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John Courage is a rare bird in Texas politics. The self-styled independent Democrat has won two terms on the San Antonio City Council representing District 9 on the North Side, whose voters routinely favor Republicans in general elections. Now he’s seeking a third.Just turned 70, the former Air Force police officer and special education teacher said there is no secret formula for his unlikely political success.
“I like to say, ‘I’m just your neighbor on City Council,’” Courage said. “This isn’t about partisan politics … and all those culture war issues. It’s about listening to everyone. It’s about potholes and picking up trash and the everyday politics that affects your life.”
Culture war issues are part of the mix, however. Council races are officially nonpartisan, but few candidates deny their affiliation with one of the two major parties, and two of Courage’s challengers are Republicans who accuse him of trying to defund police and highlight his support of liberal causes and policies.
They are Erika Moe, 46, a commercial litigation lawyer making her first run for elected office, and Patrick Von Dohlen, 51, a financial planner and insurance agent who lost to Courage in 2017 and 2019.
Ericka Moe is a candidate for City Council District 9 in the May 1 election.
Antonio Salinas, an 18-year-old college student, did not respond to an interview request. A fifth candidate, Cory W. Dennington, dropped out of the race.
Von Dohlen also did not return several calls. He is campaigning on social media for “smaller government, less taxes and more freedom,” and his somewhat narrow losses to Courage in the previous elections have clearly retained the incumbent’s attention.
Though Courage is one of the more mild-mannered members of the council, he bristles at Von Dohlen’s claims on social media that he supports defunding police. Courage has expressed support for those seeking reforms to policing and criminal justice, especially after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, but he voted for a city budget last summer that increased police funding. He said he also supported the San Antonio Police Department filling all its staff vacancies.
Von Dohlen has used social media to attack Courage for having “raised his fist in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a radical Marxist group seeking to defund the police.” At least one vocal supporter in a black pickup parked at early voting sites has made similar accusations on a large sign mounted in its bed.
Patrick Von Dohlen is a candidate for City Council District 9 in the May 1 election./
“A lot of stuff he just makes up. I voted to increase the San Antonio Police (Department) budget by eight million dollars,” Courage said. “He suggests I’m a Marxist or socialist and that I support radical organizations. It is simply not true, a total misrepresentation of what I’ve said and done.”
On other issues, Courage says he fought for a homestead exemption for property owners “that has saved about $12 million for taxpayers across the city” and that he was instrumental in setting up a citywide registry for obtaining COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I spoke up when Metro Health said the registry might take three to four weeks,” Courage said. “I wanted it in 10 days.”
One of his few complaints about city government — “a burr in my saddle,” Courage calls it — is in dealing with the San Antonio Water System. Some of its reports to the council seem needlessly complex or don’t answer obvious questions, he said.
“I’m sure they’re diligent, hard workers, but I’ve been frustrated with them,” he said. “I think we need to work with both utilities so council has a better understanding of how those organizations are managed financially. We often get reports that are just what they want to tell us.”
Courage taught school for 26 years, mostly special education classes in San Antonio Independent School District and North East ISD, and has a master’s degree in computer technology. He served on the Alamo Colleges board in the 1980s, and in the years before joining the City Council in 2017 ran unsuccessfully for the council, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Texas House.
Courage has two sons. He likes to point out that his wife, whose maiden name is True, actually has an even better name for politics: Zada True-Courage.
Moe, who was born in La Jolla, Calif., to a Marine family, but is a longtime San Antonio resident, has two daughters, 11 and 13, and she graduated from Texas Tech University. She got her law degree from St. Mary’s University and is a certified guardian ad litem who can be appointed in court cases to represent minors and disabled and elderly persons who need an attorney.
“I come from a long line of military and law enforcement,” Moe said, so her “tipping point” for entering the council race was the national movement to defund police, though that position was taken by a minority of those calling for reforms.
She said Courage’s support of a move to get newly hired SAPD officers to live within the city would “effectively defund the police because half of them live outside the city.”
Moe also faulted Courage for supporting the “equity funding” policy on the council that in 2019 distributed some additional street maintenance funds to seven poorer districts that historically have had worse roads than District 9, which Courage’s office said “has the best roads in the city because we’re built on rock, not clay.”
Candidates for San Antonio City Council District 9 (from left) Erika Moe, Patrick Von Dohlen and the incumbent, John Courage, participate in debate held by the Greater Harmony Hills Neighborhood Association on April 8.Lisa Krantz /Staff photographer
In social media posts, Moe opposed utility executives receiving “pay raises and bonuses during the pandemic” and generally characterized CPS Energy as unprepared for February’s historic freeze.
Von Dohlen decries Courage’s support of a council resolution last August declaring racism a public health crisis, a gun buyback program in September 2019 and another resolution backing the Paris climate agreement, which he suggested was indirectly responsible for “thousands” of lost power episodes during the massive February storm.
In June 2017, weeks after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the climate accord, a newly sworn-in council voted to join more than 300 U.S. cities in pledging to cut greenhouse emissions and improve air quality.
Courage, looking back on his two terms, said he was most proud of his staff’s hard work and his ability to recruit people from the community to serve on boards and commissions, even including two opponents from his first race in 2017.
“Some days this job is rewarding. Some days it’s frustrating,” Courage said. “I don’t do it for the pleasure. I just feel it’s an important duty.”
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