by Zabdi Salazar
Michael Montaño is running to become a voice for the people of his native District 1 in San Antonio. On May 6, Montaño will face five other candidates including the incumbent Roberto C. Treviño. An academically accomplished Texan, Michael is a graduate from Catholic Central High School, Yale college, and Stanford Law School. His diverse career path has taken him from technology firms to nonprofits and law. I spoke with Michael about his campaign, development and gentrification in district 1, his policy goals, and his personal values.
What do you think is unique about your style of campaigning for public office?
I think what makes this campaign incredibly special is that it has been completely a grassroot effort. My core team is voluntary. Whenever people feel passionate about something to give up their entire lives for months on end to make San Antonio better, I believe that’s unique. I cannot speak on how all campaigns are being run, but we have focused on two things: Listening to voters and talking about public policy. Those are the two things that make for a strong campaign and also reflects the dignity of the electorate. Anything else would be a distraction.
What do you think are the most pressing issues facing district 1, and why do you think that you can resolve them better than the incumbent Trevino? Why do you believe that people in district 1 have expressed a need for change?
The need for change is very evident. Before I was a candidate, I was a resident. And I spent months going to neighborhood associations and various other kinds of community meetings and listening. And that literally meant very often sitting in the back of the room, taking notes, and hearing what the residents had to say. I had their support because when you are considering running for office, you need to make sure that your concerns are not idiosyncratic. You need to make sure that what you feel is broadly felt in the neighborhoods.
I observed a council office that was not very responsive to residents. The response of the residents themselves was to organize. Two groups have done that well. One has been the San Antonio Progressive Alliance and the other has been theTier One Neighborhood Coalition. Those are community based groups that grew organically. That is the best that I can tell in response to the sense that the interests of the residents of district 1 weren’t being prioritized. What is being prioritized right now are the pet projects of lobbyists, developers, and our political class.
What I intend to do differently is to focus on what the residents of the district want, and elevate those priorities. My staff and I will achieve this because of our unique culture of responsiveness, accountability, and transparency. What I hear residents talk about consistently is the rise in crime, which has been fairly dramatic over the past year in district 1. Aggravated assault is up 115%, and a lack of attention to the basics such as streets, sidewalks and drainage.
If you look at a map of district 1, the current councilman likes to brag that 25% of the bond is coming to district 1 but only 1.5% of the bond is coming to district 1 residents North of Hildebrand. The rest, 23.5%, is coming to downtown primarily. That doesn’t strike me as fair. The needs and desires of people who live throughout the district are equally valid. I want to make sure everyone in my district, including the Westside and the Northside and the very Southside are represented at city hall. I do support the bond, yet the next bond needs to put more money to parts of the district that are beyond just the downtown area.
What are your thoughts about organizing and engaging with people to ensure that they do have an equal footing in city council given the interests of lobbyists, developers, and the political class?
How you implement real community engagement is by organizing at the grassroot level. Our campaign is built on the grassroot level and that’s how we intend to govern as well. We are going to make sure that we have a real presence in every neighborhood 365 days a year, not just in the months before the election. And that means me personally attending neighborhood association meetings. If I cannot be there, making sure that my staff is there. When we are out in neighborhood associations, in PTA meetings and church groups, we are not just instructing people to go fill out a form or call 311. We are actually taking up the concerns of residents from here and then working ourselves to help address them directly.
The other part of that is empowering residents. It’s not enough for me to say that I am going to fix this problem for you. We have to help create structures, whether it’s empowering Tier One Neighborhood Coalitions or other groups. We want them to self-activate. It’s one thing for me to say in council that this is what my residents need, yet it’s something different for me to say that there are 50 residents with me right now passionate about this need. Residents who are engaged and ready to speak up for themselves. I think that’s the difference of how we will govern.
Why do you believe that your campaign is much more connected with the youth of San Antonio?
We have actively tried to spread our message at SAC, at Trinity, UIW, as well as some of the farther campuses like St. Mary’s and UTSA. We have recruited a number of college volunteers, especially at Trinity and SAC, who are engaged with our campaign and go door to door for us. They tell their friends about our message and I think that my message of responsive, innovative, and inclusive government resonates with people young and old. We have actively sought out to bring in young people to the campaign. I know that the earlier someone starts being involved, the more they are engaged throughout their lives and understand why politics is so important. If young people want to have a voice in how this city is governed, then they need to be involved. Otherwise, people won’t pay them any mind.
Councilman Trevino- who is an architect – approaches the revitalization of district 1 as a balance between development, growth, and historic preservation. You believe the Councilman Trevino has fallen short of these promises. Why?
The incumbent’s architectural expertise has not resulted in the prevention of ill-fitting development in district 1, so you can look at a building like 930 West Craig Place or 615 West Holton. Both of those are monstrously large buildings immediately adjacent to single family homes and that kind of ill-fitting development disrupts neighborhoods. I’m not anti-growth. I’m for development that makes community but against development that breaks community. I think that is an important aspect of this conversation.
On April 24th, the COPS/Metro Alliance organized an accountability session with candidates at St.Henry’s Catholic Church Parish Hall. At the event, many community members expressed their concern with the issue of gentrification. You stated that everyone deserves not just rehabilitated homes but also tax abatements. Can you elaborate on this proposal, and if elected, what other policies would you propose to address these concerns?
As far as neighborhood change, everyone wants their neighborhood to be nicer. What you don’t want is for low income people or seniors to be pushed out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the property taxes or because people who want to buy their homes harass them with co-compliance complaints to the point that they give up and decide to move out. What I would like to see is the implementation of comprehensive neighborhood stabilization plan. There are several aspects to this plan, but as far as preventing displacement is concerned, I think we can start by offering not just age-based property tax abatement but also income-based property tax abatement. The lower income people who have not reached the age of 65 won’t be pushed out of their homes.
It’s not fair when your property taxes rise dramatically because of work someone else did near you. Your house is completely untouched but your neighbor completely remodeled their home, and now it’s worth twice as much than before and then your property taxes go up. Now your house is worth more. That’s not fair because you didn’t do anything to earn that higher appraisal.
In regards to residential rehabilitation, Trevino has implemented the Under 1 Roof Program. What do you plan to do differently, and why will it be better than Trevino’s current programs on residential rehabilitation?
The Under 1 Roof Program is a fine program. But, it is somewhat narrow in scope. If we are going to tackle neighborhood change, we need a more comprehensive approach. We must expand the owner-occupied rehab not just for roofs, but also foundations and other aspects of people’s homes that need to be repaired. I don’t frankly understand the fixation of the roof, specifically. I also want to use city funds to help neighborhoods to set up their own community land trusts. Community land trusts is an interesting legal model that allows the ownership of the underlying property and the improvements on the house to be separate.
A nonprofit that the community sets up pays for the property taxes on the property. But the owner only pays for the property tax on the house. That allows people with lower income to live there, and then when they decide to sell or move on, then a land trust buys back the house so it stays in community control. The last thing is doing home affordability set-aside. The city is going to incentivize large scale development need to require a reasonable number of units to be set aside for affordable housing. All new large developments that are publicly subsidized are mixed income.
Overall, a comprehensive policy for neighborhood stabilization includes four components: A broader program for owner-occupied home repair; income based property tax abatements; community land trusts; and mixed income set asides for publicly subsidized buildings. All of these things together can help stabilize a neighborhood.
As a lawyer and entrepreneur, why did you decide at this moment in your life to run for public office?
I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work in business, nonprofits, and government. For example, I helped build several startups. I have my own law practice, but I’ve also worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council. I worked for an infrastructure bank called the North American Development Bank. I have worked for the United States house committee on judiciary. Finally, I worked on Julian Castro’s office on Energy policy. My experiences go broad and deep. My sense is that having such trisected experience is precisely what is needed to help craft complete solutions to some of the problems we are facing in the city. It’s not enough if you just have experience in government or in business or in the world of nonprofits. Having all of these three experiences together allows you to imagine with greater vision and specificity the kinds of programs that can work and can bring multiple sectors of our economy together around shared solutions.
I’m 36 years now. I feel quite ready to do this. Having been involved behind the scenes for so long, this time, I just could not sit back and watch neighborhoods being ignored any longer. It was not a strategic choice. It was more of a calling to serve and help people who are otherwise being neglected. That sort of public service calling has been with me as long as I can remember. I do think that Central Catholic High School really helped solidify that. As well as Yale and Stanford that have great traditions of public service.
You expressed in your biography that SA allowed you to reach the American Dream and to protect that opportunity for all. What does the American Dream mean to you, and how specifically will you, if elected, help the members of district 1 achieve that dream?
The American Dream is to have your reward in life reflect your effort and to have an equal opportunity to success as you define it. That’s liberty. My parents worked really hard to make sure that I could go to the best schools they could afford. That meant Catholic school for 16 years, and then throughout my own hard works too, I was able to go to Yale and Stanford. That is a trajectory that is all too rare. Many people have a difficult time achieving even a semblance of middle class stability. This situation can often lead to lives full of great difficulty and day to day anxiety.
I want to make sure that as a councilperson in concert with my colleagues on council, the mayor, and the city staff, we are working to ensure that people have a number of resources to live decently. But also to draw jobs to the city that are going to create middle class opportunity. Less important than the number of those jobs is the quality of those jobs. We can’t just keep bringing call center after call center to the city. We need to create opportunities for people, whether they are in high-end manufacturing, engineering, the medical sciences, or in software. I think that one of the things that will be unique about my term on council is that with my background across law and technology, I will be able to help in recruiting job creators to the city who are going to create the knowledge jobs of the future so that people such as millennials will be drawn to and ready for.
In regards to your own educational and professional accomplishments, what advice would you give to college students who are also seeking the American Dream and hoping to attain an advanced/professional degree after college?
I think there are a number of things that I will recommend. First of all, work really hard. This seems like common sense, but some people say that they will only be in college once, so that they might as well party. Yet, really focusing on your school work and learning as much as you can will be rewarding. Also, you should focus on your relationships. The biggest asset that you will take from college in all likelihood will not be the specifics of your degree, it will be the human capital and the people you meet. Making sure that you go out and meet people who are different from you and forge those relationships will pay dividends for the rest of your life. As long as you nurture those relationships. I have a lot of friends from Yale and Stanford who have contributed to my campaign. They have made calls in support of my campaign not because they thought I would ever run for office, necessarily, but because we are friends. They have gotten to know me over the years and they believe in me.
On the career side, dare to be different. If you have a passion, try to pursue it as early as possible. If you don’t, you could end up in a life of regret. In honesty, if you do make a mistake and the world will not reward you for your passion, which happens sometimes, at least you have figured it out early. You will be able to move on to the next thing. Make sure that you have multiple passions and cultivate interests. The path to a rewarding life also rests on being open to possibility. You do not know what opportunities will pop up. Do not ever tell yourself no because other people have. Never think that I am not good enough and that I will never get the job, you just try and see what happens. It takes a thick skin. Most successful people in the world know how to handle rejection, because sometimes you have to be rejected 10-12 times until the world says yes. But when this does happen, you will be ready for it.
Zabdi Salazar is a sophomore Political Science and Business Administration major, as well as the Director of Business operations for The Contemporary. Email Zabdi: email@example.com
This interview has been edited and condensed. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewers or interviewee. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photos above are courtesy of the candidate’s campaign.