It was a stunning upset four years ago when John Courage eked out a victory in the runoff for the City Council seat in District 9, long regarded as one of the city’s most conservative. The longtime Democrat who previously ran quixotic campaigns for the U.S. Congress and state Senate had been endorsed by Our Revolution, a spinoff from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
His victory proved to be no fluke when he won again two years later with an outright majority of the vote, this time endorsed by his former opponent, the business-backed Marco Barros.
Now seeking his third term, Courage’s pitch that there’s no “liberal or conservative way of filling a pothole” will be tested once more. Although city elections are nonpartisan, challengers to his right see an opening.
Courage has raked in more campaign contributions than both of his opponents combined, but said he feels this race has been “more vigorous than it was my first or second time.”
Erika Moe, an attorney whose campaign was recently included in an event hosted by the Republican Party of Bexar County, said Courage’s policies are “not right for the district,” and has sought to cast him as in favor of defunding the police. (Courage has said he does not want to do so.) The first-time candidate has raised nearly $40,000 for her campaign, allowing her to stake a sizable claim in the war for front yard signs.
Moe has made support for law enforcement a key pitch in her campaign, along with supporting victims of human trafficking. She worked for years as the director of a local care center for trafficked children.
“City Council can help partner with, and promote, resources and services that these children need to be restored,” she said.
Patrick Von Dohlen, a social conservative mounting his third challenge to Courage, points to the increasing share of votes he’s won each election as indication that he’s gaining ground. At the same candidate meet-and-greet that Moe’s campaign attended, Von Dohlen invoked the battle of the Alamo during a speech and told voters that election day presented an opportunity to “push back against socialism and communism by voting for conservatives for office.”
Von Dohlen told the San Antonio Report that while some like Courage because he’s done “some good” on basic services, that function of a council member can be done by another candidate. He cast his campaign as a way to keep “national politics out of San Antonio” and criticized the council member for voting to approve a paid sick leave ordinance in 2019. Von Dohlen has also made clear his opposition to Proposition B, a ballot measure voters will decide on that would take away collective bargaining rights for San Antonio’s police union.
Courage, meanwhile, has declined to take a stance on the proposition and stated in a response to a San Antonio Report candidate questionnaire that “voters need to decide this issue without the political influence of council members.”
While Courage, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, said he feels confident in his support from leaders of neighborhood associations, who have praised him for his constituent services, he acknowledged that only goes so far in an election. “They’re not the only ones who vote.”
He also said that because of the pandemic, his campaign did not start asking volunteers to knock on doors until recently. Meanwhile, Von Dohlen and Moe both said they have block walked since they first filed in January. Moe said her campaign has worked seven days a week and has only taken Easter off.
At the heart of the election is a question of to what extent a City Council seat should be considered a voice for political values, and to what extent it is a mere conduit to the City that can keep the district’s garbage collected and its streets paved.
Joe Krier, a fiscal conservative who filled the seat for more than three years, said that while Courage is “substantially more liberal” than the district, he thinks most voters don’t make it a deciding factor.
“What most people care about in District 9 – and I think I know it pretty well – is basic services,” he said. “Are you keeping my property taxes from going up? Are you supporting a City budget that gives us police and firefighters, and streets and drainage?”
Von Dohlen and Moe, for their part, have also listed constituent services as a key issue for their campaigns.
Art Downey, the chairman of the District 9 Neighborhood Alliance, an umbrella for the district’s different neighborhood groups, said that the groups he hears from are largely pleased with Courage.
“He makes a strong effort to attend as many meetings as he can,” he said, or sends representatives when he cannot. “And he generally takes action that people like.”
While the alliance does not endorse candidates, Downey said that speaking personally, “someone I’d want in Washington is not necessarily something I’d want on the dais in City Hall.”
But some voters place a strong emphasis on political values in the city and far beyond.
Pilar de la Vega, the director of a bilingual school, said she’s voting for Moe because she’s concerned about the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border and worries that rising homelessness could spell an increase in crime.
“We want someone who will stand up for us,” she said, “who understands conservative values.”
The same is true for some Courage supporters.
Jimmy Casias, a retired veteran, said he’ll vote for Courage because he’s kept the local neighborhood association at Shady Oak informed on local construction projects, but he also supports the council member’s reelection because he’s worked with Mayor Ron Nirenberg to take on what Casias called the “Trump virus.”
Casias also said that he wrote to Von Dohlen’s campaign to ask if the candidate supported the recent Republican-led election bills in states like Georgia and Arizona, which he said are suppressing Black and Hispanic voters. He said he didn’t get a clear answer.
Election day is May 1. Early voting starts April 19. More dates are posted on the City’s website.