When Councilman John Courage joined most of his council colleagues in raising his fist in solidarity with a Black Lives Matter group gathered at City Council meeting last year, some in his district were incensed.
It was “one of the biggest things that threw me over the top,” said District 9 resident Mimi Planas, a Miami transplant and daughter of Cuban immigrants who is block-walking and making phone calls in support of Courage’s runoff challenger, Patrick Von Dohlen.
In a district that has traditionally leaned conservative, Von Dohlen doesn’t want voters like Planas to forget the moment last June when local activists asked council members to kneel or raise a fist to show solidarity with the Black community’s efforts to reform policing. A recent campaign mailer purporting to show contrasts between the two candidates prominently denotes Courage “raised fist for Marxist Black Lives Matter.”
A significant question, however, is whether Von Dohlen’s history as a firebrand right-wing social activist will be a liability or a strength in the June 5 race against a two-term incumbent.
“We’re a municipality based on a solid Judeo-Christian heritage,” Von Dohlen told a small crowd of supporters gathered at a restaurant last week for a fundraising event. “And we have the city government and leaders doing everything they can to remove God from government.”
His speech went on to assert marriage between men and women as the “bedrock of society,” that Black Lives Matter is an “anarchist, anti-American organization,” and that illegal immigration poses a threat to law and order.
At the more local level, he criticized decisions by the City Council in recent years to, among other things, remove a Christopher Columbus statue downtown, fund a pilot program connecting renters to legal help when facing eviction, and City and County orders in the early weeks of the pandemic to temporarily prohibit in-person religious services.
Von Dohlen has tried to paint Courage as a Marxist, and recently claimed without evidence that Courage sought support from Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke. At the May 20 fundraising event, Von Dohlen referenced those claims as “rumors” that the two Democratic figures would be visiting San Antonio.
Courage denied the claim. “I do not serve as a partisan,” Courage said in a prepared statement. “The only endorsements I care about are the ones given by the voters of District 9, whom I have served faithfully and enthusiastically for these past four years.”
Courage, a retired Catholic school teacher and Air Force veteran, had previously run for state and federal office as a Democrat. During his first run for City Council in 2017, he was endorsed by Our Revolution, a spinoff from the Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Courage has largely run on a platform of constituent services. He’s also highlighted his authorship of the City’s first homestead tax exemption, his authorship of an ordinance requesting quiet hours for construction sites adjacent to homes, and his support for a funding program passed last year meant to continue protection for the Edwards Aquifer, the city’s primary source of drinking water.
Marco Barros, who lost to Courage in a runoff in 2017, wrote in an email that he was endorsing Courage for a second time. “He has done exactly [what] he said he would do,” he said. “He returns calls and emails and gets things done in his office.”
Courage criticized Von Dohlen for his more open appeals to partisan support in a nonpartisan race. “It’s regrettable for this community and for the city,” Courage said. “We’ve got a variety of people who serve in the City Council, and they may have different points of view, but we all work together and don’t let partisan politics get in the way.”
Von Dohlen said at last week’s fundraiser that he is not running a partisan campaign, but merely benefits from being a Republican and having the support of Republicans.
“I’ve been accused of bringing national political issues into San Antonio. The mayor and City Council have already done that,” he said, citing the City’s 2018 decision to not pursue the 2020 Republican National Convention.
In the May 1 election, Courage garnered 47% of the vote. Von Dohlen collected 36%. As in the first round of voting, Von Dohlen is receiving get-out-the-vote help from the Republican Party of Bexar County.
“It’s hard for us to pick a winner and loser when there’s multiple Republicans in it. Now that [Von Dohlen] is in the runoff, we’re putting our full weight behind him,” Bexar County GOP Chairman John Austin said at the event. “We’re doing phone banking, writing postcards to constituents, block walking, and monetarily supporting out of our own personal pockets. Unfortunately, the party can’t do that, but as individual Republicans we’re doing everything we can to help.”
In the May 1 election, Von Dohlen undoubtedly benefited from conservative turnout driven by a ballot proposition that would have taken away the collective bargaining rights of San Antonio’s police union. District 9 voters cast 25,170 votes in that election, a more than 41 percent increase over the 2019 municipal election. Runoffs typically attract lower turnout, so getting voters to the polls will be more of a challenge for Von Dohlen this time.
Zooming out, Von Dohlen’s hard-line stances have long been a fixture in San Antonio’s conservative culture wars. Von Dohlen previously served as chairman of the San Antonio Family Association (SAFA), a coalition of social conservative groups that first united to oppose a public theater’s hosting of what they called an “anti-Christian” play, as well as city initiatives that supported contraception and benefits for City employees in gay and straight marriages.
Von Dohlen said he gave up his leadership role in SAFA in 2017, when he first ran for City Council.
In 2016, Von Dohlen spoke on behalf of SAFA to support a local couple’s decision to send their 17-year-old daughter to a boarding school where she was undergoing gay conversion therapy, after she took her girlfriend to prom. A GoFundMe created by the girl’s extended family said she was not allowed any electronic communication and had been punished for trying to escape.
Von Dohlen told media at the time that the gay conversion therapy was for the girl’s “own protection and good.” He said, “It’s natural for [her] to like boys. It’s not natural for her to like girls.”
The American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American College of Physicians oppose conversion therapy, stating evidence shows the practice is largely ineffective and often causes emotional or physical harm to patients. The practice has been banned in many states.
In 2018, Von Dohlen campaigned through SAFA to oppose the appointment of a lesbian woman to the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women. The nominee was Ruby Resendez, a businesswoman and former president of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
“I believe the City of San Antonio shouldn’t be a vehicle for politically correct social engineering,” Von Dohlen wrote in an essay at the time. “Cities that are, quite literally, on the verge of destruction, like San Francisco, should serve as a wake-up call to all of us, a warning that gender and sexuality issues should not be the focus of our time.”
The episode echoed a previous effort by SAFA, spearheaded by Von Dohlen, that opposed the appointment of Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, as Metro Health’s local health authority, a state-mandated position, on the grounds that she previously served as medical director at Planned Parenthood South Texas.
In 2019, Von Dohlen and his business partner Michael Knuffke were integral parts of a SAFA protest against the Bexar County Commissioners Court for recognizing a parade and festival being put on by Pride San Antonio.
The two business partners run a “virtue-based” financial advisory firm aimed at physicians who make more than $375,000 a year.
As registered investment advisors, Von Dohlen and his business partner are required by law to file certain forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Von Dohlen’s latest registration files, renewed in 2021, are filed under a company that was dissolved in 2018, according to state business records. Von Dohlen told the San Antonio Report that he dissolved that entity and scattered the business across other legal entities because of certain SEC regulations, though he declined to elaborate, citing time constraints at a busy fundraising event. Von Dohlen did not respond to an email seeking additional details.
Von Dohlen’s activist work extends beyond his involvement with SAFA. He was also the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the City of San Antonio for its decision to eliminate Chick-fil-A as an airport concession candidate. In another unsuccessful legal effort, he and another plaintiff sued state and federal officials for enforcing the Affordable Care Act, which they claimed is connected to contraceptive practices that they oppose as devout Catholics.
Early voting began Monday and runs through June 1.
Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons contributed to this story.