District 1's Roger Flores enjoys serving his constituents, and he'd like an invitation to the next public office
| Roger Flores
District 1 Councilman Roger Flores, whose district encompasses most of downtown and the historic neighborhoods of North Central San Antonio, has, on occasion, been so famously evasive that even political allies have said, Good luck pinning Roger down. But in the wake of his father's death last year (Roger Flores Sr. held the same council seat from 1995-99), Flores seems more comfortable in his own skin, if somewhat more somber. The Councilman, who is running for reelection unopposed, spoke with the Current about his father, increasing the City's revenue, and his post-council political aspirations.
Current: You guys have had an interesting morning around here. What do you think is the solution to the city manager problem?
Roger Flores: Not hire her.
Do you feel comfortable with that solution?
RF: Mmhmm. Let me tell you two big things. I can't tell you what we discussed in executive session, but I can give you the general feelings that I had. I certainly didn't want, and don't want, the city manager to be the highest paid in the nation. I just think it's inappropriate.
Why do you think it's inappropriate?
RF: We're not the biggest city in the nation. We're not even the biggest city council-city manager form of government in the nation. So that just doesn't play well. Now the idea of paying the city manager the highest salary in the nation because we have a long-term vision, or aspire to be, the largest city or council-manager form of government, that's another thing; I can understand that. But at the same time, I can tell you that the electorate of San Antonio isn't always comfortable with Council not being as frugal as they could when we're having to explain why we can't get their streets fixed.
Now, there is an argument to be made that by paying an executive officer or head of a governmental agency or a pseudo-governmental agency, highly, that in turn you would, one, have a higher level of being able to hold them accountable; two, if that person is worthy of that salary by virtue of being able to make the mechanism of that city government more efficient and save money years down the road, that's a viable argument. The fact of the matter is that the answer is somewhere in the middle. You don't pay someone $100,000 to do a $200,000 job, but you don't pay them $265,000 either.
Do you think the amount that she was asking for is an indication of how unattractive the job looks to outsiders, maybe based on some of the recent history of City Council, or do you think that she was a hard bargainer?
RF: I think she was a hard bargainer. I think it would have been a star, a golden star, on her resume to say, I was the highest paid city manager in the nation. And when she was ready to move on to someplace that is more conducive to raising a family, all that other stuff she had concerns about, she could do it, `saying,` You're not gonna hire me? I was the highest paid city manager in the nation, of the eighth largest city in the nation.
You're running unopposed. How do you view it when you're running unopposed. Do you not really think about it, or do you view it as an opportunity to remind the public of the job you're doing?
RF: I think you have a larger responsibility, quite frankly. A lot of folks that run unopposed would, in my position, be willing to vote however they want, without listening to anyone, without taking constituents' perspectives into consideration. And I refuse to do that. I still, even though I'm unopposed, take greatly into consideration the philosophies, and perspectives, and desires of my district.
What do you plan to do next time around when your term limit has expired? Are you going to go back to running restaurants full time?
RF: I've been fairly candid in answering questions like that lately because I've had a lot of things happen in my life in the past year that just change your perspective. My priorities are totally different.
Your father passing away, for instance?
RF: You know, when he was around ... I didn't think I could cry anymore ...
That's OK. We don't have to talk about him.
RF: No, I like talking about him. When he was around, I felt empowered and I felt immense joy in trying to make him proud of me, and this was part of it. I feel like I'm able to communicate with folks, and when they meet with me and they don't understand something or need to know something from me, I have that ability to do that. And it made me feel so good that my father knew that about me, and that he appreciated it.
You have to like what you do to do it well, and I like it, I like serving my community. But getting back to the original question, I'm getting to the answer in a roundabout way. That joy that I had in public service was partly because of `my father`, and there's still a lot of joy in public service left for me, although that's gone. I struggle to be as excited and energized about my job for that reason, but I've been very careful to maintain the quality of representation that I offer to my district no matter what my personal situation is, or my emotional state. When I'm here in my office, I'm Councilman, whether I'm Councilman Who Just Lost His Dad or Councilman Who's Worried About His Restaurant, I'm Councilman. That's been very very difficult. So, I guess, getting to your question, I don't know if I'll ever find the same kind of happiness or satisfaction in the job that I did before. I think if people heard me say that they would say, Well you ran for City Council because you wanted to make your dad proud? It wasn't really that.
I think people would understand that.
RF: I ran for City Council because he instilled in me the example of serving the community, and sacrificing for your community, and I did it because I wanted to - that idea of service was important. You know the business that I'm in is exactly that: You serve your customers, you serve your constituents in the same way, the same philosophy. The idea behind the phrase, What can I do for ya? is the same in the restaurant business as it is in politics, as it is in government. That's what a representative should say to people that are his or her constituents: What can I do for ya?
Let's talk about your constituents for a minute. District 1 is tied for third-poorest district in San Antonio ...
RF: Parts of it.
I'm speaking generally from the 2000 census data. And `it has` some of the lowest high school and college attainment levels. What can a councilperson do to address those problems directly? What have you done, and what do you plan on doing your second term?
RF: When you're campaigning and you talk about major social issues in public, education is always at the top of the list and you have to be able to be smart about your comments because, like you said, the municipality, this government, doesn't really have the ability to affect education in a direct way. But one of the things I have done, that I have spearheaded and advocated at the top of my lungs, is for the creation of this Library District, because that is one way that I think the City can indirectly affect the level of education in our city, by funding our libraries at a very high level. Because you're not dedicating it to libraries, you're dedicating it to education, education of everybody. Not just young folks, but anybody who wants to be more informed.
It's universally accessible.
RF: Exactly. And I think that's one thing we can do today, right now, is strengthen the financial situation of our library system. I advocated very highly in our last Council meeting `when` we were going through dialogue about why should we or shouldn't we, and I pressed very hard to vote yes. We should allow ourselves the flexibility of creating this disctrict. It doesn't raise taxes at all. All it does is earmark some that we're already going to have.
In a very broad scope, right now we have a lot of folks who think, Okay, here's our money, and here's what we're gonna do instead of thinking, Here's our money, but let's go somewhere else. Why don't we go, How have we made that money? And then go, Once we've made that money, how do we make more, for one, and two, how do we make our spending have a larger impact on our community? If I can spend $5 here, and it generates $10 there, or if I can spend $5 and generate $20, it's a no-brainer which one you need to do. The problem is, theoretically, how do you sell that, saying this is a true investment, an investment for our community. Unfortunately, unless a number is attached to the idea, it doesn't get a lot of play. You can't just say, I think we should fund the arts because we should fund the arts.
You've got to quantify it.
Although a national study recently came out by the Rand Corporation that basically says that at a rate of 70 percent the public believes that, they know they get these intangible benefits that you can't easily quantify.
RF: And that's exactly right. And I was going to mention the idea of the arts and how it strengthens our culture. I think there's a lot of folks out there, when you talk about funding the arts, they think Mapplethorpe (controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe whose work, "Piss Christ" became the poster child for conservative efforts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts), they don't make that connection, and some folks they don't want to. It takes someone, a very good communicator, to convey to folks what the impact of the arts are and what it does for people. I think what needs to start happening is that we need to change our mindset. To me what the arts is able to provide to the community, to society, is the idea of utilizing creativity and imagination to solve problems. That applies to everything.
Like the Fiesta medal that the Southwest School of Art & Craft is handing out this year that says "Art is a Tool for Living."
RF: That's exaclty it. My father actually was one of the guys who was working on that whole campaign. It's hard to convey that message because people, again, want to quantify it. But how? What do you mean? I'm gonna think more creatively because I'm a painter (Flores is an amateur painter; some of his work hangs in the family's La Mitla restaurant)? No, but when you do things like that it puts you in a mindset of having to - I hate this term, but - think outside the box. You're letting your mind go, and figure out what are the possibilities. If you can utilize that mechanism for government, for medicine, for business, running a restaurant, it produces results. And that's the hidden pressure of the arts in society ... understanding that that process, that mechanism, is innate in everybody, and you can teach people to use it for everything.
You initiated the Destination:SA "strategic master plan" to increase tourism revenue by $1.5 billion over 5 years. You argue that it makes sense for District 1 to concentrate on its strength, and tourism is No. 2 in terms of generating revenue for San Antonio. At a recent COPS/Metro candidates' forum, there were people who expressed concern that they don't want their city to become a theme park. How do you address that concern, at the same time saying, Let's grow this source of revenue?
RF: By exactly what we're doing, creating a plan that does not call for San Antonio to become a theme park. It calls for specific strengthening of the things that San Antonio offers that are unique, that are special. We're the number one destination in Texas because of the River Walk. If in the strategic plan you say, I think a casino would go great on the River Walk, that's turning San Antonio into a theme park. If you say, I think we need to spend more dollars to connect the channel of the river so that folks can walk all the way around, that's not turning San Antonio into a theme park. There's ways to strengthen the industry without turning this into a theme park. Now, there's two tracks there. There's a Tilman Fertita (Landry's Restaurants owner and developer who won the Tower of the Americas contract last year) track. That's theme-park-man idea. And then there's focus on your strengths, figure out what entices folks, and work with that. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. There's a reason why folks come to San Antonio; that's what you work on. You don't add more stuff for people to buy or add more stuff for people to come and see because "the bigger the better" - it's really not. If folks want to come see the Alamo, then you improve the area around the Alamo, you don't put an Alamo Rollercoaster behind the Alamo that they can see.
Because of `our` fierce guardianship of San Antonio's heritage and uniqueness, I don't think there's a possiblity to turn San Antonio into a theme park, quite frankly, especially with plans like this. You incorporate everybody. You go look at the list of folks involved in this plan ... You've got Conservation Society, you've got COPS/Metro, they keep us in check, and that's the way it should be. When you have a great idea about putting a bungee cord off the Tower of Americas, you've got people who say, No, there's no way.
If we could come back for a moment to talking about political plans in general, you said that...
RF: Oh, yeah, I didn't finish my answer.
You said that you feel that there's certain parts `of the job` that you do well, communicating with people, helping people come together and understand difficult problems. What's an example of a problem that you've tackled that gave you that sense?
RF: The Fulton Street Roundabout was one, except that we're not to the conclusion of that yet. I'm trying to think of something that we came to conclusion on. One of the first things we did was the Smoking Ordinance. I voted against it, but I was able to communicate why I had problems with that.
I don't necessarily go trying to convice people. I just go out and try to explain what I'm thinking. And I think as I've done that we've been able to at least have people understand why `councilmembers are` voting the way we are. And that's important because you don't always have to get people to agree with you, that's not the point. What is the point is that they know why you're doing what you're doing, why you're thinking that way. Because 99 percent of the folks, even if they disagree with you, will say, I understand his logic, and I'm OK with him voting that way; he explained himself. That's what I try to do in everything. There's been a lot of controversial issues; there's been so many that now I can't remember any. Like the firing of the city manager (Terry Brechtel): I thought that I communicated very well what the problems have been, and that there was a necessity for action, but not in the way that it was being handled. And I held a press conference and that's what I said. We need to fix something, it's broken, but not this way.
If we could talk about "fixing it" for a moment, do you think that ending the term limits for the Council and the Mayor, is that crucial to getting a city government that people will feel better about, will feel is more effectual?
RF: I don't think elongating terms is the answer. I think the terms are fine the way they are, two years. If I hadn't been doing a good job, the folks have the ability to vote me out of office. That's the way it should be.
Should we allow more terms?
RF: That's what I was going to say. I think that perhaps one more term might be appropriate. And my reasoning behind that is, if you look at the length of time that most major projects take from inception to completion, it's about six years, roughly. There's streets being done in my district now that my dad put on the list.
Which is why Fredericksburg Road is going to continue to cave in?
RF: (laughs) Exactly. When you see that type of thing you want to know that: there's streets that were there that my predecessor Bobby (Perez) put on the list and if I wanted to, I could change that. I haven't; I think that's unethical because they elected him to do that work and his work needs to be finished. Even if I'm in this office, his work needs to be finished.
Although if you look at bigger projects, say he started a six-year project that is more controversial than street repair, you could say that part of the reason if he didn't get reelected is that the voters didn't want that six-year plan completed.
RF: You can always draw that conclusion; you always have that double-edged sword. You can look at it both ways. Of course, it wouldn't be unethical for `voters` to come in, for your entire consituency to say, The reason we voted for you is because you thought that "that" was a bad idea, so what are you gonna do about it? That hasn't happened with any of these other cases. The instances I'm talking about, with streets for instance, would be politically motivated, or motivated by something else. I mean, why would I want to pull up one of my streets and not do one that this guy said he was gonna do? It would be very easy for me to say, I don't know anything about that street, the guy before me did it, but I'm gonna fix this other street and there's lots of people who voted for me on this street. It's easy to do that, but again, it would be highly unethical, and I've never even considered things like that. But, my point being that you need to able to, if you find something important, that might not be as important to somebody else, you need to find somebody there to push the completion that youv'e tried to do for your consituency.
Since you will be leaving this position in two years, let's come back to the question of what's next.
RF: This two years has been an eye-opening experience for me in many, many ways. I love serving my community. (Requests to go off the record.)
But why don't you want to be governor? And I'd love it if we could go back on the record for this one.
RF: Sure, sure, sure. I think that the first campaign that you run, the first office that you seek, should be your own decision. And I think that every office after that that you seek, should be the will of the people.
So if some folks came to you and said, Roger, we really like the job you're doing as City councilman, and we really need a strong candidate to run for the state rep seat, you'd consider it?
RF: Sure. And it would have to be driven by people wanting me to do that, because I hope they think I've done a good job. I've had folks come to me that tell me that they enjoy my representation, that they haven't always agreed with me on my issues, but I've always communicated about the issues, and they respect that, and that's all I can ask.
In the context of running for politics, how do you feel about all this talk about Julián Castro being the next Barack Obama, which is kind of funny since Obama hasn't actually accomplished anything national yet, except to be extremely likable, or the next Henry? To me that seems a little odd. He's not the only Latino who's an accomplished politician. Do you ever think about the way the national spotlight seems to assign these roles to people?
RF: Not really. In terms of me? No, I find that jealousy is a really evil emotion that doesn't produce good results.
I don't mean it from a jealousy standpoint so much. In a way, I wonder if it's not about background. You have these folks who go through the Ivy League system, and that confers access, and then you have folks who do it a different way, come up through the family business, and approach politics from a really grassroots level.
RF: I think when you compare yourself to others, it clouds your judgment. There's always going to be people greater and lesser than you. Whatever you set for parameters, there's always gonna be people that do things better than you, and that you do things better than. I'm not more special than anybody else, and I generally don't have a problem with things like that. I celebrate the fact that my colleagues or anybody is able to have their ideals or their achievements highlighted. Does that answer your question?
There's not really a right or wrong answer.
RF: I think you're right. There are a lot of young Hispanic, or typically underrepresented folks in elected positions, and they all have their own story and they're all equally great as far as I'm concerned. Honestly, I think we should all aspire to the day when your race has absolutely nothing to do with how or why or when you were put in any position. I have a different feeling about that whole idea, highlighting one of my differences that I can't change, nobody else can either. I'd rather just be known for my achievements as a human being.
Let's go back to your district. When you guys come back to session after the election, what are going to be the top three items on your agenda?
RF: The budget, infrastructure - streets, drainage, curbs, sidewalks - and then strengthening tourism so it has a strong economic impact on how much money we have to fund streets, drainage, curbs, and sidewalks.
After you were first elected, you'd tell me, I'm really the pothole guy. Would you still describe yourself that way?
RF: I didn't want to be the pothole guy. I didn't want someone to tell me, Okay, I've got this much money, I can do 400 potholes, so let me go pick the 400 that I can do. I'd rather say, let me figure out how we can do as many potholes as we can, and then go out and figure out how to do that.
And you mean potholes in the larger sense.
RF: Potholes as a symbol of all the other problems we have in the district infrastructure-wise. I want to know how we can generate more revenue so that when any pothole comes up we can fix it, instead of saying, man, I wish we had the money to do that. I don't like telling folks we don't have the money to do it. That's very tough to tell folks.
Each councilperson has some discretionary funds. What's the thing you've done with your discretionary funds that you're most proud of?
RF: I use a lot of my discretionary funds - and they're not really discretionary anymore; we have human development funds - I've used a lot of mine for youth projects and youth programs. And when it's not associated with youth, the other group I like to support are the seniors. Those are really the two groups that don't have as many resources.
And you're very much in favor of the property tax freeze for seniors.
RF: Yeah. I'm in favor of the City doing something to make sure that seniors aren't having to choose taxes over insurance, taxes over medication, taxes over milk. We need to solve that problem. Whether the tax freeze happens or not we will have relief for seniors this coming year. Whether it's City's plan or through the property tax freeze ... we need to find a solution to the revenue we've lost through doing it, but I think that we can do it. And the way to do it is to ask, How do we generate more revenue, how do we use our strengths to generate that revenue?
Every once in awhile I'll play this game on the computer called "Civilization," and you use the resources you have, and the more you use them, the more you strengthen them, the more you generate, the more you can use on infrastructure. That's an easy idea. We just have to know what our resources are and how to strengthen them.
People say, even though tourism is No. 2, it doesn't provide wages at the same level, so don't we really want to focus our attention on building industries that provide a higher wage?
RF: I would say that that is highly inaccurate. When you call it the hospitality industry you're talking about hotels. You could probably ask 90 percent of the general managers at hotels where they got their start in the business, and they'll tell you, I was a bellhop, I was a waiter, I was a busboy.
So, it's an industry in which you can really work your way up?
RF: It's an industry that has no boundaries as long as you want to work, and as long as you want to achieve that. And I don't know if too many people know that about the hospitality industry. You may start out in a minimum-wage type situation. But hotels work from inside, because to be a good general manager you have to know that hotel and that industry from the bottom up. Same with the restaurant business. I have been a busboy, I have been a waiter, I've been a dishwasher, I've cleaned restrooms, I've been a cook, I've been a frycook, and I've been a manager, and an owner. I understand that concept. For those folks that say that they're menial wage jobs, I would highly disagree. There's a lot of work ethic that goes into it, the idea of service in those types of jobs is highly important. For some folks, I don't know if they like the service orientation of these jobs. I happen to like it. Again, you can go talk to the upper management of any hotel and ask them where they started; they didn't go to business school to get a hotel-management degree. A lot of them might have done something like that `later`, but they started out in the business. •
Text and interviews by Elaine Wolff