Fire Starter: Union Chief Chris Steele is the Latest Political Outsider Looking to Harness San Antonio Voters’ Resentment

click to enlarge Fire Starter: Union Chief Chris Steele is the Latest Political Outsider Looking to Harness San Antonio Voters’ Resentment
Illustration by Gilbert Martinez // Art direction by Carlos Aguilar
WTF, Chris Steele?

First, there was the fake firefighter’s uniform, then the last-minute debate cancellation and last week’s chaotic news conference where he tried to abdicate his position as chief spokesman for the union’s three proposed city charter amendments.

At this point, it might be hard to tell whether the president of San Antonio’s fire union and the public face of its San Antonio First campaign is a maverick rewriting the political rulebook or a gadfly taking a personal grudge over stalled contract talks to a bloody knuckle extreme.

But drawing that distinction may miss the point, political experts say.

Steele, who declined to be interviewed by the Current, is only the latest in a line of brash iconoclasts to leverage resentment for San Antonio’s political elites into a power play. Like C.A. Stubbs, the string tie-wearing crank who tried to force city spending limits in the ‘80s, or Kay Turner, the conspiracy theorist who led the anti-fluoridation fight, Steele is vying to channel residents’ sense of neglect into ballot victory.

“Voters aren’t going to look at this referendum being about the amendments. They’re going to look at this being about the direction of the city,” said Arturo Vega, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University. “Often, it takes someone from outside the political mainstream to force those kinds of conversations.”

To be sure, the amendments Steele and his union are putting before voters November 6 will give citizens a chance to determine just where San Antonio is headed.

The first measure would make it easier for citizens to force a public vote on a wide array of spending decisions. The other two would push the union’s negotiations into binding arbitration and limit future city managers’ salaries and tenure.

Depending on who you believe, the amendments will usher in a new era of participatory democracy or send the city reeling backwards. As in the city’s previous public referenda, both sides have engaged in their share of wild hyperbole, political observers note.

From the beginning, the anti-amendment campaign has painted Steele as a political opportunist who’s using the ballot measures to serve Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley a shit sandwich while sneaking through what he’s really after — arbitration on a new contract.

That charge seemed to gain credence last week when the opposing Go Vote No campaign supplied the media with a 49-second audio recording of Steele telling firefighters that the campaign’s primary goal was to win a new contract. A secondary perk, he added, was that “we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be (Councilman) Greg Brockhouse in the mayor’s office.”

And that wasn’t the only time in the campaign where Steele gave the public reason to doubt his authenticity.

Fire Chief Charles Hood reprimanded the union official for presiding over a September press conference while wearing a fake uniform nearly identical to its real San Antonio Fire Department counterpart. City rules prohibit firefighters from wearing their uniforms while engaging in political activities.

“It is clear that (Steele) went to great lengths to mislead the public by creating and wearing a fake uniform virtually indiscernible from the department’s standard issue uniforms during a political endorsement,” Hood wrote in a prepared statement.

Maverick Tradition

So far, support for Steele’s San Antonio First campaign doesn’t seem to break down along the tidy class, racial and ethnic lines that mark so much of San Antonio’s politics. Hell, they’re not even breaking along the partisan divide that seems to define so much of the today’s political climate.

Along with support from the political fringes, the San Antonio First campaign has pulled an endorsement from the Bexar County Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Go Vote No has reeled in the city’s chambers of commerce, other Democratic groups and the ultra-progressive Texas Organizing Project.

But it’s not unusual for such ballot fights to build strange alliances.

During the 1990s, a coalition that spanned both far-left and far-right united to take down two separate plans to use the Applewhite Reservoir to supplement San Antonio’s water supply. The aforementioned Turner, who gained her political clout in those fights, relied on that alliance when she went on to win 47 percent of the vote when she ran for mayor against establishment candidate Bill Thornton.

Maverick outsiders — from Turner to Steele — count on voter dissatisfaction to fuel their fights, experts said. And there may be plenty of that to go around right now. S.A. residents are watching their property taxes rise, questioning how spending gets divided among neighborhoods and fretting about the city’s apparently unstoppable outward sprawl.

Also stoking voter anger is Sculley, whom the union trolled with its amendment to limit future managers’ salary and tenure. It was Sculley, after all, who led the protracted court challenge to the “evergreen clause” in the firefighters’ contract.
click to enlarge Fire Starter: Union Chief Chris Steele is the Latest Political Outsider Looking to Harness San Antonio Voters’ Resentment
Sanford Nowlin
But even those blissfully ignorant of the fire union’s contract stalemate have found reason to rage at the current city manager. In addition to her $475,000-a-year salary — justified, the city maintains, because of its “strong city manager” structure — Sculley hasn’t been afraid to wield power, often in controversial ways.

Among those was her recent decision to overrule the Historic and Design Review Commission and let developer Mitch Meyer build apartments next to the East Side’s historic Hays Street Bridge.

“Look at the Hays Street Bridge — did the city listen to what people wanted?” asked Reinette King, an anti-streetcar activist who serves as a Steele surrogate in the San Antonio First campaign. “What about the Alamo? What about Highway 90? People are tired of not being listened to.”

Of course, those are questions even people outside of the San Antonio First camp are asking. And on their face, none of campaign’s three amendments read as outrageous — after all, who wouldn’t want to rein in runaway salaries or make it easier for citizens to voice their grievances?

That’s why state Rep. Diego Bernal, a former city councilman who’s thrown his support to Go Vote No, worries the campaign hasn’t been aggressive enough in taking its message to neighborhoods long neglected by the city establishment.

“When I talk to people I ask them, ‘Is the harm that will befall your neighborhood and your neighbors worth the momentary satisfaction of sending a message to city hall?’” said Bernal, a Democrat. “The referenda are pain points. They were bargaining chips the union threw at the city during contract negotiations, hoping they’d balk.”

Others with the Go Vote No campaign admit it’s hard to convince voters that city hall’s actions aren’t self-serving, especially when they’re being questioned by a group that usually gives the public warm fuzzies: firefighters.

“If the election were held today, we’d lose,” said Christian Archer, the veteran political consultant helming the anti-amendment campaign. “If voters aren’t informed about these positions, they’ll vote for them.”

Finding His Footing

The charter fight has served as most voters’ introduction to Steele, but the union chief isn’t new to power brokering — although he’s had varying levels of success.

Under his leadership, the union endorsed former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s unsuccessful 2015 mayoral campaign. Two years later, it backed Manuel Medina’s Trump-inspired populist campaign for the seat, which eked out just 15 percent of the vote.

But it was the 2014 fight over the downtown streetcar project where Steele had his best political showing. The fire union became a key player in the petition drive that ultimately shut down the expensive city and county effort.

Brockhouse, who consulted with the union on that drive, maintains Steele isn’t a loose cannon but a leader who’s stayed in his position for the past decade by understanding what his constituents are after.

“You don’t survive in that role unless you have the pulse of your membership,” said Brockhouse, who has yet to announce a mayoral run despite Steele’s apparent pledge of support. “Nothing happens in that fire union without a vote. As much as the mayor would like you to believe it, this isn’t just Chris Steele throwing stuff out there.”

Indeed, labor attorney and Democratic operative David Van Os, another of the recently named San Antonio First surrogates, said he was drawn to the campaign by Steele’s willingness to forge broad support for the cause.

“He talked about how he was building a trans-partisan coalition, which is something I wanted to hear,” Van Os said. “I think tribal partisanship is wrecking our country.”

Populist Stripe

Even beyond Steele’s murky motives, political observers say the union leader could be his own worst enemy.

As with previous anti-city hall crusaders, Steele has adopted a fiery populism. And like failed mayoral candidate Medina, it seems to borrow liberally from the Trump playbook. The union leader’s radio appearances and press conferences have brimmed with scorched-earth rhetoric, and the campaign’s name doesn’t exactly fall far from the Trump tree.
That might sit well with some voters, but it’s a likely turnoff for others — especially with the president’s approval rating underwater and resentment building among women voters.
“There’s an effort to paint this campaign in a populist stripe,” said David Crockett, a political science professor at Trinity University. “We certainly see that going on in national politics right now, but we’ll have to see whether it translates at the local level.”
click to enlarge Fire Starter: Union Chief Chris Steele is the Latest Political Outsider Looking to Harness San Antonio Voters’ Resentment
Sanford Nowlin
Also potentially damaging are a felony criminal charge and a civil suit the state of Texas brought against Steele during the 1990s — a time when he was employed as a San Antonio firefighter.

The 1994 grand jury indictment for tampering with a Texas ID was ultimately dropped. However, in 1993, Steele settled a civil suit by the Texas Attorney General’s Office by signing an agreement to stop selling “deceptive multi-level marketing materials” and offering financial plans that didn’t perform as advertised. The suit stemmed from a business Steele operated called Financial Independence Consultants.

The fire union’s own political affiliations are also providing weaponry to the Go Vote No camp.

While the union has largely endorsed Democratic officials at the national level, its state endorsements include arch-conservatives like Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney Ken Paxton.

The union also appeared to slide further right by hiring Austin’s Catch Digital Strategy to launch its website for the charter campaign. Catch’s clients are almost exclusively Republican politicos, including Arkansas’s Bible-thumping Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“Why would anybody on the West Side — any of the people whose doors we’re knocking on — support (the fire union’s) amendments when they’re endorsing those three people who have made our lives a living Hell?” Democratic activist Verna Blackwell asks, rhetorically.

A Familiar Ring

Of course, similar contradictions didn’t slow down Steele’s populist predecessors.

During the second Applewhite referendum, Turner couched opposition to the water plan in terms of class warfare, warning the city planned to pump substandard reservoir water into poor neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the ex-wife of convenience store magnate Tom Turner counted staunch fiscal libertarians and anti-tax advocates in her inner circle.

Like Steele, both Turner and Stubbs weren’t afraid to get personal in their attacks on mainstream politicians. Stubbs was fond of calling out city leaders for employing the “vulgar arrogance of power,” for example. The response from city leaders was equally pitched.

“Anyone who is for the future, as opposed to San Antonio being rolled back to mediocrity and decline, will be with me and with the city against the spending cap,” Cisneros told the New York Times during his 1987 tangle with Stubbs.

Has a familiar ring, no?

In those past fights, success or failure often came down to voters’ confidence in city leadership. Cisneros, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, drew a national spotlight to the city and helped launch a period of aspirational growth. Little doubt, those served him well as he put down Stubbs’ ballot insurrection.

And when Hardberger rallied support to relax the city’s restrictive term limits in 2008, he’d already amassed plenty of policy wins. Among them, he’d extended the River Walk, managed the influx of thousands of New Orleans hurricane evacuees and minted public-private partnerships to fund the Tobin Center and Haven for Hope.

For all of Nirenberg’s talk of managing S.A.’s growth, he’s only been in office a year and hasn’t had much to show for those efforts. Sure, he’s assembled some blue-ribbon panels to address pressing issues like transportation and jobs, but without policy victories, experts said he’ll need to rely heavily on voters’ good faith.

Wild Cards

Potentially working in Nirenberg’s favor, San Antonio has changed substantially since Stubbs and Turner made their names flipping off city hall.

Talk radio and the city’s bevvy of fiscally conservative retirees helped create a perfect storm for those earlier populist efforts, and to be sure, neither of those things has gone away. But what’s new is an influx of professionals, many from places where there’s not such a stubborn resistance to funding local government projects.

Even so, political observers aren’t betting demographics alone will be enough to override a longstanding distrust of city hall.
click to enlarge Fire Starter: Union Chief Chris Steele is the Latest Political Outsider Looking to Harness San Antonio Voters’ Resentment
Sanford Nowlin
Plus, another factor makes predictions tough — the vote’s timing.

Typically, ballot initiatives are decided in May, in conjunction with mayoral elections. Those draw a meager 10 percent of so of the city’s population, often people with a strong take on local issues.

This go-round, the referenda are paired with a national election expected to draw three times that many voters. And even that prediction may be conservative given the enthusiasm Democrats, and now maybe Republicans, are showing about the midterms.

That leaves academics scratching their heads. Are folks drawn by national issues likely to give the amendments the benefit of the doubt after reading them for the first time on the ballot? Or, after voting for Beto or Ted, will they ignore the local stuff at the bottom?
To be sure, wild cards abound.

“This is a very heated time,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It will bring out a very different electorate than we’re used to seeing in city elections, and that makes it highly unpredictable.”

Make or Break

While ballot success would elevate Steele into a power player, the opposite could also prove true, political watchers argue. If the union suffers an embarrassing and costly failure, its membership may be unwilling to continue writing a blank check.

After all, firefighters haven’t had a raise in four years, which effects not only their take-home pay but their pensions. And under Steele’s guidance, the union has turned down invites under three different mayors to get back to the bargaining table.

With only 40 percent of San Antonio’s firefighters living in the city, according to municipal records, it remains to be seen how many are eager to keep playing in city politics.

To boot, Steele has spent more than a half-million dollars in member dues to hire the Buda-based company that collected signatures to put the amendments on the ballot.

“This is about Steele trying to remain in power,” Go Vote No’s Archer said. “He’s put it all on the line.”

Steele’s new effort to shrink from the spotlight may have come too late. He’s already positioned himself as the figurehead for the campaign, something experts say it will be hard to undo.

“If this is really about the union, being way out front of the union might hurt or might help,” St. Mary’s Vega said. “Although in this case, I think it might hurt more than it helps.”

Still, when ballots are counted on November 6, the tally won’t reflect the popularity of Chris Steele any more than earlier ballot fights were about whether voters wanted to be BFFs with Stubbs or Turner. Make no mistake, political experts say, this is about Nirenberg, Sculley and city council.

In the end, the amendments’ fate will come down to how many voters are tempted to hurl a brick through city hall’s front window and risk the rain of falling glass.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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