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Fighting the dynasty



Colin Strother picks his political battles pretty carefully. Strother, the former campaign manager and chief of staff for Congressman Henry Cuellar, knows that incumbent Councilmembers rarely lose elections in San Antonio (or any other city, for that matter), and tilting at windmills is not among his favorite pastimes.

So when Strother cold-called District 1 challenger Chris Forbrich to inquire about working on Forbrich’s campaign against incumbent Mary Alice Cisneros, he says he was driven not only by principle but by a close examination of the race’s political calculus.

“There’s a saying in baseball that you can’t teach speed,” Strother says. “Well, you can’t teach effort either, and I see a lot of good things in Chris. He’s got good instincts and good values.”

Strother recalls that people told him he was crazy in 2007 for choosing to manage Justin Rodriguez’s District 7 campaign against incumbent Elena Guajardo, but Rodriguez wound up winning the race in a rout.

That anecdote surely gives Forbrich loyalists cause for hope, but the two races have some key differences. Although Rodriguez was a first-time Council candidate in 2007, he’d already built a strong reputation as an Assistant District Attorney, school-board member, and neighborhood-association president. By comparison, the 25-year-old Forbrich, owner of a small computer-consulting business, is an unknown quantity. Also, Rodriguez’s opponent did not carry the near-mythical power of the Cisneros name, with its echoes of the popular mayoral reign of Mary Alice’s husband, Henry, and its Clintonian hold on the imaginations of SA voters.

If Forbrich’s insurgent, shoestring effort recalls any recent San Antonio political figure, it’s Chip Haass, who scored a District 10 upset victory in 2003, as a 25-year-old school teacher promising to sweep away City Hall corruption. As with Haass, Forbrich’s political innocence, his thin résumé, is not only his biggest political weakness, it’s also his clearest asset.

Fairly or unfairly, in the two years since she took office, Cisneros has acquired a reputation for being detached and disengaged from her constituents’ concerns. Forbrich, a San Antonio native who moved into the Sprucewood Lane home of his grandmother two years ago, says that even before he became a candidate, he got a first-hand sense of how Cisneros relates to District 1 voters, and the experience was disappointing.

Forbrich says he worried that many children in his neighborhood live in homes with lead paint and asbestos. “I wrote 10 letters and made two phone calls to Mary Alice’s office over the course of six months,” he recalls. “Within that time, the only response I got to any of my communication — my phone calls didn’t even get answered, and they were during business hours — was after one letter, when she had her secretary call me and say she would love to write me back. I said, ‘Great, my address is at the top of the letter. Please do.’ And I never got a letter back from her.”

In his letters, Forbrich proposed that the City adopt rebate or loan-forgiveness programs to safely remove lead paint and asbestos from homes where children resided. He subsequently found that such local programs already exist. “It came down to simply communicating that with me,” he says. “And I could have shared those concerns with those people that I saw. So I think it was regrettable that there wasn’t communication and diligence at the District 1 office to get that information out.”

Forbrich’s focus on health issues can probably be traced to his family’s history in the health-care industry. His mother, Rebecca Gremmel, is a nurse, and his younger sister, Jennifer, is currently studying nursing at San Antonio College. Forbrich himself graduated from Health Careers High School (a Northside magnet school) in 2001. He ultimately received a degree in Information Systems from the UTSA College of Business, and set up his own company, Forbrich & Associates, in 2007. When asked about his family’s role in his campaign, he says, with a rare laugh, “Politics isn’t really their game. So I’m on my own with that one.”

In conversation, he comes off shy but determined, relentlessly serious and careful in his choice of words. For Forbrich, municipal government isn’t about ideology as much as practical problem solving. At one point, looking for a connection between his business self and the public official he hopes to become, he says: “I troubleshoot things for a living. It only seems second nature to me. You’re just shifting the subject matter, but it’s still the same process.”

He says he’s long been interested in politics and his decision to make a run for the District 1 seat came not from a single epiphany but from a gradual sense of dissatisfaction in the community.

“In my time campaigning since last July, before I even knew if the incumbent was going to run again, I was out there talking and I heard the same story from everyone: ‘We feel forgotten, no one’s listening to us, no one’s getting back to us, no one’s showing up to help us.’ And I think that’s really important. At the end of the day, that office is there to listen and do whatever it can to try to help.”

If anything, Strother is more vehement in his critique of Cisneros.

“Mary Alice has a reputation for being AWOL,” he says. “She has a reputation for not showing up, for not returning phone calls, for turning over staff, and for not being reliable.”

Forbrich and Strother point to a March 3 meeting of the Los Angeles Heights/Keystone Neighborhood Association, only a few days after two fatal shootings and a stabbing occurred at neighborhood bars. An estimated 100 residents and representatives of the San Antonio Police Department attended the meeting, but Cisneros failed to show up.

Patricia Doria, president of the neighborhood association, says that Cisneros has never made it to an association meeting and calls the situation “extremely frustrating.” But she adds, “I can’t say that Chris would make a better candidate because we don’t know that much about his record yet.”

Until recently, apathy was the strongest knock on Cisneros. Over the last few months, however, she’s also taken public hits over her integrity. She raised eyebrows last year by privately pushing for a change in the City’s towing contract, and last month reportedly offered a closed-door plan for the City to sell Market Square and La Villita to the Cortez family, owners of downtown mainstay Mi Tierra. Cisneros subsequently denied that she had advocated such a sale.

Strother says the Market Square/La Villita controversy convinced him to join the Forbrich campaign. “We certainly agree that Mary Alice is a nice person,” he says. “Her husband did this city and our country a great service back in the day. But she’s making bad decisions over and over and over, and those bad decisions are hurting the district. When she gets caught, she’s less than forthcoming and less than honest.”

While Forbrich says he’s had little trouble raising money, he nonetheless faces a huge financial disadvantage in the race. Between July 1 and December 31 of last year, he raised $3,859. Over that same period, Cisneros raised nearly nine times as much: $33, 795. Forbrich has generated some backing in the local arts scene, and he received a $300 contribution (one of his biggest) from gallery owner Joan Grona. As an out-of-the-closet gay man, he’s also received support from the LGBT community, but he’s quick to downplay the importance of his sexuality on the campaign.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned about the LGBT community, it’s that they advocate people to be fair-minded,” Forbrich says. “So if they’ve instilled anything in me, it’s to not look at any issue with bias, and to come at it with a fair mind and an equal opportunity for everyone.”

While most of Forbrich’s emphasis is on better delivery of fundamental City services to his district, he does propose one notable procedural reform. He argues that City Council meetings should be moved to weekends (or evenings) to enable more citizens to attend. As for his own political prospects, even a surprise win over Cisneros might not convince him to make government service a long-term career.

“At the end of my first term, if I don’t think I’ve done just a stellar job, I will be my own biggest critic there, as I always am,” he says. “I would never want to be in politics so long that I don’t think I can contribute.”

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