There is an old tabloid newspaper saying that some stories are “too good to check.” This story could well fall into that category. The punchline is especially wonderful – so good that it could appear in an Aaron Sorkin West Wing script, if that fabled show had appeared on HBO rather than NBC.
But I checked it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, as Mark Twain would put it: It’s true, mainly.
Here’s the reason for the qualifier. On one side, I have to rely on a political consultant and a politician – two professions that require a certain amount of creativity in shaping a message.
On the other side is a union leader who, according to both former City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood, told them in a meeting that in order to further his union cause he “would have to lie.” As far as I know, fire union head Chris Steele has never denied making that statement.
So here is the story.
It was four years ago. After a hard-fought first round of San Antonio’s mayoral race in which former State Rep. Mike Villarreal and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson fell by the wayside, Mayor Ivy Taylor and long-time State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte faced each other in a runoff.
The fire union had not issued an endorsement in the first round, but Steele and several union members met with Van de Putte and her lead political consultant, Christian Archer, at Van de Putte’s campaign headquarters. The union’s labor contract had expired in 2014.
The union group came with a list of demands several pages long, and one of the union guys said it was similar to one that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had agreed to in order to get their 2014 endorsement. That endorsement raised some eyebrows in the labor movement, which historically leans strongly left.
Archer said one of Steele’s group announced his reservations about the Patrick endorsement – because Patrick was “too liberal for me.”
As the group sat down at the table and Van de Putte started the discussion, Archer reached for the demands list and began reading. The further he got, the more agitated he became.
“I remember his face being so red, I thought he was going to have a coronary,” Van de Putte said. “He just exploded.”
Archer remembers slamming the document down and interrupting Van de Putte by blurting out, “You can take this document and stick it up your ass!”
Van de Putte recalls that sometimes she would get agitated and Archer would calm her down, but this time was the reverse. She reached over, patted Archer’s arm and told him to relax. Then she picked up the document.
She said several demands, including one that she promise to promptly fire Sculley upon taking office, would violate a constitutional prohibition on making that kind of promise to get an endorsement.
According to Archer, she calmly put the document down and told the group that if she agreed, she would be breaking the law and that she would not be that kind of mayor.
He said she then tossed the document away, looked at Steele and said: “So stick it up your ass.”
Then she got up and walked out.
I told you it was a great punchline. And Van de Putte pretty much confirms it.
“It’s pretty accurate,” she said. “The language was colorful, but that’s ok.”
A former West Side pharmacist, she added with a laugh: “If I put on my pharmacist hat, I may have told them how to use a suppository.”
The firefighters left, but a day or two later they called to say they had decided to endorse her anyway. Van de Putte said she thinks it was because she had told them that in order to get them back to the bargaining table she would drop a lawsuit filed by the City regarding an “evergreen” provision that keeps the old contract in effect for 10 years.
The suit was a public relations blunder by the City, and Van de Putte believed the City was wasting a lot of money pursuing it to the state Supreme Court.
“I told Sheryl there was no way the all-Republican Supreme Court was going to side with the City,” she said. She was right. The Supreme Court declined to overturn decisions by two lower courts that sided with the union.
And the fire union’s endorsement didn’t work. Taylor won a tight runoff with slightly under 52 percent of the vote. The rest is history. Taylor was defeated two years later by Ron Nirenberg. The union spent more than $1 million to gather signatures and run a city charter amendment campaign that capped the city manager’s salary at about 75 percent of what Sculley was paid. It didn’t apply to Sculley, but she stepped down a few weeks later.
The union returned to the bargaining table but has decided to wait for further negotiations until the June 8 election to see if their former political consultant, Councilman Greg Brockhouse, wins his runoff with Nirenberg.
I reached out to union President Chris Steele to check his memory of the meeting with Van de Putte and Archer. He did not respond.
That’s okay. The story was almost too good to check anyway.