Lucha libre en el West Side

With high rates of poverty and unemployment and low rates of voter participation, District 5’s 2009 contest would seem to be a wide-open race. Less than 13 percent of registered voters in the Westside district went to the polls in 2007, when a mere 3,164 votes were cast. Lourdes Galvan finished first with just 1,434 votes, and then won the runoff against David Medina.

Galvan, 62, a lifelong resident of the district, will face five challengers, but only three of them appear to be formidable contenders — 2007 runner-up Medina, former Zoning Commissioner Eiginio Rodriguez, and newcomer John Carlos Garcia. Military retiree Raymond Zavala ran in 2007, but won only 62 votes, while Lorena Saldierna’s application form lists an erroneous contact number.

While many parts of the district appear to exemplify the official demographics, a beacon of resurgence shines on Guadalupe Street, where several historic storefronts have been redeveloped. Guadalupe Street Coffee, a community-development project operated by the community ministries program of Baptist Child & Family Services, has become a neighborhood hub with artful décor, computers offering free internet access, comfy chairs, and a Mocha Latina made with Mexican chocolate that beats Starbucks all to hell. It hosts art openings, poetry readings, occasional live music, student study groups, and monthly meet-and-greets with Galvan, who, a barista says, stops in often, what with her office being just up the street.

A recent national poll indicated that Barack Obama edged out Jesus as “America’s top hero,” but the latter still appears to be plenty popular on the West Side. The latest issue of community newspaper Westside Sol features ads for no fewer than 39 churches. Up the street from the coffee shop is Linda’s Mexican Restaurant, which makes a flavorful carne asada and a fresh glass of horchata upon request. Across the way is the 29-year-old Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, home to CineFestival and the Tejano Conjunto Festival.

The Avenida Guadalupe Association was recently awarded $610,000 from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services to promote further economic development in the area. Still, former District 5 councilperson Patti Radle says from experience that making things happen in the district is an uphill battle.

“It is a challenge to get the enthusiasm and sense of hope going that anyone will make a difference,” said Radle of low voter turnout. She says education is a key issue, citing a Westside Development Corporation 2008 Market Analysis study that found just 2.3 percent of Westside residents older than 25 are college graduates, compared to 23 percent citywide (according to a 2006 U.S. Census survey). The same study also indicates that 58 percent of district residents lack a high-school diploma and 35 percent have earned less than a ninth-grade education. The WDC analysis also reports a 2007 per-capita income of just $9,925 and a median household income of $25,160, with 32.8 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

Galvan says she wants to develop a new Tax Increment Revitalization Zone that offers tax incentives to businesses that invest in the inner-city district, in order to help reduce unemployment. She cites an 11.2-percent unemployment figure for District 5, roughly twice that of the city’s overall number. She has also proposed a public-safety-themed magnet high school for the district.

“This academy will provide our children who desire to join the fire, police, or EM training the lead advantage when applying for these departments. At the same time, it will provide our city the opportunity to grow our own local candidates,” said Galvan in an email. She said she has dedicated $2 million dollars to infrastructure projects from the $2.5-million allocated to the district from the surplus bond funds discovered by the City Manager’s office last year.

“I have introduced a different approach to addressing community infrastructure, instead of fixing one street here and one street there,” said Galvan. “We must make a positive impact with time lines so that constituents know when their entire neighborhood streets will be completely repaired and our citizens will not have to walk on the street because there is no sidewalk.”

Radle says a lot of money has been invested in district infrastructure over the last decade, but that there’s still a long way to go.

“$77 million was brought in when I was in office, but in a district that is billions behind, you don’t feel it,” said Radle. “I am looking for somebody who will support the Westside Development Corporation, Haven for Hope, job opportunities and job training … Someone who will engage with the school district on education.”

While acknowledging that a majority of school funding issues fall to the school district, Radle says that there are items outside of the school-district jurisdiction that city council members can engage, such as supporting GED and job-training programs for dropouts, as well as daycare centers.

“We have a high teen-pregnancy rate ... we need to keep `those girls` in school,” said Radle. San Antonio Metro Health stats from 2005 indicated that Bexar County’s school-age birth rate for young woman age 15-17 was 39 per thousand, 82 percent higher than the national rate of 21.4 per thousand.

Radle also expressed support for using school facilities such as libraries in the evenings for community-outreach programs, as well as maintaining funding for the city’s Education Partnership, which offers local college scholarships to San Antonio Independent School District high-school grads with B averages and 95-percent attendance rates.

The WDC’s Ray Flores cited unemployment, high-school dropout rates, low per-capita income and chronic health problems as key issues on the West Side.

“All of these factors limit employment opportunities and economic growth,” said Flores.

Ricardo Briones, board president for Westside institution San Anto Cultural Arts, which has blanketed area neighborhoods with murals in an effort to mobilize artistically inclined youth, agrees that unemployment and education are the major issues facing the district.

“Are schools being funded enough to make an impact on these children’s lives?” asks Briones. He also cited access to higher education. “How many of these kids can afford to go?”

A hot-button topic on the education front has been the potential closing of Burbank High School. SAISD officials have said that if they don’t consolidate some campuses, the district will go bankrupt by 2012.

“It’s a shock to me that that’s going on,” said John Carlos Garcia, a 30-year-old insurance agent and potential wildcard making his first foray into politics. Garcia says there are other schools in the district with lower enrollment that aren’t performing as well. He also voiced his support for Project Quest, a local job-training program that has struggled to find consistent financial backing at City Council. “They do good work, and I plan on supporting that.”

Garcia says increased job training is key to battling crime. At a town-hall meeting in February, residents expressed support for tougher penalties against drug sales, prostitution, and graffiti.

“Not all crime is economically based, but I think a lot of it is. If we produce more jobs … crime will go down,” said Garcia. He expressed concern about job training that provides a single technical skill that could become obsolete in a few years. “We need to `teach people to` learn how to learn.”

Twenty-three-year-old project manager and licensed contractor David Medina pulled in more than 700 votes as the District 5 runner-up in 2007, though he still finished about 23 points behind Galvan. Medina believes his experience as an intern in former Mayor Ed Garza’s office, as an assistant in Radle’s office, and as a former president of the Palm Heights Neighborhood Association would allow him to hit the ground running.

“When I was 21, I saw that I was becoming very familiar with a lot of the issues in District 5… and that’s why I decided to run, because I love my community,” said Medina. “I have a vision for District 5. That vision begins with improving the infrastructure — fixing the sidewalks, the curbs, the drainage problems. Also, I plan on reducing the crime rate in a collective effort.”

Former zoning commissioner and retired San Antonio fireman Eiginio Rodriguez, 44, says that socioeconomic discrimination is a key factor in District 5’s ills.

“We need to make sure that the impacted communities have a voice; that’s a major issue,” said Rodriguez. “Putting the ‘u’ back in community, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Rodriguez cites real-estate tax exemptions as a critical economic-development issue.

“Everything we bring into our area all deals with tax-exempt properties… `new homeless-services campus` Haven for Hope is an example where we created a new tax- exempt area,” said Rodriguez of the controversial shelter. “How many tax-exempt areas can we handle in the community?”

Rodriguez and Garcia were both in attendance at a February 12 town-hall meeting hosted by Galvan, where residents expressed concern over health problems that began cropping up last Fall when the San Antonio Housing Authority excavated toxin-containing coal ash at the old Swift site. `See “Dust Mights,” January 21`.

“Since federal funding is to be used `in part`, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get the EPA involved?” said Rodriguez of lingering doubts about the manner in which the project received environmental clearance. Rodriguez noted that EPA oversight catalyzed by community pressure led to the cleanup of asbestos contamination at District 5’s Big Tex site.

“I don’t think they did a real good job of comforting the community,” said Garcia of the town-hall meeting. He said he felt reps from TCEQ, SAHA, and their development partners focused too much on arguing that toxins were below regulatory protection levels rather than assuring residents the area is safe. “There was not a clear statement on whether it’s safe or not.”

Galvan, whose office has declined to intervene in the development on the neighorhood’s behalf, remains noncommital on the issue.

“I asked SAHA officials to engage the residents with health examinations as requested,” said Galvan, although residents have resisted those tests because SAHA would require them to relinquish their doctor-patient privilege. “I believe that we must continue to monitor and make every effort to reach out to the community concerning their health.”

Critics question Galvan’s attention to detail. She was one of nine city councilpersons who signed off on City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s new contract and its potential $600,000 golden parachute without reading the amended version or even requesting to see it. (Justin Rodriguez was the only councilperson who did, according to the Express-News. Mayor Hardberger told the daily he briefed all councilmembers.)

But some district residents say they’re impressed that Galvan is often out and about in the Avenida Guadalupe area. Forty-three-year-old Johnny Medina, recently laid off from his job, likes that she meets with the public at
Guadalupe Coffee. Thirty-four-year-old electrician’s assistant Richard said he sees her in the neighborhood often and thinks she’s doing a good job, though he didn’t care for the closing of Cooper Middle School last year.

Sixty-three-year-old USAF retiree Roberto Quijano doesn’t live in the district, but comes to Guadalupe Coffee to enjoy the atmosphere and free wi-fi. He used to work for Galvan when she was the first female president of the American Federation of Government Employees at Kelly Air Force Base. Quijano says the union under Galvan’s leadership was “very aggressive.”

But 29-year-old artist Dayna DeHoyos is unconvinced. DeHoyos obtained a meeting with Galvan and SAHA about the coal-ash dust problem near her home and said she was put off by how chummy Galvan was with the SAHA reps at the beginning of the meeting. “So I knew it was a losing situation the moment I walked in,” said DeHoyos. •

The local chapter of the League of Women Voters plans to hold candidate debates for each district council race. Watch QueBlog for dates and times.