The Municipal Plaza Building. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Municipal Plaza Building hosts San Antonio’s City Council sessions. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Fifteen years ago, shortly before I went east in exile, I was answering questions after giving a talk to a San Antonio Kiwanis Club. Its members were all white, and they were broad-minded enough to elect a female president, albeit one who knew her way around the male world. She sold bull semen for a living.

They were also broad-minded enough that one of the questions caused a surge of tension. The question was: “Why don’t we admit that the reason there is so much corruption in San Antonio is that we are so close to the Mexican border?”

The question did not come out of the blue. In the previous few weeks a total of 12 local public officials – and men who did business with those public officials – were indicted for bribery. The feds indicted four of them, and the district attorney won indictments of nine.

Nine were Mexican-American, two were black, and one was Anglo. The latter was a lawyer andlobbyist, one of the two bribers in the group. The names are no longer important, although City Councilman Enrique “Kike” Martin distinguished himself by being indicted by both the feds and the state for separate bribes. (Note: Some Jewish visitors to town were stunned by Martin’s nickname, not realizing that it was a common Hispanic moniker, pronounced Kee-kay.)

The room of Kiwanis members went silent, and I paused a long moment before answering. Finally I said, “I find that question very offensive.”

Another pause, then: “The reason I find it offensive is that it gives no credit to my Irish ancestors. There’s nothing these Hispanics did that they didn’t learn from the Irish.”

Then I made the rather obvious point that corruption is virtually baked into the human soul. None of us lives without temptation, and few are so virtuous as to never succumb.

Corruption comes in many shades and, some say, sects. As a student at St. Mary’s University in the 1960s, I had a wise and entertaining government professor named Bill Crane. He distinguished between Catholic political corruption and Protestant political corruption.

The distinction was not theological, but sociological. By Catholics he meant immigrant groups, relative newcomers to the country – Italian, Irish, Mexican. By Protestants he meant folks who had been here longer and were established.

“The difference between Catholic graft and Protestant graft is this,” Crane would say. “Protestants understand the value of delayed gratification.”

This was shorthand, of course. Crane was very aware that there was no shortage of corruption among the wealthy, well-established business and political elites of Texas. What he was addressing was precisely the question the Kiwanians raised. Why do so many political scandals – especially local political scandals – seem to involve minorities?

Crane’s argument was that “Protestants” understood that if they kept their noses clean while in public service, they could be richly rewarded when they left it. Many become lobbyists. Some become “expert” commentators on cable news. Some become chancellors of state universities. Some make Viagra commercials.

As a San Antonio city councilman, Howard Peak earned a reputation for rectitude. He understood the concept of delayed gratification.

An issue arose involving a decision by CPS Energy to lease some of the excess capacity of a fiber optic system it had erected around the city to a boutique phone company that would market its services to businesses. Since it would help keep down citizens’ electric bills, then-Mayor Bill Thornton, an ex-officio member of the CPS board, supported it.

Southwestern Bell (now AT&T), which had recently moved its headquarters to San Antonio, was not amused. Peak led council opposition to the proposal and defeated it. He then challenged Thornton in the next mayoral election and won. When Peak was term-limited after four years, Southwestern Bell awarded him a generous salary as director of external affairs. He had, after all, developed considerable skills while in office.

Crane’s quip suggested that “Catholics” didn’t understand the value of delayed gratification. I’m sure he was aware that some may have understood it, but were quite aware that it was not likely available to them.

In the first decades after San Antonio’s City Council members were elected by districts, many of the council members from the low-income parts of town unsurprisingly came from families of modest means. Some had attended underfunded and underperforming schools. They had experienced discrimination. They had no reason to believe that Southwestern Bell or any other corporation would ever hire them for a six-figure executive position.

During the decade I was in Houston, San Antonio changed in many ways. One of them is that, in the terms of Crane’s paradigm, City Council is now almost entirely “Protestant.” Consider the members from the poorest districts.

The councilwoman from District 5, which includes the vast West Side barrio, has an MBA from St. Mary’s University.

The councilman from the blue-collar, mostly Hispanic South Side District 4 has two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s from Stanford University.

The councilwoman from the Southeast Side District 3, more ethnically diverse but still working class, has a master’s of public administration from St. Mary’s.

The interim councilman from the historically black and poor District 2 has a bachelor’s from Harvard University, a law degree and MBA from Texas Tech University, and a masters in law from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth.

These are politicians who definitely understand the value of delayed gratification. That doesn’t mean all council members won’t be presented with temptations. All people in power are at some point. It does mean that they will have more reason than their predecessors to resist temptation.

Their futures, after all, are filled with possibility. Some may become lobbyists. Some may be hired by interests they serve now. But others may rise in untainted ways. Some may go into the private sector. Others, recent history suggests, may become state representatives or senators. Or a cabinet member.

Some may even run for president.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.