(from left) Richard Reza Versace, Councilman John Courage, and Patrick Von Dohlen all seek the District 9 council seat in the upcoming May elections.
(from left) Richard Reza Versace, Councilman John Courage, and Patrick Von Dohlen all seek the District 9 council seat in the upcoming May elections. Credit: Courtesy / Candidates

In seeking re-election to a second City Council term, John Courage has pledged to operate the same way he has for the last two years: listening to his District 9 constituents and explaining his choices to those who want to know why he voted a certain way.

“I have felt really good about accepting the responsibility of representing the people of my community and acting on their behalf at City Hall,” Courage said. “I told people from the day I started running that I’m just their neighbor on City Council. I just want to be their advocate.”

Considered a surprising choice when he won a 2017 runoff to fill Joe Krier’s seat in the traditionally conservative Northside district, Courage has proved difficult to pigeonhole on City Council. He faces two challengers in his re-election bid, financial planning professional Patrick Von Dohlen and personal trainer Richard Reza Versace.

“I believe this is this the most critical election we’ve ever faced,” Von Dohlen said. “With the current council and some immediate past councils that have been more progressively agenda driven and straying away from the core purposes of city government.”

Courage, whose liberal leanings had driven him to mount previous campaigns against former U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith and State Sen. Donna Campbell, has departed from the majority vote on Council several times in the last two years. Courage, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) all voted against increasing water rates in San Antonio in 2017. Courage also joined Brockhouse in voting against an ordinance that would have regulated short-term rentals last November, though Courage said he was concerned with pop-up “hotel districts” while Brockhouse cited property rights as the reason for his vote. Courage and Perry also voted against the Alamo Master Plan last October.

Courage, 67, said he’s been proud of his time as a city representative and his level of communication with district residents. He points to District 9 residents’ civic engagement through the “participatory budgeting” process that he implemented. In 2018, Courage asked constituents for recommendations on how to use $1.25 million of the district’s budget.

“We received over 40 suggestions,” Courage said. “We had a committee of people in the neighborhood who whittled them down to something feasible, and we put that out to a vote in the community. We had over 1,400 people vote and identify the priorities for those projects. Then I submitted that to the city and said, ‘This is what people want to spend money on those projects.’ And we’re doing this again this year.”

He said being on City Council has transformed his perception of what the job meant and is thankful for city staff, crediting them for much of the research that informs the votes of council members.

“Before I got on council, I was like most citizens in the community,” he said. “You think you understand city government based on what you hear, discuss with neighbors, see in the paper, or discuss on TV. But I’ve learned that this city has developed the most professional staff to help run the city that I think I could possibly have.”

Courage said his primary concern is public safety, and that many have complained to him about mailbox theft; he campaigned on the same issue in 2017. Instances of mail theft decreased from 2017 to 2018, according to the San Antonio Police Department, but Courage said his office continues to work with the postal inspector’s office and police department on the problem.

“Although we may not experience some of the major crimes that we hear about in some parts of the city, a crime against anybody’s home is a serious consideration for them and I’ve been working very diligently with people in the community,” he said.

Courage said he also wants to work on connecting streets more effectively for more efficient travel in the district. Constituents also frequently raise the issue of traffic congestion with him, he said.

“Those are serious aggravations in people’s lives that we can do more about as a city,” he said.

Courage has also championed transparency, pushing for donors to disclose where they work if they give more than $100 in to a campaign in an election cycle as well as requiring two forms of proof of a candidate’s residency in a City Council or mayoral election.

Von Dohlen, 49, is Courage’s most serious challenger. He trailed Courage by fewer than 500 votes in the first round of voting during the 2017 municipal election and did not make the runoff.

Von Dohlen, a partner at the Von Dohlen Knuffke Financial Group, calls for faith-based organizations to help with reaching those in need leaving such issues as gun control and immigration to state and national legislators. 

Von Dohlen said he wants to address traffic congestion, public safety, and infrastructure problems in District 9. But he also condemned City Council’s vote to drop Chick-fil-A from an airport concessions contract and not bidding to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, citing the potential economic impact of those decisions. (Courage voted to keep Chick-fil-A in the airport concessions contract.)

“It seems the City of San Antonio or the council has decided to hang a shingle out and say, ‘We’re not open for business,’” Von Dohlen said. “I want to turn that around and say, ‘We are open for business.’ If you are a legitimate business in the United States, you should have the ability to come and utilize our business center and frequent our concessions. That’s good for our economy.”

Von Dohlen also said that Courage’s votes to support the Paris Climate Accord and to allow a crosswalk to be painted as anything other than the standard design of black and white stripes “promotes socialistic ideals.” A crosswalk on North Main Avenue and East Evergreen Street in San Antonio’s LGBTQIA district was painted with rainbow colors last summer with funds raised from private sources augmenting city funds.

“We have diverged from … a standardized crosswalk, to allow something different, that promotes an idea, not public safety standards,” Von Dohlen said.

On his campaign website, Von Dohlen describes himself as a co-founding board member of the San Antonio Family Association, a socially conservative and anti-abortion group, as well as a recipient of an award from Empower Texans, a conservative statewide nonprofit whose political action committee funnels millions into races across the state.

Von Dohlen reported $5,632 in contributions in the last filing period and no expenditures in 2019; he reported spending $625 in 2018. Courage raised $17,375 in the last filing period and spent $13,843. 

Versace reported raising $150 and spending $821.

Versace, 63, said he has always wanted to help his district, his city, and then the universe. Versace listed childhood obesity, free speech, and immigration as some of his top priorities; he prefers to see “the big picture” and emphasizes the importance of nutrition. He said he would like to reach constituents using technology.

I want to create webinars and podcasts and I’ll bring in specialists and masters on a volunteer basis where it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money,” he said. “Then I’ll have my phone on me and our phone number will be available to my district and to all of San Antonio.”

Nicholas Balderas, a 24-year-old software engineer, dropped out of the race on April 8. He cited fundraising as the main reason he is no longer running for office. He endorsed Courage, whom he called a “strong and well-liked incumbent.”

“I’m sure you’ll realize, like me, that if you want someone on City Council who will respect all citizens of District 9, who will be transparent on how they vote, why they vote one way or another, and by word and deed has committed to serving District 9 as a full-time city councilman, then our sitting councilman is that choice,” Balderas said in a video posted on his campaign Twitter page. “I give my full endorsement to his re-election.”

Early voting starts April 22. Election day is May 4.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.