Julián Castro is so alone.
"These subsidies are a form of corporate welfare," says the District 7 City Councilman, referring to the estimated $60 million in tax abatements that the developers of the proposed PGA Village want from San Antonio.
Castro's tone is conversational, but what he's saying is revolutionary. As the Current goes to press, two other City Councilmen — District 9's Carroll Schubert and District 10's David Carpenter — have come out in favor of the PGA project, but Castro remains the only councilman in open opposition. As a March 3 "accountability session" convened by COPS revealed, many other politicians not on the council, such as state Rep. Mike Villarreal, also oppose PGA. Still, Castro was the only councilman to attend the packed, enthusiastic meeting at the Sacred Heart Church at West Commerce and Trinity. Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly stands with Castro on this issue.
Meanwhile, in the Express-News, letters to the editor denounce Castro for practicing "class warfare" — as if the PGA project itself didn't involve a massive transfer of resources from the city's poor and stressed-out neighborhoods to its better-off ones. (If you're on the winning side, presumably, the class war doesn't look like warfare — it looks like God's providence.)
Other Express-News letter-writers have denounced Archbishop Patrick F. Flores, who recently urged the Catholic faithful of his archdiocese to "sign the petition being circulated by COPS and Metro Alliance in our parishes and communities." Some seem shocked that the Archbishop would intervene in public debate, let alone take the side of the underdog. They shouldn't be. Welcoming a visitor into his modest Chancery office a couple of years ago, Flores remarked of its functional furniture and cinder-block walls: "If you want to know where you are, you are in the Archbishop's palace."
Implicitly, the sharp tone of such letters acknowledges the dilemma confronting Lumbermen's Investment, the corporate entity behind the PGA plan: its money buys Lumberman's representatives a respectful hearing in all the usual good ol' boy quarters — but this time around, the public is against their plan.
Castro sounds sympathetic to another dilemma confrontin many local politicians, including fellow Council members who have yet to declare their positions on the PGA issue. "Many politicians are caught in a bind between what their constituents want and their own political futures," Castro says. "There are several Council members who don't want to be seen as anti-growth or anti-business, and who see their political futures as riding on this vote. The developers have folks out there touting the potential economic benefits to San Antonio, and they're influencing several councilmen."
Newer San Antonians might find it difficult to grasp just how revolutionary Castro's remarks really are. Nevertheless, for many long-time San Antonians, there's an inescapable acid-flashback quality to much of the current debate over PGA.
No doubt such old-timers often feel trapped in a recurrent nightmare: one in which bland corporate flacks, seemingly leveled out on Prozac, are conning everyone much as the Duke and the King did in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn — only with straight faces and in banal language. Repeatedly, these promo men promise a rain of gold if only the city will build the Alamodome ... or a new convention center ... or a new Spurs arena. All it'll take, they assure us dreamers, is a gazillion dollars of public money up front, plus environmental waivers, plus supersized tax-abatements that sell the ground out from under unborn feet.
As this nightmare continues, the Express-News prints a "debate," one skewed to the money guys and minus a coherent, dissenting analysis. Key politicians fall in line. Eventually we awake, beaded with sweat and surrounded by toxic "dome dirt," to the reality of cost-overruns, financial projections that never pan out, and low-wage jobs.
Castro, for his part, eschews the angry language often associated with populism. "I consider myself," he says mildly, "as protecting the best interests of common folks."
Nor does Castro see the PGA debate as a Hispanic-versus-Anglo issue. (The Express-News's Roddy Stinson, presumably stumped as to how to make the PGA developers into the "little guy," recently ran a column that argued that COPS is a self-interested pressure group looking out solely for the interests of its West Side constituency.)
"I see myself as an individual making an informed decision based on all the evidence," rather than on the interests of one sector of the city, Castro notes. "And the majority of the people of San Antonio agree with my position. It resonates with a wide audience."
The one blessing of the PGA debate, as Castro sees it, is its power to "galvanize so many people in San Antonio, something that isn't too common in this town these days.
"The most important thing," he adds, "is having people interested in what their city government is actually doing — whether they're for or against PGA. Not just trying to influence individual Council members, but participating in public hearings, signing petitions, and so on. That's been one very positive outcome of this whole issue. A great thing people can do is to sign the petition to force a referendum, a vote on the deal, and then go out and vote on the actual proposal and have the people decide what's best for San Antonio."
Rex Field agrees. Field, who attended that high-energy COPS meeting at Sacred Heart Church with his daughter, is an example of the remarkable breadth, noted by Castro, of the anti-PGA coalition. Field is not a West Sider, not a Hispanic. As a resident of Atascosa County, he's not even a San Antonian.
But as Field puts it: "Even though I live in Atascosa, my children still drink water from the aquifer. Even the families of many people who don't live within San Antonio will be impacted by this plan. There's nothing you can do to escape its implications. It's so big that everyone can see the effects it will have on us."
And Field doesn't like what he sees. As a history professor at Palo Alto College, he takes what he views as an abuse of the democratic process with an almost personal intensity. "I involve my students directly in environmental concerns," he says, "but then here comes Lumbermen's saying, 'We're going to poison your water.'
"I've never seen anything like this South Texas phenomenon of developers coming in and trampling the people of a town. However, the more people become educated on the issues, the less likely ugly deals like this one will sneak through."
At the time he spoke with The Current, Field had recently been informed by a fellow activist that certain pro-democratic initiatives surrounding the PGA issue should not go forward as planned: namely, Field, doing his bit to help push this issue to a popular vote, had been told that HEB was refusing to allow a PGA referendum petition to be circulated outside its stores.
An H-E-B spokeswoman said the grocery chain doesn't allow any solitications in front of its stores.
"They allow the Girl Scouts to sell their cookies in front of their store," Field observes, "so why not let a legal petition be circulated — one that may save San Antonio's water from being poisoned? You can put this down: I want to see Lumbermen's Investment go to hell — the way of Enron." ♦