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In its closing days the San Antonio’s City Council runoff election features a rare parallel between contests in the city’s poorest and most Democratic district and its most Republican and possibly most affluent district.

The contests in District 5 and District 9 feature a throwback to earlier times: redbaiting.

In Westside District 5, Rudy Lopez, who trailed Teri Castillo 15 percent to 30 percent in a field of 11 candidates in the first round of voting, charged that Castillo  “advocates for Socialist and Marxist ideals.” In Northside District 9, Patrick Von Dohlen, who trailed incumbent Councilman John Courage 36 percent to 47 percent in the first round, labels Courage “Your Socialist Neighbor in District 9.”

The parallels don’t end there. Neither Courage nor Castillo apologizes for their decidedly liberal views. And Castillo appears to have learned from Courage’s first term on Council: As a liberal in the only Council district carried by Donald Trump last year, Courage focused heavily on practical local issues popular in his district.

The similarities between the two contests do have their limits. Simply put, Lopez is a civic activist, long active in a neighborhood association and president of it for four years, endorsed by the outgoing incumbent Shirley Gonzales and state Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) who know the nuts and bolts of local politics. 

Von Dohlen, on the other hand, is a culture warrior who has shown little interest in solving the practical challenges of maintaining and improving neighborhoods or cities.

Race, for example, hasn’t entered the District 5 campaign. Von Dohlen, meanwhile, has played the race card. He has highlighted the fact that Courage raised his fist during a Council meeting in response to a group of young Black activists who asked Council members to show their support for efforts to end police brutality. Von Dohlen didn’t mention that all but one of the council members raised their fists. He also criticizes Courage for supporting a resolution declaring racism a public health issue, this during a pandemic that has claimed considerably higher percentages of victims among Blacks and Hispanics than among whites.

District 9 City Council candidate Patrick Van Dohlen walks toward his car as incumbent John Courage tears down a tent after campaigning outside of the Brook Hollow Library polling station May 24, the first day of early voting in the City Council runoff elections. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Von Dohlen has distinguished himself in at least two other ways. He has pursued a frivolous lawsuit that has helped cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside legal fees. And he has a history of significant involvement in an “independent” political action committee that has, possibly illegally, spent more than $19,000 on Von Dohlen’s campaign.

Let’s take up the lawsuit first. You may remember the controversy over a 2019 City Council vote to remove Chick-fil-A from a list of restaurateurs for the airport, with some members referring to contributions by the firm’s owners to religious organizations that had fought gay marriage. The flap played a significant role in the 2019 mayoral campaign, but not in this year’s race. That’s largely because the issue has been dealt with.

The state Legislature passed a law prohibiting cities from discriminating against companies or persons for contributions to religious organizations. The City, under pressure from the Federal Aviation Administration, invited Chick-fil-A to open a restaurant at the airport, but the company graciously declined. And Chick-fil-A stopped contributing to the organizations in question.

Just days after the law went into effect in September 2019, Von Dohlen and four other men filed suit against the City over the issue. There were several serious problems with the lawsuit. One is that legislators did not make the law retroactive, so the action by the City Council was not covered.

Another was whether the men had standing to sue. The law provided that any citizen could sue over this issue, but prior to that, having standing required that the plaintiffs show that they suffered harm in a more serious way than the general public. In an affidavit Von Dohlen stated that he and his family fly out from the airport “between two and 10 times a year” and liked to eat at Chick-fil-A, arguing he therefore had standing. Given that the airport served more than 10 million passengers in 2019, Von Dohlen’s hardship does not appear distinguishable from the general public’s.

The third issue regards “governmental immunity,” which bars lawsuits against governmental entities unless either they give permission or the law provides otherwise. The new state law did provide otherwise, allowing suits by any citizen against ordinances that “take adverse action” against any entity based on “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization.” 

Von Dohlen’s attorney agreed that the law was not retroactive, but the fact that Chick-fil-A had not yet been offered a slot at the airport amounted to a continuing violation of the law. Apparently state District Judge David Canales agreed, ordering the suit to continue.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Court of Appeals, however, strongly disagreed. In an opinion by Chief Judge Sandee Marion, a Republican who has since retired, the court said the law on governmental immunity was so clear that they didn’t need to spend time on the issue of Von Dohlen’s special need for Chick-fil-A at the airport. They overruled Canales and ordered the suit dismissed.

Von Dohlen and his friends are appealing to the Texas Supreme Court and continued the case even after the City offered Chick-fil-A a spot at the airport last September. Since that time the Supreme Court asked for briefings as to why they should hear the case. Rather than declaring victory and withdrawing the lawsuit, Von Dohlen has continued to rack up the City’s legal bills. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to hear the case.

Two interesting aspects of the case are worth mention. One is that it has reunited a legal rivalry between two lawyers. Representing the City is Neel Lane, who represented a gay couple in 2014 seeking to declare Texas’ gay marriage ban unconstitutional. Opposing him was the state’s then-Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, who now represents Von Dohlen et al. In the earlier matchup Lane’s side won in U.S. District Court and appeared to have the better of the argument before a three-judge federal appeals panel when the U.S. Supreme Court found for gay marriage in another case.

The other footnote is that, in his own lawsuit, Von Dohlen’s lawyer notes that “several members spoke (and voted) against” the City Council ordinance on Chick-fil-A, but it quotes only one, and that at length: the “Socialist neighbor,” John Courage.

Besides the issue of his frivolous lawsuit is the matter of Von Dohlen receiving more than $19,000 in advertising and other support from an “independent political action committee” called Friends of the San Antonio Family Association. Under federal law, such contributions are legal if the “independent” PAC does not coordinate with the candidate or his staff. Von Dohlen says there has been no such coordination. Maybe so, but they are intimate political bedfellows. Consider:

  • Von Dohlen is a founder and former president of the San Antonio Family Association, an ultraconservative religious group that promotes gay conversion therapy, opposes contraception, and provides its members a list of the names of contractors who accepted “blood money” by working on the construction of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Babcock Road.
  • The “Friends” PAC’s address is the office of Von Dohlen Knuffke Financial Group, which handles investments for people who make more than $375,000 a year. Michael Knuffke and Daniel Petri, the PAC’s treasurer, are co-plaintiffs with Von Dohlen in the Chick-fil-A suit.
  • Last fall the PAC spent more than $10,000 on behalf of five candidates attempting to take over the North East Independent School District board. Only two people contributed last fall to the PAC’s efforts. Knuffke gave $5,668 and Von Dohlen gave $3,250. Only one of their candidates won, with the others ranging between 28 percent and 45 percent of the vote.

Von Dohlen might not coordinate with the PAC, but he houses it and feeds it.

Rick Casey

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.