Sunday,
April 20

 
POLITICS

A horse of a different color, ethics-wise

The District 8 Council race between Rolando Briones Jr., Ron Nirenberg and Michael Kueber is starting to heat up on matters totally unrelated to bond programs, Pre-K 4 SA or cops and robbers. Briones’ frequent and generous contributions to other politicians have become a nagging issue in the media and at public orums because they show a marked shift in giving from Democrats to Republicans. The question is whether this was the result of political convenience or personal ideology.

In January of this year I began working for District 8 Councilman Reed Williams on special projects, most notably the San Antonio Area Broadband Network. Now that my City Hall contract is complete, I can finally weigh in on some of the hot races in the May election. What better place to start than D8?

Unlike county or state races, our municipal elections are nominally nonpartisan, and overt partisan wrangling has traditionally been out of the ordinary. But these days political ideology seems to be on voters’ minds more than anything else, so much so that it’s becoming a bellwether for how an elected official will behave in office.

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Free beer!

Texas is "wide open for business" – unless you're an indie brewer

Despite the hype, in at least one industry Texas cannot currently claim to be “wide open for business.” When it comes to microbreweries and brewpubs, Texas’ latest free-market slogan would more accurately read, “Kind of allowing business” or simply, “Please stop doing that.”

While hundreds of microbreweries (or craft breweries) have blossomed in states like California (268), Colorado (130) and Michigan (102), Texas ranks 45th out of 51 states in microbreweries per capita according to a 2011 report by the Brewers Association, a national group for craft brewers. As of 2011, only 59 microbreweries called Texas home, despite the state’s historic beer-loving culture. I’m not talking about SXSW or Fiesta consumption, per se, but the ample number of German and Czech immigrants whose brewing techniques made Texas a pre-Prohibition beer haven and helped launch well-known Texas beer labels Shiner and Lone Star.

Why does Texas, the second most populous state, have 77 percent fewer professional craft brewers than the country’s most populous state? Especially when, according to Governor Rick Perry, our business climate is so vastly superior? In an answer that could come straight from Perry: Regulation.

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The big chill

District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan. Illustration by Jeremiah TeutschThere was never a North-South love affair on Castro's Council, but lately the mismatch has become overtly partisan and very public

Last month, Mike Beldon arranged a breakfast meeting at El Mirador between District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan and Christian Archer, the campaign strategist behind the election and national rocket launch of Mayor Julian Castro. So what? you might think. Before he worked for Castro, Archer engineered the surprise win and successful City Hall career of Mayor Phil Hardberger – an early champion of Chan. Beldon, a successful businessman and popular campaign treasurer who’s served that role for both mayors, was also Chan’s first treasurer.

The meeting, however, was anything but a happy reunion of old allies. Chan has aggressively questioned Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley on a number of high-profile initiatives in the past two years, including the Mayor’s Pre-K program, the Nexolon solar-manufacturing incentive, and the recent SAWS rate increase. But the relationship between Chan, who represents the city’s most reliably conservative political district, and the popular Democratic mayor, has deteriorated rapidly and publicly in recent weeks, as Chan became the unhappy poster child for the Mayor’s proposed ethics reform. Those reforms would increase the list of public entities with which elected City officials are prohibited from doing business – a direct poke at Chan, whose engineering firm has worked on contracts with VIA, the public transit agency for San Antonio and Bexar County.

Chan’s firm had nothing to do with the Convention Center ethics breakdown that theoretically inspired this latest round of reform. And it wasn’t lost on her that the newspaper reports linking her name and business, Unintech, with the need for additional ethics rules appeared around the same time that at least one member of the Mayor’s political team was talking to potential Chan opponents for the May elections.

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Falling STAAR

Legislators likely to tweak the state's unpopular standardized tests again

Crying parents, precocious children, vengeful teachers, and eloquent administrators: just your average education committee hearings at the Texas capitol last Tuesday. State legislators in both the house and senate held separate hearings for the biannual airing of grievances against the state’s standardized testing system. This time the aggrieved may have found their most sympathetic audience yet, at least in the senate hearing, which focused solely on testing.

Most panelists agreed that the sheer number of tests have brought the education system to the breaking point. As one superintendent explained, under the current system a child in Texas public schools will take 35 standardized and benchmark tests from kindergarten through high-school graduation. The state also leads the nation in requiring students to pass 15 end-of-course examinations in order to graduate.

While the argument has gained new data and gravity, the fight itself goes back more than 30 years.

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Glitter Political: Patti Radle

The former District 5 Councilwoman and current SAISD board member on letting politicians off the hook:


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Are you experienced: Aspiration and overkill in D8

The most interesting question came late in the Monday-night forum for District 8 candidates Ron Nirenberg and Rolando Briones. Organized by a coalition known as the Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, the business-like debate featured a list of preselected questions that the contenders were allowed to cram for ahead of time. But with the prepared agenda dispatched early, moderator Chuck Saxer accepted impromptu questions from the audience. One of them was submitted with Briones alone in mind, and it went roughly like this:

How do you rationalize calling yourself a penny-pinching, minority small-businessman when you have a fleet of nice cars for your campaign, live in a fancy house, and donated $100,000 to St. George Episcopal Church?

For what it’s worth, Briones hit the low ball out of the park, turning a dig about class into a short disquisition on the still potent promise of the American dream.

“I didn’t plan that question. But I love that question. ... I absolutely love that question,” he said, before explaining that he grew up the child of working-class parents who sometimes relied on welfare and eventually became a successful business owner with 40 employees. He, his wife Krista, and two boys live in a nice (D8) neighborhood – check – and they’re planning to build a new home in the Dominion.

There’s nothing wrong with earning money,  he said. “I’m proud of that, I’m not embarrassed about that.”

The anger and suspicion in that question were directed at Briones' financial success, but it's the same suspicion and contempt we have for our politicians. The more they achieve, the more suspect and distasteful they become to us. It’s a condition of the drastic income inequality of our times, but also of something more enduringly American.

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Texas' education system is broken

Will legislators finally fix it?

Tuesday’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of Texas’ school finance system elicited a lot of excitement, if not surprise. Judge John Dietz ended a 12-week slog through testimony from rich districts, poor districts, parents, business owners and plenty of school-finance experts to conclude the State simply did not provide enough money to fund public school districts equitably or fairly. Dietz, a state judge who made a similar ruling in 2005, echoed his prior pronouncement, stating “There is no free lunch… We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't." The question whether Texans in fact do want increased standards, and how to pay for them, now returns to the Legislature.

While many expected this ruling from Dietz, what happens next is anyone’s guess. Legislators are split along party lines over beginning school-finance discussions promptly, as Democrat state senators like Carlos Uresti and Leticia Van de Putte have called for, or putting them off. The State attorney’s general office, headed by Republican Greg Abbot, is expected to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, and many Senate and House Republicans, like State Senator Donna Campbell, have indicated they would like to wait on the state Supreme Court verdict.

“I think they must not have children in [public] school,” Representative Mike Villarreal said bluntly when asked why his colleagues in the House may want to wait, noting that he has two young children currently in San Antonio public schools.

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