christian: They’re going to keep it. He’s just changing, I think, what they’re doing, but that would have been it. It was in the newspaper that it’s closing.
Justin: For good?
Christian: There are so many hidden gems, Hot Wells is probably a hidden gem. It’s beautiful. If you haven’t been on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, you’re missing out. Hardberger Park is another one of my favorite places to go in the city.
Justin: I got to check out the landbridge.
Christian: Wait, say that again.
Justin: I need to check out the land bridge.
Christian: A land bridge is now open.
Justin: I went to Cookhouse for lunch one day and I guess it wasn’t open but the front door was open. I walk in and it is death metal as loud as you can imagine. There’s just some dude cleaning. That was my last time to Cookhouse. The food’s great, though.
Christian: Oh, my gosh, the food’s great and it’s open for another month.
Justin: Then closed or just changing menu.
Christian: He’s changing the direction of the restaurant. Restaurants have a lifespan and Peters just reached the lifespan of the New Orleans Style Restaurant.
Justin: It was a trailer in EatStreet at first, wasn’t it, in that little trailer park that Jodi and Steven Newman own? They ran across from battalion. I think that’s where it started and then they got their brick and mortar.
Christian: Y[crosstalk] It’s open, go check it out. I think it’s open for another month.
Justin: You covered two things in that answer. What are your thoughts on the most recent election locally? I’m not going to get into Donald Trump stuff, but it was a pretty surprising election. What do you think it told you about San Antonio or San Antonio-based podcast? What did you see in terms of trends here locally?
Christian: First, we elected the first two women to the Bexar County Commissioner.
Justin: Are those the first two ever?
Justin: I didn’t know that.
Christian: Rebeca Clay-Flores defeated in one of the biggest surprises of the Democratic primary, was Rebeca Clay-Flores beating Chico Rodriguez.
Christian: It was a blast. That’s right. I certainly didn’t see it coming. Chico’s a good friend of mine. I think that we thought he was going to win. I wish he had run a more aggressive campaign, but good for Rebeca Clay-Flores and her campaign manager, Frankie. They ran a heck of a campaign. Then Trish DeBerry on the Northside had her own runoff in the Republican primary against a guy who ran against Nelson Wolf, who’s one of my clients, a guy named Tom Rakoff.
I was glad to see Trish win and the fact that there are now two women on the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court is great. I think Bexar County, every year that goes by is becoming more and more Democratic when you look at the fact– Used to be Justin, that in the gubernatorial years was the big year for the Republicans to be competitive and then in the presidential years because of the turnout, the county would go wholeheartedly Democratic.
In the gubernatorial races, they were mostly Republicans would win. In the last gubernatorial election, the Democrats swept out all of the judges every seat, if there was a Democrat running for it, the Democrat won and elected a lot of new judges. This two years from now, if it’s affirmed and Democrats continue to win, I think Bexar County is going to be a solid Democratic county for the foreseeable future.
Justin: Yes, that was going to be my question to you because when I first moved here, it was like that and it was even what, maybe six or eight years ago when they had that election that every Democratic except for David Rodriguez in the judiciary lost.
Christian: That’s right.
Justin: It wasn’t that long ago.
Christian: It was frustrating, I think for people. I hate to say I’m a moderate Democrat. When I worked for the mayors, I liked putting together a bipartisan group of Republicans, Democrats, independents, business community, community activists, and make something great happen. It was very frustrating to watch a bunch of great Democratic judges lose and at the same time, a bunch of great Republican judges. They would lose in the presidential election. They were just good judges and it was sad to watch people like Bert Richardson and others get beaten just because it was that time of year or that certain election cycle, but that’s the way it is. We decided to make running for judge a partisan issue as a state, which I think is stupid but for now, that’s the way it’s going to be.
Justin: Then you have other counties specifically Austin and Travis and Harris that it’s swung so far left that now you’re having primaries that are being decided Democratic side almost specifically by sex. It seems like in Harris County specifically, it seemed like if you were a female Democrat, you were sweeping out male Democrats.
Christian: Look, you don’t get X number of points just by being a woman, but I think that women are taking a hold of government and I like it actually. It’s great. When you look at the fourth court of appeals when you look at a lot of the new young judges in Bexar County the talent pool is awesome. I love seeing all these women. The women on seat council it’s wonderful.
Justin: On the side, somebody mentioned Anna Sandoval to me and her resume the other day. Holy shit.[laughter]
Justin: MIT, Stanford, Yale. I might’ve missed one, but it’s Rhode scholar, maybe. Something crazy. Her resume is just insane. She’s from Jefferson.
Christian: She’s not alone. When you look at the bench in Bexar County and how young, now all of a sudden, I remember when I was considered the young cop in politics, I am now an old man in politics now. [chuckles] It’s so weird, but to see the young talent pool for this county should give everybody a lot of hope and confidence in the future. That didn’t come by accident by the way. There were a lot of people that worked real hard to make sure that we had a strong bench and the next generation getting elected to office. You’ll see it again in this upcoming May election.
The city council is really the breeding grounds where people get their feet wet in politics for the first time, where you could still win an election with shoe leather express. If you’re a good candidate, you can knock on enough doors and go talk to enough people that you could win a city council race [crosstalk] It’s a good way to get your feet wet in politics, to find out one, do people like you, and do you have a compelling message? Two, how you are to earn people’s support and vote.
Justin: Sculley joked that when she moved here, her husband said that everybody in San Antonio has been on city council. That was [unintelligible 00:22:45] back then, I guess it was four years total. Everywhere they went, she said they just ran into all these former city councilpersons.
Christian: Yes. That’s right. I forget what the number was, but at some point, I kept a running total while Sheryl was the city manager it was something like 120 council members. From the time we got her to be the– It was just something just completely bizarre, five mayors, a hundred and something council members. It’s hard, which by the way, not to get too far afield from the question, but the need for more reforms in this city to be able to provide a more stable government, there are more needed reforms, such as, when I ran Hardberger’s campaign, you could only serve two-year terms. Now you can serve four two-year terms. Up to eight years.
A two-year term, they’re constantly running for office, they’re constantly looking over their shoulder at who’s running it the next, the campaign contributions are still $500. How are you going to communicate with any voters about what you care about when you can raise $500?
Justin: Some of us can be big dog max donors at that level.[laughter]
Christian: It makes us feel important. I’m maxed out to you. I gave $500. We’re the seventh-largest city in America and we had to start acting like it with what we expect from our city council and from the candidates that we get running. We’ve got a bunch of really good candidates running. I think at some point– Those reforms were done back when so many councilmembers were taking these little bribes, they made incredibly restricted, you couldn’t get more money and you couldn’t do all this stuff, but we’re the seventh-largest city in America. We’ve got an incredibly booming population. We’ve got real problems for people to solve. Anyway, I hope the reforms keep coming.
Justin: I think that’s a good segue into one of the things I want to talk to you about. I’m going to take this opportunity to discuss some things that look, state and city politics, specifically city and municipal politics are such that it’s not on the news. What is the effect of a bond? Why is that a big deal or why is it not? These are things that you just don’t really hear about unless you educate yourself on your own.
I want to talk to you about some of those things, but one of the reforms I wanted to talk to you about was when Sculley came in and she talks about it in her book, which was when you were involved in government, was this weird time where it sounds like it was backslapping, nobody doing their job. Everybody just had roots in their chair, so nobody was getting fired. Just a wild thing, she talked about how porn use, and nobody even had a computer policy and just all sorts of these simple things that you would think would be part and parcel of the seventh-largest city in America.
You had this huge set of reforms then. What do you think is the next set of reforms to move San Antonio forward from a municipal government standpoint? Obviously, we don’t need to granulate it, but just generally, what are some of the things that maybe we need to launch us forward?
Christian: Well, one, I liked the idea of extending term limits and raising the amount of money that you’re able to raise in order to be able to keep a true political shop going. By the way, Justin, that’s not very popular with the average person, because like you said, they don’t really understand. They think that you’re buying some vote. When you’re truly not. We could double the amount of money that you could give so people could, and elected officials could communicate with their constituents. Look, when you send out a mail piece, it costs money to mail an entire district.
The next thing I would do, I would extend the amount of time that when you elect somebody that they would serve four years, and then I would move it to a four year to two terms, but let them serve for four years. Let them really be able to establish a vision, not constantly have to be running for office and be able to actually see that vision occur. Then every four years, let them raise enough money to go campaign and talk about why they should get reelected. I like the fact that the council is now paid. We’ve made some pretty major reforms to get it to be a more professional atmosphere. The big controversial step would be to get rid of the city manager form of government.
I don’t support that yet. I think that we would have to have a lot of confidence in the mayor, in the city councilmembers, and to do that, I think you get to two, four-year terms, you’re able to raise money in Houston for the mayor’s race, it’s a $5,000 campaign contribution limit and I think $2,500 for the city council, I would do the same thing here. That way you expect more and people ought to– All of the people who give money will hate me for saying this, but you ought to run a really professional level campaign and be able to communicate with people.
Justin: My understanding was, and I could be totally wrong on this but did the city manager form of government come along with the good governance league movement of the ’70-ish?
Christian: Yes, that’s right. They wanted to take a little bit of politics out of the management of City Hall and look, we’ve had a number of really good city managers, and we’ve also had some poor ones. Sculley is the one with who I spent the most amount of time with obviously. She was just cut from a different cloth. Her ability [unintelligible 00:28:48] she rubbed people wrong. Nobody wanted a city manager that was going to make everybody feel good. [chuckles] Sheryl was the perfect city manager because she wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.
There was a patronage, back to the point in Cheryl’s book, there were plenty of people who were relatives and nepotism wasn’t necessarily looked down upon and it led to a lot of people just like you said, growing roots in their chairs, not really making things happen. That’s not a professionally run organization. Sheryl went in and literally changed the culture of what the city manager is expected to do. Eric Walsh is doing a great job. I would hate to see Eric pay the price for getting rid of the city manager form of government. When you look at Houston, that’s a dictatorship. That takes it to a different extreme.
Justin: Does it have that much?
Christian: You don’t get on the agenda unless the mayor blesses you.
Justin: Is that right?
Christian: In Houston. I think the perfect form of government would be somewhere in between where you’d have to increase the mayor staff tremendously in order to keep up with all of the different departments. I don’t think San Antonio is ready for it yet, but I think that that’s in our future. I think certainly in our lifetime, we will go from a city manager form of government to a strong mayor.
Justin: Well, reading her book reminded me of reading Jack Welch’s book about him turning over GE the way she approached things, in the top three let’s focus on our core competencies. Let’s improve our personnel internally. It really had a lot of corollaries to each other, which I was surprised to read and think until she puts a fine point on how big their budget is and you realize, oh, it is a corporation.
Christian: Yes, it’s a massive multi-billion dollar corporation and you need professionals running it. The reforms Sheryl put in when you look at all of her assistant city managers that have gone on to become city managers and other major cities across the country it’s a testament to what Sheryl did. She’s like the Nick Saban is offensive and defensive coordinators are all now getting ed coach jobs, including our new head coach at the University of Texas. You look at all of her assistant city managers and where they are now, they’re leading great American cities.
Justin: She walked through a lot of those with us. Outside of the internal politics side of it, one of the things in our books, and one of the things that you also tout was your success and passing bond initiatives, Christian, I’m going to pretend I have no idea what a bond is because honestly, I think, okay, you put a couple of cents on a sales tax and it pays off over a long amount of time. I think that’s probably the 101, but generally how does it work and why has it been so transformational in such a big deal for San Antonio to finally start passing these big bond projects?
Christian: Justin, it’s incredibly important because the average city budget, you can’t go think big. You can’t go after big monster infrastructure projects if you just relied on the city budget. There are two things, and this is going to get way down into the weeds and I’m sorry, I’m going to do this to you buddy, but the credit rating of the city and why Sheryl used to tout the fact that we were AAA plus bond rating was incredibly important because we could borrow money at a very low-interest rate and we would borrow in the bond election, the most amount of money without raising people’s taxes and because we had a triple a bond rating, we could go borrow.
I think the first big bond that I ran for Hardberger was 550 million. The next one was under Castro, which was 696 million and then under Mayor Taylor, I ran the campaign for 850 million. We’re talking about $2 billion worth of things that we care about, parks, drainage. They’re not sexy things by the way, parks are probably the sexiest things, but who wants to spend a lot of money on drainage? Well, people were dying and you couldn’t have development in neighborhoods without great drainage.
Well, who cares about that stuff? That’s what we would fund in the bond, major infrastructure like streets, parks, major investment in libraries. Those were the four major categories that we would focus on, think about $2 billion worth of roads, parks, streets, and libraries. What does that do? That attracts businesses that are looking at cities and they’re saying, well, what cities are investing in themselves.
When you go out to Hardberger Park now on a weekend, we got Phil Hardberger Park in a bond election. That was just going to be an average suburban neighborhood that would have been developed rather than a state of the art biggest investment in the inner city park in any city in 25 years. You go out there on a weekend and it is jam-packed with people, recreating and kids and families, and major investment in our city and in the health of the citizens. That’s why people will move here and while you you’ll attract businesses is the San Antonio Riverwalk.
Think about this, Justin, when we did in the first $550 million bond campaign under Phil Hardberger, the San Antonio River only went as far as Jones, from Jones North, it was full of homeless drugs. You wouldn’t go anywhere near the Pearl at night, unless you wanted to take your own life in your hands and now it’s one of the shining lights of our city.
That’s what a bond campaign does for you is we were able to put, I think it’s about $125 million into the ditch itself and to create the river, we raised an additional, $100 million for the art and to make it very pleasant for people to walk or ride a bike or take your kids down. Kate Goldsberry and Pearl silver ventures turned around and said, well, if you guys build that, here’s what we’ll do to the Pearl.
Originally it was going to create, it was something like 10,000 permanent jobs and X number of millions of dollars in revenue and so far here we are, I think it’s 15 years later or 12 years later it’s 10 times the amount that we originally projecting. It’s something like 40,000 permanent jobs and when you look around the Pearl. I’m at the Cellars. when you look around where the yard is at all the new housing and new organism, it’s less stress, less urban sprawl, less stress for police officers and fire so as you densify in the inner city, it’s less stress on all of the public works. It was just a win-win-win for everybody to enjoy this fantastic place, that extension of the river, we’re not putting stress on the utilities and that’s the big benefit of a bond campaign.
Justin: Then is it just paid off generally as an installment plan? Or is sales tax or something included?
Christian: No taxes were increased. It’s just a part of the general revenue funds go off to pay down the bonds each year. The way that it’s set-up and the way that Sheryl put this system in is about every five years, you can add a new bond issuance. I would say that if COVID-19 didn’t happen, the next bond would literally be a billion dollar bond and when you think about the infrastructure and how we get to invest in ourselves, what you could do with a billion dollars in street improvements.
Before Sheryl and before I was here, there were decades and decades of deferred maintenance on major thoroughfares and streets and bridges, no major parks, libraries, all of those things were incredibly stressed and no big investments in the things that we care about. Now with those bonds, you’re able to catch up over time so that the third maintenance we’re ahead of our schedule and we’re able to complete major thoroughfares in the city.
Justin: How does something get included into one of the bond packages?
Christian: They’re actually just now starting to entertain big bond packages so city councilmembers get to weigh in very heavily and say, look at my district. These are major thoroughfares that need attention. They need new lights, they might need extra widening, there’s a big drainage problem. Certainly on the West side of town, just outside of the city downtown, when you look at those drainage ditches that were created 40 and 50 years ago, they’re death traps, right?
If you’re caught in them, when it rains, people would be swept away and they died versus converting it back to what Nelson did with the Museum Reach, which was another bond issuance where it returned it to natural grasses and the water would seep into the soil rather than create these concrete funnels, which is the way it was done, 30 or 40 years ago just to get the water out of downtown as fast. It could well killed a lot of people, would get caught in this culverts and drown.
You look at those drainage projects and you just start clipping them off. Every councilmember could probably come up with a billion dollars’ worth of needs themselves. Sheryl instituted a thing called rough proportionality, which is you might do a drainage ditch on the Northside, but it really protected, we’re on a slant, the city is and so you do a drainage project up here, but you’re really protecting the people in another council district. Does that councilmember take the penalty for it? They tried to take the amount of money and spread it across the 10 districts to make sure that there was rough proportionality to how the money gets spent.
Justin: Is our committee appointed to work for this?
Christian: Yes, there were a number of committees in the different campaigns. When you think about streets and drainage, there was usually the mayor would appoint the two chairs and then each of the 10 councilmembers would appoint two people. You’d have a committee of
24 people and they would host meetings all across the city to get public input. Then they would come back and say on streets and drainage, we’re making the recommendation. There are 400 projects that need to be done. We were allocated X amount of dollars. Here are the 120 that we recommend you spend money on, rough proportionate to around the city.
Lots of impact, lots of feedback, lots of community meetings, and then the council, the city staff would put together the finalized project list for all of the categories. The council would vote on it and then they would hand it over to me and I would run a campaign to go district by district to talk to people about what you get out of this bond. We’re not raising taxes. We’re able to borrow the money at a very, very low interest and get these major projects basically accelerated from getting it done 10 years from now. We could do it now and then [crosstalk].
Justin: I want to enjoy those things now.
Christian: Say that again.
Justin: I want to enjoy those things now.
Christian: Yes, right, of course.
Justin: I think those people do.
Christian: I think that without raising taxes, it was the right call. If you raise taxes marginally, you could really increase the size, but nobody wants to hear about raising taxes right now. You can’t win it because people are always saying, “Yes, but then you’ll never reduce them,” which I understand. [laughs] I’ve seen it happen plenty of times.
Justin: This is a good time to talk about taxes and what’s coming up in May. We have a new round of elections because we’re always in elections in San Antonio. Obviously, Brockhouse is running, obviously, Ron’s running. This show tries to be really non-political. I like Ron. Brockhouse, he said he was coming on the show three times, bailed all three times. I think he’s scared of my hard-hitting questions as my guest, but we’ll never know.
What do you think is going to really talk to voters and resonate with voters considering this cluster of what we’re living in right now from economic anxiety to the shutdown and just it’s a different time. How do you think people running for office should speak to people?
Christian: Jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s it. The old James Carville line from The War Room. “It’s the economy, stupid.” We have taken a nosedive and, Justin, one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was the line for food and the food bank and what Eric Cooper’s doing at the food bank is just one of the most remarkable things ever. There are people that are going to go hungry tonight, kids, families that are going to go hungry tonight in this city and we brag about being the seventh-largest city and all of this great economic growth and everything.
It came to a screeching halt and it was like being hit in the face with a frying pan when COVID hit us and we lost majority of the businesses downtown, restaurants, hotels, our tourism came to a screeching halt and even if COVID ended today, how many years does it take to generate those conventions and who wants to go to a convention right now and be packed into a room? How are we going to fill those hotels? Those jobs aren’t going to come back, buddy. Those jobs, they will, it’ll just be time and certainly not enough time. The people that work there that lost their jobs, they’re going to have to find other jobs.
Justin: How do you talk about jobs from a mayor– They’re limited in what they can do to stimulate the economy and create jobs on a local level. How do you speak to local voters for a local election in terms of generating jobs, especially during the shutdown and pandemic?
Christian: If I were running for mayor, I would get Jenna Saucedo, who I think is remarkable. I would get Richard Perez with the Chamber of Commerce. I would put every CEO and business leader in this city on an absolute mission to create good-paying, high-paying jobs with a future, and I would go out and I would recruit every business that is thinking about relocating to a city. Obviously, Texas with no income tax. I would put every major CEO, I would put Graham Weston to work for me.
I would put Gordon Hartman to work for me and say, your city needs you right now and if there was a business out there with 50 or more jobs that was looking for a place to call home, I would make sure that they knew what San Antonio had to offer. You look at the investments that Julián Castro made in education with pre-K for essay and Cafe College and being able to say, no, no, no, you don’t have to go off to go–
You don’t have to go to another city to get a good job. You don’t have to go to another area to get a good education. You can get them all right here and stay here. The brain drain, they did a great job of slowing the brain drain. It’s not all gone, but of slowing it down but the next thing that people want is they want high paid jobs. They want to know that their jobs aren’t going to be data center jobs. We need them. Data center jobs are important, but they’re not– How do you get those $70,000 and $80,000 a year jobs here?
I would go on a mission for the next two years. I wouldn’t do anything but focus on how do we bounce out of a rut in ’08. You’re younger than I am, Justin, you son of a bitch, but in ’08, when the housing crisis happened across America, San Antonio was– We felt it and we heard about it on the nightly news, but it didn’t really happen to us. We have been bubble proof because of an exploding population better educated. You look at the average family income is on the rise, COVID-19 hit us right where it hurts the most and I think it’s going to take us a while to rebound from it.
If I were either Greg Brockhouse, I think Brockhouse is going to drive that message home with Nirenberg. I’m not afraid to admit it. I support Ron. Ron’s a friend of mine, I think very highly of Ron and I also know Greg Brockhouse really well. I consider Greg a friend. He is a hard-charging. He is unapologetic and he is going to go out there with a message and it’s going to be right at Nirenberg’s chin.
Justin: When he’s not doing the theatrics. He’s got good bullshit and he’s pretty funny.
Christian: He’s got good bullshit and by the way, he’s got a motor that never stops to run. He’s getting it done all the time.
Justin: I’ll just be honest, I tried to get more information on Ron’s jobs program. I had it ordered to be on the show and I had a lot of people reach out to me and just say, I like the idea, but nobody can give us details on how it’s going to work. Do you know how it’s going to work? Do you think it will affect this election in any case, and I’m not being rude, I think it’s a fantastic idea, but it just seems to be really very early on in the idea stage still.
Christian: It’s very early on in the idea stage. I can’t explain it to you. I saw a report the other day about the amount of people that they were going to hire which I think is a mistake, I think it’s just to do the job training and stuff. They’re going to hire 60 plus people. Greg Brockhouse is going to ram that down Ron Nirenberg’s throat. If they can’t explain it by the time May comes around, it’s a vulnerability for the mayor. If you ask me, I would tell him. I think it’s a vulnerability, and Brockhouse knows how to exploit those things. I think that there needs to be a lot of meat on those bones. Now, I was forpassing because I believe in Ron, I really do.
I’m going to support him. I’m going to write him a check. I’m going to help raise money for Ron but it’s a vulnerability if they don’t get their arms around it in a hurry and start talking about how do we put, not just talk about it, but make it happen. Those are two very different things to where we’re hiring those people that we were just talking about that lost their jobs, that don’t have it here. The stimulus checks and– Eventually, the landlords are going to want rent. There’s a disaster in front of us and we need to– If we rest on our laurels for one moment, we’re going to be paying a long-term penalty.
Justin: I do, as a small business owner, wish there were some call to action for all of us from our local leaders because I sat there and I thought, I bring in interns and I train them from a paralegal program and also law students and it’s just what we do but if the city was asking us to train people for legal assistant or paralegal, we would not turn that down and we would give that opportunity. I feel like there is a huge well of people wanting to help in ways like that, that just haven’t been asked to help. I was hoping that was going to be the jobs program, but maybe it will be, I don’t know.
Christian: I think that there are a lot of– Unfortunately, there are more questions than there are answers today still. At least in my point of view and I think your point of view, and I think you’re right. I think that everybody wants to rally. Everybody wants to see our way out of this disaster which is nobody’s fault. It’s a pandemic, it’s a virus. What can we do about it? Well, lean on the people that want to help make this city grow and be the best place on the planet to live but a lot of people are still waiting to see.
Justin: I’ve watched a few episodes of the Brock cast and really, it seems that Greg’s trying to play on that Trump fervor and fever that’s out there. Do you think that has much play in San Antonio these days or do you think that’s trending away here?
Christian: [laughs] Justin, this past week, it was just such a sad moment in our democracy. Certainly one of the lasting memories of our lifetime will be 911, and what happened at the United States Capitol, on Wednesday last week. Trump won Texas going away, wasn’t that close. I thought that there was a chance that Biden was going to be competitive. I was wrong.[laughter]
Christian: It just broke my heart, man. I so badly want to say, “We’re one cycle away.” I’ve been saying that now for 20 plus years involved in politics. I think that Trump has got a big voice. I think that suspending his Twitter account maybe permanently, and Facebook, and all that stuff, he’s not going to be silenced. I don’t think a lot of his supporters are going to be silenced either. I think that they see Brockhouse as their vote. What is the baseline of the Trump voter in San Antonio? 38%.
Justin: Oh, you think it’s that high?
Christian: Oh, yes. Absolutely so. It might be higher, but I would say 38%, depending on how last Wednesday affects people. I think Brockhouse goes in– We’re going to be talking about margins. A tiny, tiny little margin will separate Ron from Greg. In the last election, it was 1,500 votes.
Justin: I forgot about that.
Christian: 1,500 votes. That’s an apartment complex. They go one way or another. They decided the future of the mayor’s race. Look, Ron opened the door for Greg to be able to be that strong. Look, I don’t know if you follow the polling that I do with Bexar Facts, closely or not, but Ron and his handling of COVID-19, his popularity went through the roof. It started to come back down from a stratospheric, Phil Hardberger level, back down to a more moderate, but he’s still in the upper 60s.
He’s a popular mayor. People like him, they like his response. Now that the vaccine’s out, now that we’re four months away from the mayoral election, Ron’s got a pivot, and not just do the nightly updates with Nelson. That is job training. We are just talking about. You’ve got to put a lot of meat on the bones, and deliver, or I think that this race is going to be as close as the last one.
Justin: What about city council races? Do you think there’s any big movement for people to start changing or do you think people are going to vote for the incumbent as they seem to normally do?
Christian: No, they are going to vote for the incumbent. [laughs] There won’t be a lot of change. There are a couple of council members that are term-limited out, Rebecca Viagran, Shirley Gonzales, Robert Treviño has talked about running for mayor. I don’t think he does it in the end. There’s a young guy running against him named Mario Bravo, he’s a good friend of mine. We grew up together in politics.
Justin: I had drinks with Mario at my house the other day.
Christian: Oh, no kidding.
Justin: I just called him and said, “Hey man, I’d like to meet you.” He came over for beers.
Christian: He’s pretty good a guy.
Justin: Yes. He’s a good dude.
Christian: He’s a good dude. He is honest as the day is long. He ran a new thought out campaign against Paul Elizondo and got crushed. Nobody was going to beat Paul Elizondo, I don’t care who you are. Paul knew where all the bare bodies are buried in that county.[laughter]
Christian: People looked at Mario and said, “Should we take him seriously or not?” This election will really define him. He better take it seriously, or he’ll be washed out as a guy that always runs for office and [crosstalk].
Justin: That Gilbert Garcia article was– Gilbert Garcia done write a lot of nice articles about people, it seems like, and it was a very good article about Mario, which really was the impetus for me wanting to meet the guy.
Christian: He’s as good as advertised. He and I grew up under the same political mentor, a guy out of Austin named Ed Wendler. It was just a very strange– I was 28 years old, and my best friend on the planet was 72, a guy named Ed Wendler. It was a very odd couple. Mario was in school at UT, and he was one of our young upstarts in the political world. I sure am proud of who he is and what he’s become. I’m a fan of Mario Bravo.
Justin: I didn’t realize how much he’d been through the political world before he got here. There’s a million things I could talk to you about, but I try to keep these around an hour. The last thing I want to talk to you about is, what happened in the Valley? What is the fix and is that pendulum fixable, or what are your thoughts on that? Just for perspective, I mean that Trump outperformed the Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley this election cycle in a very dramatic way, which was a shock to everybody.
Christian: Justin, it’s so frustrating. How do you get the right messaging? You need Hispanic leaders running political campaigns, which is why it’s great to see this next generation of young Latino, political consultants, campaign managers, field directors. You had Jorge Urby on your show, he’s one. Roger Garza. There are a number of these young guys coming up and the truth of the matter is, if it’s all about messaging, Biden shift the bed in his last debate against Trump, when he’s like, “We’re going to shut down fossil fuel industry.” There’s like, “Wha, wha?”[laughter]
Christian: Have you seen the jobs that are in South Texas?
Christian: If you don’t have a high school degree, or you just have a high school diploma, you didn’t go on to college, you were a line backer, you’re working in the oil patch.
Justin: Making great money.
Christian: You’re making $85,000. There’s no other job that pays you $85,000. None. In order to stay at your hometown, you work in oil patch, and it’s a decent career. Certainly, money that you’re not going to get without a college education. To say, “Yes, I’m going to take away all those jobs.” I didn’t think that we would lose– What was it? Support the County?
Christian: It went to Donald Trump?
Justin: Some of the other counties swung by 40% points. That’s as dramatic as losing Zapata, which Zapata is probably the most conservative down there, anyway.
Christian: Frank Garrett spoiled it all for us, but I think that you’ve got to have Latino leadership at the highest level of any campaign in America. If you don’t, you’re a moron. I think that the Biden campaign needed more Latino leadership, messaging, and strategy. By the way, that goes for the entire Democratic Party. I do not give anybody a pass on that. The flip side of that coin is for generations and generations, Latino leaders were just always circumvented by Anglos. I was one of them. They got a lot of the premier jobs in politics.
Now I’d like to take it as a point of pride that I would always help with that bench, and get them in and at high-level positions in the campaigns. That was a point of pride for me. It’s awesome to now see, here are the leaders. Jorge and these great leaders of these much bigger, larger campaigns now. It’s been absent from the Democrats for a long time. If we don’t take it seriously– We keep talking about– In 2002, I was involved in the Tony Sanchez campaign for governor, and we were going to go awake the sleeping giant. Then we didn’t hire any Latinos, to go awake the sleeping giant. It’s been like that for 20 effing years, Justin
Justin: Was that the year Marty Akins was running too?
Justin: Did I tell you my cousin ran that campaign, that Marty Akins one, Billy Horton?
Christian: Your cousin?
Justin: Billy Horton.
Christian: Oh my God, you’re kidding me.
Justin: Did you know that?
Christian: Oh, I did not know that, but he hated me. Hated my guts. One, because he was going to run for governor against Tony. I did a whole bunch of nefarious things to Marty.[laughter]
Christian: Your cousin hated my guts, and along with a guy named John Hatch.
Justin: I didn’t know John.
Christian: Marty Akins and I ended up– He switched, didn’t run for governor. Ran for Comptroller.
Justin: That’s right.
Christian: Marty was a great guy then, he’s a great guy now.
Justin: I called Ponto Nevarez after the election and I asked him the same question and he said, oil and gas and defund the police. He said those things just killed us down there.
Christian: Justin, if you go to my website, bexarfacts.org, sorry to plug my site on your program.
Justin: I’m glad you did.
Christian: We do a bunch of podcasts as well with local leaders and talk through. Every quarter, I do a poll and I fund it. It’s through a nonprofit and I pay for everything. I brought on an executive committee of Republicans and Democrats because I don’t want it to be about me or just about Democrats. I really want it to be about what makes San Antonio and Bexar County better and to keep our leaders accountable to what’s important to them.
If you go check out in poll four of last year, I tested the defund the police message, and the defund the police message could be the stupidest political messaging point of all time. Defund the police. By the way, amongst African American voters in San Antonio, 65% said, “Don’t defund the police. For God sakes, if there’s a crime going on, I want a cop to show up with a gun.”
Justin: There was a large percentage that wanted more police presence in their neighborhoods, African Americans.
Christian: Of course, we want more police and we want them armed. What we do want though, and this is very important, is when you look at the shit sandwich,-
Justin: It’s crazy.
Christian: -we need that power to be with the chief and the chief to be able to fire an officer. Look, if you’re so mentally deranged that you would serve somebody a shit sandwich, you need psychological evaluation for your life. You most likely should end up in a rubber room rather than-
Justin: That wasn’t his only offense.
Christian: -back on the police force. When you look at the amount of police officers and the stress that they’re under and their willingness to pull the trigger, especially around minorities, and Black people, in particular, that’s a training thing or a firing thing. If you’re going to panic and shoot somebody, you ought to be fired or you need to be trained, but defunding the police could have been one of the dumbest political messaging points of all time. It was clear in our poll, but ironically so.
We tested what my message would be and what the defund the police message would be, and if you took money from the police department, you better train, properly inform police officers, have mental health professionals so that your cops aren’t dealing with the mental health issues and that your Deputy Sheriffs aren’t dealing with mental health issues. If there’s somebody that’s having a mental breakdown or a mental issue, you call professionals in to deal with that person so that there’s not a tragedy down the line.
I think that if you were to turn around and show on a budget priority, how do you properly spend the police budget, I would increase it but deal with things like mental health so that our on-the-line officers that we rely on every day for our own safety aren’t under– They’re not being psychologists as well.
Justin: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head.
Christian: It sounds like I’m running for mayor. Justin, I’m here to make an announcement.
Justin: Well, you’re a political strategist. You can’t help it. One of the things that’s always stuck with me is I think Democrats are so bad at messaging that you can get that movement message that just takes over the Democrats because they don’t have an alternative. Defund the police just happened out of these protests and everybody was stuck holding their arms together and not doing anything, it just became part of the discussion with Democrats when it really wasn’t a Democratic platform.
Christian: Defund the police became the messaging point. By the way, there are real reforms that should happen with the police’s help. The police and the reformers should not be at odds. They should be working together with community leaders and out having real discussions about how do we become better. I know the Police Chief does. He runs into you and, look, I get criticized all the time. I think the world of Mike Helle, who runs the San Antonio Police Officers Association.
If I were [unintelligible 01:04:29], I would be working with the community and with the chief and with the activists to be able to say how do we better serve? How do we better integrate ourselves into your own community so that you’re not afraid of us and vice versa? Together, we can figure out policing in a way that everybody feels like the cops are on our side? Not everybody in this community feels that way and that’s a hurdle that we should be able to overcome.
Justin, it’s this era of– One of the very first books my dad gave me that I read was a book by George Washington called the Rules of Civility. It seems like civility in this day and age is just gone. No sides will talk to the other or you’re a sellout and they’re a sellout and so you’ve just got to build these walls to where there’s just no communication. In the end, we all pay the price for it.
Justin: I think I would love to see everybody sit down and say, “We’re going to change these contracts instead of just holding on to them for dear life. Let’s figure out a way to change them so it works for everybody.” Instead, it just seems it’s either all in or all out and that’s not going to work out well for me and you in the long run.
Christian: That’s right, and Mike Helle is like, “I’ve got to defend my police officers.” Well, you know what? Let’s make sure that the police officers love to be here too, but they also have the proper training and they know how to deal with situations and let’s expand the budget if we have to, to where we’re including some of these ancillary things that we’re putting the stress on police officers. There’s a way to fix it but not if we don’t sit down and talk.
Justin: What is Bexar Facts before we leave the show?
Christian: Bexar Facts is a nonprofit that I formed with a republican friend of mine who used to head the Chamber of Commerce named Lisa Bhattacharya and an African American young man named Demonte Alexander who worked with me on a number of campaigns. The three of us went out and we sought some of the guidance and counsel of friends on both sides of the aisle to be able to talk through and every quarter, we publish, a great expense to myself, a poll and we do a deep dive on issues that are facing Bexar County, the city of San Antonio, and what the public interest is if you’re Latino, if you’re African American, if you’re Anglo, if you’re a male, a female.
We release all of the demographics and all of the results of the poll. Nothing is hidden from the public. It’s all made for anybody to peruse. Our website is bexarfacts.org. We leave all four polls published throughout the year. On KSAT, we did a media partnership with the San Antonio Report and KSAT 12. You’ll see me once a quarter going down, breaking down the numbers and what they mean.
Justin: Cool. That’s a great service.
Christian: We’d love to have you on it, Justin. We’d love to include you on our executive board.
Justin: I would love to do that if you have space for it.
Christian: It’s a neat thing.
Justin: I’m just going to do this this season. I always end my show with top three people I’d love to get on. Who would you recommend that I should try to get on the show? Phil Hardberger is on there obviously.
Christian: Phil Hardberger. I would go Nelson Wolff. You’ve had Cheryl. I haven’t listened to [unintelligible 01:07:59], by the way. I’m dying to listen [crosstalk].
Justin: It was the day he issued that essay about sobriety. It was very poignant. It was very open and honest and it was great. He and I are friends from a long time, 2007. It was really nice.
Christian: I didn’t realize the connection. I’ve always thought very highly of him and I was sad to see him go down, but it sounds like he’s making quite the rebound and I would do anything to support that guy. I think he’s very bright. I would have Paula Gold-Williams, the CEO of CPS Energy on, who’s a powerhouse. Nelson Wolff and Phil Hardberger would be my– By the way, you could never go wrong with someone like Henry Cisneros. Henry is a true gem in this community and every time I get to spend an hour with him, I wish I recorded that conversation because he’s so genuine in his thoughts and he cares so deeply about the city that I think it’d be a lot of fun to have on.
Justin: I’d like to get Straus on too.
Christian: By the way, I beat you to it on our Bexar Facts Podcast.
Justin: You’re going to beat me to all of them. I’ll take second.
Christian: We do our podcast every two weeks. Our very first interview was with Speaker Straus who was phenomenal. He was so good. He and I didn’t know one another. We’ve been on the other side of the aisle, but I just admire him greatly and thought he was a great leader for our state. I hope he runs for governor.
Justin: These are all great ideas. I do too. Christian, stay on real quick but thank you so much for doing this with us. Once you publish some new ones, maybe I’ll get you on. I’d love to have Demonte on too. I’ve met him before through some of the young leader stuff. I think I’ve met him through that, but I’d love to get him on too and talk about some of the stuff that he’s saying, perspective.
Christian: He’s great. I’m sure he’d love to come on.
Justin: Well, Christian, thank you so much. Sit tight. Real quick, I got a few off fair questions I want to ask you.
Justin: All right. Thanks.
[01:09:56] [END OF AUDIO]