Mike Kueber's Blog

May 12, 2013

What is the difference between progressive and liberal?

Filed under: Issues,Philosophy,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:19 pm
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The San Antonio City Council elections are non-partisan affairs.  That means the candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats or any other political party.  Rather, they run as individuals.  This unaffiliated status, however, perplexes many voters, who are accustomed to voting for an “R” or a “D.”  Showing typical Yankee ingenuity, the voters have developed a proxy by asking candidates to characterize their political philosophy as conservative or liberal.  Sometimes, the question comes in two parts – fiscal vs. social. 

Earlier this year at the first District 8 candidate forum , we candidates were given the two-part variation of the question.  Rolando Briones said he was a fiscal conservative and a social conservative and I said I was a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  Ron Nirenberg, however, did not like the choices and instead said he was a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.

My reaction to that liberal vs. progressive distinction was the same as expressed in a column by Huffington Post writer, David Sirota:

  • I often get asked what the difference between a “liberal” and a “progressive” is. The questions from the media on this subject are always something like, “Isn’t ‘progressive’ just another name for ‘liberal’ that people want to use because ‘liberal’ has become a bad word?”

Sirota went on in his column to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between a liberal and a progressive.  In Sirota’s mind, a liberal wants government to redistribute wealth more equitably, but retains a strong preference for the private sector over the public sector.  By contrast, a progressive wants government to impose its power over the private sector by using comprehensive regulations. 

In a similar column five years later, Sirota elaborated:

  • Without progressivism, liberalism turns the Treasury into an unlimited gift card for whichever private interests are being sponsored.  As a progressive, I’m often asked if there is a real difference between progressivism and liberalism, or if progressivism is merely a nicer-sounding term for the less popular L-word. It’s a fair question, considering that Democratic politicians regularly substitute “progressive” for “liberal” in news releases and speeches. Predictably, Republicans call their opponents’ linguistic shift a craven branding maneuver, and frankly, they’re right: Most Democrats make no distinction between the two words.
  • Economic liberalism has typically focused on using the government’s treasury as a means to ends, whether those ends are better healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), stronger job growth (tax credits) or more robust export businesses (corporate subsidies). The idea is that taxpayer dollars can help individuals afford bare necessities and entice institutions to support the common good.
  • Economic progressivism, by contrast, has historically trumpeted the government fiat as the best instrument of social change — think food safety, minimum wage and labor laws, and also post-Depression financial rules and enforcement agencies. Progressivism’s central theory is that government, as the nation’s supreme authority, can set parameters channeling capitalism’s profit motive into societal priorities — and preventing that profit motive from spinning out of control.   

In reading other on-line postings, I have seen basic agreement with Sirota’s position.  Classic liberalism has historically supported a free market not burdened by excessive regulations, so when Reagan launched an attack on excessive regulations, it was only natural that his opponents attempt to differentiate themselves from classic liberalism and instead adopt a term that reflects their support for excessive regulations.  The term “progressive” eventually gained solid footing during the Clinton/Gingrich times.    

Getting back to the questions posed at my first candidate forum, it’s interesting that all three candidates claimed to be fiscal conservatives.  That reminds me of the Chuck Yeager saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots – i.e., no candidate in District 8 can survive as a fiscal liberal/progressive.  

In subsequent forums, however, I argued that it was impossible for Ron Nirenberg to be a fiscal conservative and a social progressive because progressives want a bigger government and a redistribution of wealth and both of those are anathema to true fiscal conservatives.  Such an argument might win debating points, but he won the most votes in the election.

p.s., in subsequent debates/forums, I converted from being a social liberal to a social libertarian, and explained that a social liberal suggested too much government involvement in private lives (i.e., the nanny state) and the term libertarian was better focused on keeping the government role as small as possible.

May 4, 2013

My last campaign forum – the Homeowners-Taxpayers Association and the Stonewall Democrats

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:44 pm
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Earlier this morning, I attended my last candidate forum.  The downtown event was put on by the iconic Homeowners-Taxpayers Association of Bexar County, which was founded 30 years ago by the legendary C.A. Stubbs and is currently headed by the estimable Bob Martin. 

As suggested by the organization’s name, the HTA is in favor of smaller government and lower taxes.  On its website (HTASA.org) it claims credit for defeating tax increases, winning tax decreases, preserving term limits, and preventing a pay increase for City Council members.  These people are obviously kindred spirits to me.

Surprisingly, my campaign opponents failed to show up for the event.  Although the event was not specific to District 8, there was an excellent crowd of 60 intensely motivated fiscal conservatives, something my opponents each claim to be.  The strongest fiscal conservative on the current City Council, Carlton Soules, found time to attend, but Ron Nirenberg and Rolando Briones didn’t. 

Each candidate was given three minutes to give a stump speech and then take a question or two.  As I recently blogged, the stump-speech part of my campaign is getting much better.  Almost like the experience of a stand-up comic, I have gradually been able to sense those passages (sound bites) that resonate and those that don’t.  Of course, talking to these kindred spirits is like preaching to the choir.  For the first time, my spiel was interrupted by applause. 

One item that disappointed me was that there was a strong social-conservative current within the HTA.  As a social libertarian, I oppose moral dictates from either the Religious Right or Secular Left and was hopeful that the HTA followed TEA Party principles by focusing on fiscal issues and not getting distracted with a social/moral agenda.  But there was clearly a large contingent of advocates for the Religious Right as evidenced by an HTA Candidate Guide that revealed which candidates had sought the endorsement of the Stonewall Democrats, an organization of gay advocates in San Antonio.  When one mayoral candidate denied that he had sought the Stonewall endorsement, a lady responded that they had photos proving that the scarlet-letter candidates had actually attended the Stonewall endorsement forum. 

I previously blogged about my decision against seeking the Stonewall endorsement:       

  • I am probably going to decline an invitation from the Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio (SDSA) to complete their questionnaire and attend their Candidate Forum this weekend on the 17th.  Based on their questionnaire, the SDSA wants a candidate who will support new ordinances relating to discrimination based on “real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression” in public accommodations, housing, and city contracting.  In another question, they want such an ordinance directed at all employers doing business in San Antonio.  And of course, they want to know if I support the Council’s recent action to extend employees benefits to same-sex couples.  While I am in favor of same-sex marriage, Texas doesn’t allow it and the Texas constitution might preclude the city from granting employee benefits to same-sex couples.  Plus they want the City to create a Human Rights Commission and provide LGBT training to all city employees.  Most of their positions are problematic, and it is probably not efficient for me at this time to determine if there are any that I can support, but I could decide to attend solely to learn more about their issues.  I will be interested to see if my liberal opponent Ron Nirenberg chooses to pursue the SDSA endorsement.

Coincidentally, I had a conversation yesterday with my son Tommy about my failure to seek the Stonewall endorsement.  Tommy has a co-worker friend who is active with the Stonewall group, and when Tommy told him that he should be supporting me for the Council, his friend responded that he wasn’t because I had blown off the Stonewall group by failing to respond to their questionnaire or attend their endorsing forum.  I explained to Tommy why I hadn’t responded, but I started feeling guilty about my inaction.  I now wish I had responded, but part of that thinking is based on having more time to think about the questions.  At the time, many of these questions were new to me, and I needed time for the answers to percolate. 

Two comments about my blog posting:

  1. I was prescient about the legality of same-sex employee benefits because recently the state’s Attorney General declared that cities granting such benefits violated the state’s constitution.  Mayor Castro and the City Attorney are currently deciding what the city’s options are.
  2. When the Stonewall Democrats failed to endorse any candidate for District 8, I assumed that meant that Ron Nirenberg had decided to stay away, too, but the flyer distributed at the HTA forum today indicated that Nirenberg had unsuccessfully sought the endorsement.  There must be more to that story.

May 1, 2013

A big day on the campaign trail

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:50 am
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Today was a big day for my campaign.  It started with an 8 am forum put on by the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and immediately afterwards Eileen Gonzales of KSAT 12 interviewed the candidates.  Then this evening, I attended an Oak Meadow HOA forum with a full-house of constituents, plus reporter Baugh and columnist Chasnoff from the Express-News. 

Both forums went exceptionally well.  I think I’m finally finding my voice and, more importantly, am developing an appreciation of how the resident’s questions fit with my solutions.  There is an old saying about the failure to see the forest for the trees, and in earlier forums I would get a question and only see a tree.  Now I can see most questions as part of the forest and am able to respond to the question in that context. 

The morning forum was formatted like most forums, with a short one-minute intro followed by several questions before concluding with a short closing.  This format is typical and requires some skill to incorporate my talking points while still responding in the context of the question.

In the evening forum, I didn’t much need context because we were given 5-10 minutes for a combination speech and follow-up Q&A’s, and I used almost the entire 10 minutes to give my full stump speech – i.e., a short bio followed by my three distinctive traits (experience, political philosophy, and absence of money in my campaign) – before concluding with my two big issues (police/fire pension and illegal zoning of District 8).  The speech took so long that there was only enough time for a single follow-up question, which flowed naturally from my speech.

After my speech, I was pleased to visit with three different individuals who grew up in North Dakota, including one from my county seat of Lakota.  And a little, old lady came up to me and said she was definitely going to vote for me, but was concerned that she had never heard of me before tonight, even though she read the Express-News religiously.  Why hadn’t I sent her any flyers, she asked.  I responded that I wasn’t collecting or spending any money.  She was happy about that, but she was concerned that she hadn’t heard of me.          

The resulting article from the Express-News reporter, however, on the evening forum was very disappointing because it reported nothing of substance and instead focused exclusively on the feud.  He must not have been impressed with my stump speech because my name wasn’t mentioned in the article.  I noted the following on my campaign’s Facebook page: 

  • Although much of the Express-News reporting on Rolando Briones has been informative and relevant to the voters, this article seems to reveal Express-News bias because it ignores Nirenberg’s problematic conduct in building a website based on his opponent’s domain name.

When the little, old lady reads her paper tomorrow morning, she will probably realize why she had never heard of me.   

There is another forum Saturday morning, this one with the city-wide Homeowners-Taxpayers Association.  I’ll probably attend, but it doesn’t sound like the other guys will be there.  Although I prefer talking without them around, I suspect the listeners will be disappointed because Nirenberg and Briones are becoming minor celebrities due to all of the media coverage of them.

April 29, 2013

Reed Williams enters the fray

Filed under: Culture,Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:55 pm
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The District 8 race for the City Council was turned upside down this weekend, with Rolando Briones initially being hit by a broadside attack on Page One of the San Antonio Express-News.  Later in the day, however, Briones received the endorsement of perhaps the most influential politician in District 8, the incumbent Reed Williams.

According to an article published on-line by Texas Public Radio, Williams endorsed Briones because a negative mailer by Nirenberg unfairly maligned the integrity of the San Antonio City Council:

  • Mr. Nirenberg believes that our political personnel, political bodies, can be bought off for $6,500, and that’s just not acceptable,” he said.

Count me with Nirenberg on this one.  Whenever I’ve heard a politician or businessman say that they can’t be bought for a free Spurs ticket or a round of golf, I ask them why they thought the other person was giving them the freebie.  I would assure them that the freebies would disappear as soon as their position of influence was gone.

Furthermore, I am surprised that Williams would get so upset about Nirenberg’s ethical sensitivities because I thought Williams shared those sensitivities.  A few months ago I visited with Williams’s chief of staff, who incidentally is now a paid staffer for Briones, and she told me that whenever Williams had substantive meetings with a city supplicant, he made sure, in advance, to return any political contribution the supplicant had previously made. 

Why wouldn’t Williams’s care to avoid an appearance of impropriety cause him to be troubled by the intersection of Briones’s contributions and winning government business?

April 2, 2013

Compton, California – a cautionary tale for San Antonio

Filed under: Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:04 pm
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Compton, California has been making news as the largest city in America (almost 300,000 people) to receive bankruptcy protection.  According to most reports, the bankruptcy was caused by a combination of extravagant pensions for city employees and declining tax revenues.  On Monday, a California judge held that the city would receive bankruptcy protection, but he deferred deciding whether the city would be allowed to continue paying 100% of its obligations to the state pension fund while forcing all other creditors to accept pennies-on-the-dollar.

From a practical state-wide and nation-wide perspective, this is an important issue because if the city is allowed to cut its payments to the state pension fund, that fund will be put in jeopardy.

From an individual pensioner’s perspective, this issue has reduced importance because most individual pension benefits are guaranteed by state and federal governments.

And finally, from San Antonio’s perspective, Stockton’s predicament is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a city is too generous in providing extravagant pensions. 

How much is extravagant?  Across California, as reported by Bloomberg News last year, cities were providing pensions that paid 90% of public-safety employees’ top salary after working 30 years, so they could retire and take jobs elsewhere while still in their 50s.   

San Antonio wouldn’t be so profligate, would it?  Yes, it would.  According to a city website:

  • The SA Fund‘s defined benefit structure provides benefits based upon the member’s earning history and length of service to the City of San Antonio. Current pension law indicates officers will be paid according to the following schedule:

                        Years of Service                      Percentage of Total Average Salary

                        20                                            45%

                        23                                            60%

                        25                                            70%

                        27                                            80%

                        30                                            86%

  • Keep in mind pension benefits are available regardless of age. A 21 year old can retire at 51 with 30 years of service and receive an 86 percent pension for the rest of his or her life.

How does this affect the City’s finances?  According to Sam Dawson, San Antonio’s 2011 Chamber of Commerce chairman, in a 2012 op-ed piece in the Express-News:

  • At present, police and fire personnel make up approximately 38 percent of our city’s workforce, but consume nearly 62 percent of its general fund. The average annual pension cost per civilian employee is approximately $6,800. The average annual pension cost per uniformed city employee is approximately $18,300. Health care costs and benefits are similarly disproportionate. Additionally, in 2012, the city will pay approximately $25 million toward the civilian pension plan for 6,000 employees and $65 million for 3,800 public safety employees. If these costs are not addressed sooner, rather than later, the end result will be less money to hire future qualified police officers and firefighters, fewer city services and a city that suffers economically. 

My sentiments exactly.

During my interview with the Express-News last week, I strongly expressed my position in favor of transitioning the City from defined-benefits pensions to defined-contribution pensions, which most of the City’s residents feel lucky to have.  As support for that position, I indicated that even the American military is in the process of shifting to a defined-contribution pension. 

When the Express-News asked my District 8 opponent Ron Nirenberg about my position, he lamely responded that the idea was worth exploring, but that it should not be discussed in the campaign because would politicize the subject.  Instead, he would consider quietly exploring the idea with a task force or study after the election.  

Nirenberg’s position reveals a lot about his political philosophy.  He thinks “politics” means something corrupted by special interests and that all disagreements will disappear if elected officials are transparent, accountable, and fair and they do their homework. 

By contrast, I think that conflicts are inevitable, even among elected officials who are acting with utmost honesty and integrity.  Principled differences can’t be resolved by task forces and doing your homework.  Instead, they need to be resolved by the ballot box.  That is what real transparency means.

March 28, 2013

The District 8 race gets dirty

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:07 pm
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With all of the money collected by my two opponents in the District 8 race, it was only a matter of time before the campaign got ugly.  But I am surprised at how quickly that time arrived.

A couple of weeks ago, Rolando Briones mailed a flyer pointing out the Ron Nirenberg wants city taxpayers to bail out financially troubled culture/arts groups.  When I brought this up at a forum, Nirenberg lamented, “Two months out [from the election] and the negative ads have already started.”  At about the same time, Nirenberg wrote the following on his campaign website:

  • It’s less than two months before Election Day, so rather than join my opponent on the low road of misleading attack ads, I believe you deserve honest discussion about issues facing our district and our city.”

That all sounds good.  A candidate under attack has two good options – (1) respond to the substance of the attack or (b) take the high road by ignoring the ad and pressing forward.  Because the attack ad was accurate, Nirenberg’s only good option was to take the high road.

But, according to an excellent Chasnoff column in today’s Express-News, Nirenberg apparently got spooked in the last two weeks and inexplicably decided to take the low road. 

In the column, Chasnoff reports that Nirenberg, because he was upset at being characterized as a Democrat, has published a list that showed Briones to be a prolific contributor to Democratic candidates.  (Nirenberg provided this explanation during the interview that he and I had yesterday with the Express-News editorial board.) 

This disclosure, which substantively appears to be accurate, becomes sleezy, however, because Nirenberg published it on a website with the domain name of RolandoBriones.com.  According to Chasnoff’s column, one of Nirenberg’s operators discovered that the domain name was unused and could be purchased for $50, and that was too big of an opportunity for them to pass up:

  • “Touting himself as a Republican probably was a mistake. Not registering his name online definitely was a mistake.  Take it from Kelton Morgan, who’s helping Nirenberg with his campaign.  ‘I just thought, I wonder what he’s got on rolandobriones.com?  And it was available. And I’m like, Are you kidding me?‘”

My response to Chasnoff and Morgan – Are you kidding me?  Do you think City Council candidates need to buy various domain names to prevent an opponent from misuing them.  Yes, I understand presidential candidates and big companies do this, but we should have to worry about things like that at this level.  You need to do a reality check.

As I read the Chasnoff column, I thought of three questions that I would have for Nirenberg – Why take such offense at being characterized as a Democrat? Why retaliate by accusing Briones of being a closet Democrat? But most troubling of all, why publicize the attack by buying a website called RolandoBriones.com

For a silver lining to this story, their shenanigans improve my chances.

March 12, 2013

Campaign developments – more forums and negative ads

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 8:15 pm
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As I prepare for a debate this Thursday at Crown Ridge and complete two candidate questionnaires – one from the Express-News and another from The League of Women Voters – invitations to additional events continue to roll in.  In addition to Crown Ridge, my schedule includes a meeting with the Express-News editorial board on March 27th and a forum at UTSA later that same night.  Then on April 16th, there are also two events.  The first is put on at Sonterra at 11:30 am by the local chapter of Certified Residential Specialists and later in the day at 6 pm there is an event by the residents of the Dominion.  And finally, there is a Hills & Dales debate on April 25th and an Oak Meadows forum on April 30th.  Early voting starts on April 29th.    I have been pleasantly surprised at the interest shown by a variety of community organizations in this election. 

I have already declined to attend a Public Housing debate after the organizer refused to brief me on what his organization’s issues are with the City, and I am probably going to decline an invitation from the Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio (SDSA) to complete their questionnaire and attend their Candidate Forum this weekend on the 17th.  Based on their questionnaire, the SDSA wants a candidate who will support new ordinances relating to discrimination based on “real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression” in public accommodations, housing, and city contracting.  In another question, they want such an ordinance directed at all employers doing business in San Antonio.  And of course, they want to know if I support the Council’s recent action to extend employees to same-sex couples.  While I am in favor of same-sex marriage, Texas doesn’t allow it and the Texas constitution might preclude the city from granting employee benefits to same-sex couples.  Plus they want the City to create a Human Rights Commission and provide LGBT training to all city employees.  Most of their positions are problematic, and it is probably not efficient for me at this time to determine if there are any that I can support, but I could decide to attend solely to learn more about their issues.  I will be interested to see if my liberal opponent Ron Nirenberg chooses to pursue the SDSA endorsement.

A questionnaire that I am highly likely to ignore recently came from the San Antonio AFL-CIO.  They want me to support a policy that would require all companies that do business with the City to pay a living wage ($11.08) plus health insurance and a pension.  And they want me to continue a policy of paying prevailing wages on city building projects.  Two questions indicated I should boycott Hyatt and a third wants me to oppose charter schools, while keeping neighborhood post offices open.  The AFL-CIO is doing 10-minute screening of candidates on Tuesday the 19th, and I see no reason to attend their screening or complete their questionnaire.  Artificially inflating compensation for public employment or public work is not something I support.  In general, I support capitalism over socialism, and I don’t think the AFL-CIO agrees.

The remaining event about which I’m uncertain is a Meet & Greet on April 6th at Woodridge.  I am disappointed that the candidates will not be allowed to speak, but rather will be given the opportunity to circulate for a couple of hours.  Although this would be an opportunity to pick up a few votes, I am not comfortable circulating in those situations.  We’ll see.

p.s., earlier this week, I received my first negative ad from, not surprisingly, Briones.  With a budget rumored to be $250k, and with a lot of Express-News baggage to overcome, he probably has concluded that he can’t prevail by simply saying good things about himself.  Instead he will have to do damage to his opposition, which he obviously thinks is Nirenberg, not me.  In his ad, Briones quotes from Nirenberg – “I will work to: Identify and stabilize valuable but troubled institutions to help them regain footing.”  Briones characterizes that statement as follows – “My opponent believes in City Hall backed bailouts.” 

I have made the same point about Nirenberg in our debates – i.e., despite his self-description as a fiscal conservative, he is in fact a big-spending liberal, as proved by his expansive support of the arts (which is a part of his job description at his current KLRU job) and defense of extravagent unionized city-employee contracts.  While I will continue to attack Nirenberg’s record at our debates, I plan to also argue that the voters of San Antonio don’t want Council races to become expensive mud fights.