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San Antonio to vote on progressive wish list on abortion, marijuana, low-level arrests

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

San Antonio to vote on progressive wish list on abortion, marijuana, low-level arrests” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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SAN ANTONIO — For more than a year, progressive organizers in Texas have been waging a concerted — and largely successful — effort to convince voters to reform policing laws in their cities, pushing the envelope of what state law could allow.

But now they are facing their biggest test yet in San Antonio, the state’s second-largest city and home to a May ballot proposition that could spark the biggest showdown yet with the Republican-dominated state government.

Proposition A would decriminalize abortion and low-level marijuana possession, ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds by law enforcement, create a “justice director” job at City Hall and require police to issue citations for certain low-level, nonviolent offenses instead of making arrests.

The city’s own attorney has called almost all of it unenforceable if passed, but organizers say the so-called “Justice Charter” is needed to reduce unnecessary arrests, to free up city money for other, more pressing needs — and to make a bold statement.

“[The] big picture is sending a message to all our elected officials — local, county and state — on how we view criminal justice reform, the type of solutions that we want,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of Act 4 SA, the group leading the charge for Proposition A. “We are valuing people’s lives and their rights above all else.”

The proposition has drawn fierce opposition from the local police union and the business community, which are spending big to defeat it. They are largely focusing on the provision that would expand the city’s cite-and-release policy, requiring cops to issue citations for offenses like theft from business of less than $750. Police currently have the discretion to either write tickets or arrest people for such offenses.

Complete with ominous scenes of street crime, TV ads and signs across the city have adopted a common slogan against the proposition: “It’s not about pot.”

“The abortion and marijuana aspects of Prop A — that is a Trojan horse,” said Adam Blanchard, a San Antonio entrepreneur and treasurer of San Antonio Safe PAC, which opposes the proposition. “That is 100% a Trojan horse to divert attention from what it will really do to our communities.”

The proposition is one of the more dramatic races to watch in the May 6 municipal elections across Texas. Mayors in some of the state’s biggest cities are also on the ballot, but none faces serious opposition — or in the case of Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, any opposition at all.

Progressives are also mounting a serious effort on the May 6 ballot in El Paso, pushing a proposition that would require the city to adopt an ambitious policy to address climate change. And in Austin, voters will decide on dueling propositions related to police oversight.

The fight in San Antonio — home to 1.5 million people, second only to Houston in Texas — represents a critical moment for the long-mounting struggle between a deeply conservative state government and heavily Democratic big cities. And it comes as Texas progressives have increasingly turned to the local ballot box to not only push for policy change but to organize Democrats year-round.

That has been the modus operandi of Ground Game Texas, started in 2021 by two former congressional candidates from the Austin area, Mike Siegel and Julie Oliver. They have successfully led several ballot initiatives in smaller cities across Texas to do things like decriminalize marijuana, though they have encountered resistance, including most recently a legal challenge from local officials wary of defying state law.

“What we’re finding is that these popular issues actually get the folks who don’t typically vote out to vote,” Oliver said. And, she added, when local officials do not honor the will of the people, it “really awakens communities to take action against the electeds and the bureaucracy.”

Ground Game Texas is emphasizing that this is the first time Texas voters have an opportunity to directly weigh in on abortion rights since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year. That led to a near-total abortion ban in Texas, with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

“I think the eyes of Texas will be open that this is a popular issue and state leaders are not honoring the will of the people,” Oliver said.

GOP leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott have publicly stayed out of the fight so far. But the state made its position clear earlier this year when it backed an unsuccessful lawsuit by an anti-abortion group to break the proposition into separate ballot measures.

“This proposal contains a variety of different radical proposals that have been packaged together to confuse Texans, and it is imperative that this effort be stopped before it is too late,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said at the time.

Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment on how the agency would respond if Proposition A were to pass.

In the Legislature, Republicans are advancing legislation that would prevent local governments from regulating in a broad range of policy areas unless explicitly permitted to do so by the state. The bill, which Abbott has endorsed, received final approval from the House on Wednesday, sending it to the Senate.

City attorney questions proposition’s enforceability

Under the Texas Constitution, cities with 5,000 or more people can hold elections to amend their charters, but the changes cannot be “inconsistent” with the constitution or laws passed by the Legislature. That has raised all kinds of questions about what would happen if voters approved Proposition A — and the ripple effect it could have statewide.

On the day the city verified the petition signatures, City Attorney Andy Segovia said all but one part of the proposition — the justice director position — would run afoul of state law and thus be unenforceable. Proposition A organizers pushed back, saying Segovia’s comments amounted to advocacy and that his job should be to defend the will of voters.

The most timely element of the proposition is its proposal that police “shall not investigate, make arrests, or otherwise enforce any alleged criminal abortion.” It is a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that triggered a near-total abortion ban across Texas.

City officials plainly say they cannot go against state abortion laws. But supporters of Proposition A welcome the symbolic message that passage of the proposition would send — and the potential legal battle it could spark.

“If [the proposition] stands, we’ve now found a rubric and a way for other cities that are figuring how to try and protect” their rights, Tomas said. “We’ve now laid that roadmap for how to do this.”

Anti-abortion forces acknowledge the stakes are high.

“We are focused on defeating this in San Antonio because we recognize that doing so will discourage other groups in other cities from following suit,” said Amy O’Donnell, a spokesperson for Texas Alliance for Life, which filed the unsuccessful lawsuit to split the proposition into separate measures.

Another part of the proposition that has drawn attention relates to expanding the city’s cite-and-release policy. Since 2019, San Antonio has given its police the discretion to issue citations rather than making arrests for certain Class A and B misdemeanors, like theft of business or service less than $750. Proposition A would make citations mandatory and add more eligible offenses, such as graffiti with damage of less than $2,500.

Critics say such a change would incentivize low-level crime and hurt businesses.

“Shoplifters and restaurant patrons can rack up a bill for $750 and walk away without paying a dime,” one anti-Proposition A group says in a frequent example it uses.

Proposition A supporters emphasize that offenders would still face consequences — prosecution, which can include fines, and arrest if they do not cooperate. Supporters also point out that another city, San Marcos, already showed the way three years ago, becoming the first Texas city to mandate cite-and-release for its cops — with little fanfare or resistance from the state.

As for other provisions of Proposition A, “no-knock” warrants and chokeholds are already mostly prohibited under San Antonio Police Department policies. Proposition A supporters say it is important to codify those policies so they can endure future leadership changes in the city.

A new political test for a blue city

The proposition is testing the political fabric of San Antonio, a reliably blue city but one that often does not find itself on the front lines of progressive policy fights. That mood has shifted a little, however, with the election in 2021 of two City Council members, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and Teri Castillo, who are members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The city also saw a huge fight over policing reform in 2021, when voters narrowly defeated a proposition that would have taken away the police union’s collective bargaining rights.

McKee-Rodriguez and Castillo support Proposition A on this May’s ballot, as does Rosie Castro, the storied civil rights activist — and mother of Joaquin and Julián Castro — who is serving on the council on an interim basis.

But the city’s political establishment has otherwise kept its distance from the measure — if not actively opposed to it. A columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, Cary Clack, said on a recent podcast that 17 of the first 20 City Council candidates that the editorial board met with were against Proposition A.

The highest-profile opponent locally has been the city’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, who does not identify with a political party but is often a Democratic ally. He is running for another term in the May 6 election but does not face serious opposition.

Nirenberg said in a local TV interview earlier this month that the proposition is “trying to solve problems at the wrong level of government” and cited what he called the “lack of consequences” for offenses like theft up to $750.

“That’s not pocket change,” Nirenberg said. “Prop A unfortunately ignores the victims, from small businesses to nonprofits to really any working family who wakes up to a smashed car window.”

Nirenberg’s opposition sparked disappointment and anger from local progressives who had taken hope from his past support for some of their causes. They had especially taken note during the racial-justice protests of 2020 when Nirenberg urged San Antonians to “hold me accountable” for creating change in the city.

Alex Birnel, advocacy director for the progressive organizing group MOVE Texas, recently invoked that comment by Nirenberg as he slammed the mayor’s opposition to Proposition A.

“It is a shocking and shameful move for … Nirenberg to oppose this measure that will only serve to protect and empower San Antonians,” Birnel said in a statement, “and we should demand to know what his plan is as a leader to address this political moment, outside of suggesting we wait on a hostile state legislature to act in everyday Texans best interests.”

In Austin, GOP efforts to take away the autonomy of local governments are only ramping up. State Republican leaders are prioritizing legislation that aims to rein in “rogue” district attorneys, with one proposal advancing that would subject prosecutors to losing their jobs if they decline to “prosecute a class or type of criminal offense.”

While state-level Republicans have stayed out of the fray, two Republican members of Congress who represent the San Antonio area — Reps. Tony Gonzales and Chip Roy — have added their voices to the opposition. Gonzales has tapped his own campaign resources to work against the proposition, and he held a news conference last month in downtown San Antonio to warn that outsiders were trying to “San Francisco our San Antonio.”

Opponents have clear lead in fundraising

Opponents of Proposition A have had a massive financial advantage so far. The San Antonio Police Officers Association has funded a political action committee, Protect SA PAC, that disclosed spending $879,000 against the proposition through late March.

Both sides acknowledge there have been challenges in messaging against a proposition that addresses multiple issues.

Blanchard said it “certainly has been difficult to change [the] narrative” away from the provisions on abortion and pot. And boosters of the proposition have had to grapple with their decision to group the issues as Blanchard’s side gets louder about public-safety concerns.

“It’s crossed my mind once or twice, but really at the end of the day, it wouldn’t matter if cite-and-release was there or not,” Tomas said. “Our opposition was always going to find something to grab on to and scare voters with.”

While the vote is all-or-nothing, the potential implementation is not. The proposition contains a severability clause, meaning that if one provision is struck down in the courts, the others remain in force.

Disclosure: MOVE Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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