Mayor Ron Nirenberg, his main challenger Greg Brockhouse, and invited City Council candidates on Sunday underwent a 45-year-old rite of passage that many politicians during that time have found, to put it mildly, obnoxious.

It was not a debate, but more like neighborhood association candidate nights – except with energy, sophistication, and muscle.

At neighborhood association candidate nights, the format tends to be that the candidates get to speak for 15 or 20 minutes then take questions. Individuals in the meager audience raise a variety of neighborhood problems and other issues and ask the candidates their positions on these matters. Then everybody goes home.

COPS Metro Alliance’s “accountability sessions” are different. Very different. And much more effective.

Before I explain how and why, some history is necessary. Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), the senior member of the alliance with the Metro Alliance, was founded in 1974 through the efforts of a brilliant young political activist named Ernesto Cortes. After working both in the Chicano movement and in electoral politics, Cortes went to Chicago to be trained in the community organizing techniques of Saul Alinsky and Ed Chambers. (He mastered them quickly and would become a national leader, winning a MacArthur fellowship.)

When Cortes returned to San Antonio, the city had been run for nearly two decades by the Good Government League, originally a reform organization with the goal of taking “politics” out of city government. Controlled by businessmen, it bankrolled City Council slates that were chosen behind closed doors by a committee whose membership was kept secret.

The GGL would usually hand pick two safe Hispanic candidates, and eventually one black candidate, for the nine-member Council, all of whom were elected citywide. From 1955 to 1973, the well-funded GGL won about 95 percent of council races.

The result was that Council members danced with them that brung ’em. The overwhelmingly working-class Westside, Southside, and Eastside neighborhoods, whose citizens played no role in selecting GGL candidates, were largely ignored.

This is the context in which COPS developed. One thing to understand is that COPS Metro Alliance, while staffed by trained professional organizers, is very much a citizen-driven organization. The organizers don’t decide the issues. They engage in countless meetings in neighborhoods in their areas to determine the issues.

In the beginning, the biggest issue on the West Side was drainage. Any heavy rain would flood entire neighborhoods. Organizers, together with citizen leaders, would research the issues. They learned, for example, that flood control projects on the West Side had been put into city bond issues for years, but many of the projects had not been done.

Other issues would range from school safety and academic performance, to the city water board sinking free water mains for the benefit of Northside developers while ignoring the deteriorating water lines serving lower-income ratepayers in older parts of the city. A low-wage economy has been a constant issue that the organizations have addressed with everything from school reform to a nationally recognized job training program called Project Quest to more recent successful efforts to get local governments to raise their minimum wage.

To address these problems, COPS Metro comes up with specific proposals to present to their elected officials. The proposals are often the results of considerable research, as was the case with the development of Project Quest. Some require a good deal of compromise.

For example, in the 1980s the city received millions of dollars in federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) aimed at addressing urban problems. For years COPS controlled most of that money. A coalition not of individuals but of organizations – mainly Catholic parishes in the case of COPS – they would negotiate among leaders of the various parishes to divvy up the money. People from St. Henry’s Parish might be pressing for some street improvements, but might be reminded that they received major funding the previous year and it was Our Lady of Guadalupe’s turn.

The major goal of “accountability sessions” is to get all the viable candidates to commit to supporting those proposals. Before the session, the organizations’ leaders seek meetings with all the viable candidates, incumbents, and challengers. There they explain in detail the programs and proposals they are seeking, and answer questions. There are no surprises when the candidates are on the stage being asked for their support.

When candidates show up, they find a large and expressive crowd. Sunday’s crowd was about 500. If that doesn’t sound like many, consider that in this city, mayoral candidates struggle to get 200 to their announcement rallies.

One by one, the 20 to 30 candidates who show up are asked whether they support each of the programs. If they try to qualify their yes or no answer, they are booed. One time, in the 1980s, there was an inner-city councilman who had in his office responded to a COPS CDBG proposal by pushing his own CDBG spending plan across his desk at them. After virtually all the other candidates agreed to the COPS budget, it was the reluctant councilman’s turn. When he agreed, he was – unlike the other politicians – asked to confirm his commitment with his signature. In the context, it was brutal.

The inability to respond with nuance is what rankles many politicians about the COPS Metro Alliance sessions. But the organizations insist on it for reasons in addition to the fact that even mini-speeches would make the session endless, largely an imposition on the time of the citizens.

A second important goal of “accountability sessions” is related to another major goal of the organizations – to educate large numbers of people who have been raised to be deferential to authority to the fact that elected officials are their employees, not their rulers. (This is especially true, but not limited to, blue-collar citizens. One organizer said he found prosperous members of a Dallas synagogue also had to be cured of excess deference to authority.)

In the past 45 years, COPS and Metro have not only won hundreds of millions of dollars for drainage and a variety of other programs. They have turned thousands of deferential citizens into political actors. Wealthy interests, land developers, and others can spread around campaign contributions and hire likable smooth-talking lobbyists. But working-class folks find political strength in organized numbers.

So the structure of “accountability sessions” is designed not only to get commitments from politicians – effective because most actually want to keep their promises – but also to demonstrate, especially to the citizens themselves, that the voters deserve deference.

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.