High up on the sixth floor of the Catholic Life Insurance Building, an apocalyptic mist drapes over the city's northeast side like a shimmering, silver cloak. Directly across from me, former City Council member (D-10) Carlton Soules takes a sip of his hot coffee from behind a hefty, wooden desk. Soules, now 47, recently resigned from his position on the dais in an intrepid move to challenge Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in the upcoming election. Wolff, a longtime political somebody who's held the office since 2001, has been actively involved in Texas politics since 1971 making his dynastic surname a familiar one among voters. With that said, the question on everyone's mind - outside of District 10 - may very well be - Who is Carlton Soules?
It could be a question from Soules’ current book, one of the thousands he says he has at his house.
“I read an enormous amount,” he says. The office walls behind him are smooth and utterly bare. On the floor, leaning against the wall are rows of framed pictures, certificates and perhaps diplomas. “I read like other people watch TV. I'm reading right now...Atlas Shrugged. It's like reading War and Peace.”
That is a long book. I know because I'm currently reading it myself.
“Really?” His response is uncharacteristically enthusiastic. “No way!”
Soules' political beginnings include serving on neighborhood association boards and supporting past D-10 council members, so the realities of serving on council himself when he was elected in 2011 were “not a complete surprise.”
“I don't think I was quite prepared for the intensity level of it,” he admits.
“It's an interesting job because you can make it as much work as you want to. Some people in the past have spent 10 to 20 hours a week on it. [But] you could go 70 hours a week and never get everything done.”
In fact, Soules still jokes with his predecessor John Clamp that he's just now getting through the list that he'd left him to do. “I'm sure my replacement will say the same thing,” he says.
He admits he'll miss his time on city council then touches on the growing support for D-10 replacement hopeful Mike Gallagher who resigned as president of the Northeast Neighborhood Alliance on Friday according to an NNA press release. “He's a fascinating guy,” Soules says of the 67-year old retired Air Force colonel. “I think in public service ... there comes a time when you've done your service and then it's time to let somebody else do it. He looks like he's going to emerge.”
Soules had the option to run for two more terms thanks to former City Council member (D-1) Mary Alice Cisneros' gift of term limit extensions. “I think what it came down to [was] 'where could I be most effective?'” he replies addressing the reason for his departure. Like long-time Bexar County Commissioner (Precinct 4) Tommy Adkisson, who will face the music in the Democratic primary, Soules, too, set his sights on the county judge's post.
Soules feels the city is not prepared for its inevitable population growth and feels that Wolff has “gotten caught up” in what Soules deems “wasteful legacy projects.” He offers the streetcar initiative as his leading example.
“After you build it, you have to operate it. Money doesn't grow on trees. The federal government is cutting back,” he says pulling towards his chest with a cupped hand in a seemingly subconscious illustration. “We have to make sure that we are prioritizing our spending.”
He says the council did not necessarily “criticize” his suggestions.
“They were like 'great idea ... but anyway.' It was a mindset of, 'We're going to have rail in San Antonio. Period.'”
He shakes his head.
“Obviously, I've had some pretty contentious fights ... but I don't take them personally.”
“It seems some people do,” I suggest.
“I don't understand that,” he replies with a casual squint. “If you understand rejection a lot, you don't get upset by it. You just do the best you can and you push forward.”
That right there is his 20-year-plus business background talking. Like former Councilman (D-8) Reed Williams and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Soules navigates within the oft-dispassionate language of business. “The other thing that disturbs me is that Bexar County now ranks number one in debt per capita of the big urban counties,” he says. “Eventually, that has to be paid back. You have limited resources. How can you do the most good for the most people with the resources you have?”
“Are you cool with this reputation you have as Mr. Fiscal Responsibility?” I ask.
“Well, that doesn't sound very exciting,” he chuckles. “But, yes.”
When asked about his opponents Soules has a swift, salty answer.
“Well, let's lump Tommy and Nelson together because their voting record is almost identical,” says the fiscal conservative. “So although Tommy is saying similar things that I'm saying ... [that] we need to get less focused on big legacy projects ... he voted for them. The time to object is when the vote occurs not later on.”
Soules continues, “I'm not really interested in having things named after me… That holds no allure to me whatsoever. It's not about glory. It's not about power. It's about doing something well. If there comes a time when I feel I'm done and that I've done well, I'll go do something else.”
Soules' assertion that he doesn't aspire to be a career politician may partially help explain why he was able to dance to beat of his own conservative drum on the council dais.
He suddenly clasps his hands together and searches for something in his mind. After a moment he recites, “The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men,” a paraphrased quote from French statesman Charles de Gaulle.
“So, you do your part while you are here and then you hope that you've helped bring up other people who are ready to take the reins after you,” he explains. “I'm a big believer in trying to elevate others because you can't get anything done by yourself.”
“And it's very important to be involved in your community,” he adds. Although local voter apathy is rampant, Soules seems sanguine. “I don't want to imagine a world where we don't have people who believe in public service. If everyone checks out...[who's] left?”
As our interview winds down, I return to the rows of beautiful framed memories that are all packed up and ready to leave this field office that's been his political home for the past three years.
Then Soules, out of the blue, asks if I see any nail holes in the walls.
I look up and around.
Negative. The walls seem completely smooth.
“That stuffs been sitting there since I got here,” he says casually.
“Yeah, my wife is really upset about it. She got them all framed and then I never put them up,” he continues.
He explains that he has boxes of plaques and awards that “no one will ever care about. I mean they meant something in the moment. He shrugs. They just end up in the dumpster.”
Then he gets out of his chair and hands me one of four small items that are displayed on his bookshelf. It's a mug that reads, Honey Badger: Vicious and Misunderstood.
“That's what Reed [Williams] used to call me,” he says with a nostalgic grin.
Well, maybe some things are worth keeping.