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Tommy Calvert, Precinct 4 Bexar County Commissioner and Leader in COVID-19 Response
Episode 812th April 2020 • The Alamo Hour • Justin Hill
00:00:00 01:07:20

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San Antonio's born and bred Precinct 4 County Commissioner Tommy Calvert discusses a lot of issues related to Bexar County's pandemic response, how we got here and how things look moving forward. He is candid, honest and open about our successes and failures. Great episode and a must listen if you live in San Antonio or the greater Bexar County.



Justin Hill: Hello in Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour discussing the people, places and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion and a keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here.


Welcome. Today's guest on The Alamo Hour for Episode 8 is Precinct 4, Commissioner Tommy Calvert. Tommy, thank you for being here.

Tommy Calvert: Super to be on with you. Congratulations on your show.

Justin: Thank you. This is our first Zoom. Hopefully, it goes well.

Tommy: We're trying to move everybody into the new century here.


Justin: All right. Tommy has been representing Precinct 4 since 2014. He's in his second term. He's been involved in lots of stuff including international policy, antislavery issues. He was recently named top 40 under 40 by the San Antonio Business Journal. In my opinion, I think the most impressive thing about you, Tommy, is your retail politics, what you're doing for your actual constituents is something you don't see political leaders do enough of. Hats off to you, man. Seriously, kudos. You do such a good job. I just want you to know that a lot of people notice that.

Tommy: Oh my God, thank you. I couldn't have done it without my father's teachings. He deserves the credit.

Justin: Well, hopefully, he'll listen to this.

Tommy: I'm sure he will.

Justin: [laughs] We have Tommy on here today to talk about a few things. These are one of the things that I don't know how to do. Are you hearing that, Tommy?

Tommy: I do hear that.

Justin: I don't know--

Tommy: It was like a light bulb. It's probably my father saying thank you.

Justin: [laughs] We might just be dealing with that some today since this is Zoom and I don't know how to turn off that stuff. We have Tommy on here today to talk about a few things. The elephant in the room is your work and the County's work as it relates to this pandemic response. I want to talk to you a little bit about a few things. We are going to talk about the response, the science, the expectations of people in San Antonio, what resources are available and then not gloom and doom, I want to talk to you a little bit about what's next for the County and San Antonio moving forward because this isn't a forever thing but this is a really tragic, heavy, bad thing right now. All right?

Tommy: Sure. I'm ready whenever you're ready.

Justin: All right. We've been doing this with everybody who comes on the show so far is talking a little bit about a top 10, a little color commentary and I've changed it for you a little bit because I realize you're in a different position. How are you spending your time decompressing right now?

Tommy: There's not a lot of time to decompress because we have an emergency. I'm like a general in a war zone and it's a seven-day a week and it's first thing 5:00 AM to midnight hours for us right now. I will get to work out maybe two or three times a week. I'll decompress that way. We have just family. We might have a couple tequila shots and some beer on Friday and Saturday night and just decompress as best as you can. That's not a lot. I've been to a park and walked. I've got a five-mile walk in one day but that's about it. Everything's closed. A decompression might be a drive to the store out of the house because you're in the house so much. Maybe a drive to the courthouse office or something like that. That's a way to get my mind off of things or dropping things off [crosstalk]

Justin: Not enough. No matter what. Not enough of it.

Tommy: No. I've read a little bit of the Bible from time to time. I'll read Exodus since it is Passover today. I'll read a little bit tonight. We'll have a Passover Seder tonight at my house.

Justin: Who will be there? Family?

Tommy: Yes, family and then my Jewish brother, Aaron Chasen Cohen. He's a Cohen. That's the high priest class of the Jewish faith. He will lead it. His girlfriend will be here and some other friends. We will have a Seder tonight. I'm looking forward to. I found out of my I'm 1% Jewish.

Justin: Fair enough. [laughs]

Tommy: Rabbi block let me in the services and I'm loving it.

Justin: [laughs] All right. That's going to go to my last question but we're not going to skip ahead. Are you listening to any-- You're driving all around the county. I've watched your social media and your YouTube videos. Any go-to music or podcasts you've been following?

Tommy: Right now, it's really all news all the time because every hour is very different. I'm listening to a lot of news whether it's in NBPR, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, Local News. I've done a couple of music videos because of my radio station KROB but I have never collaborated with Drake until several hours ago. I was in Jose Hoffman from a typical Mexican restaurant. He had a videographer make a music video of us giving away enchilada platters to God's Plan and Drake . I've been listening to Drake's God's Plan lately.

Justin: Did Drake give you a license for this or you're just hoping for the best?

Tommy: Look, lawyer, stop your nonsense, he gave away 750 enchilada plates. That's a good deed.

Justin: I'm sure he'll let it slide.

Tommy: He said he doesn't have it and I don't condone it. Don't sue me, Drake or [unintelligible 00:05:30]Records, whoever.

Justin: Maybe that answers the next question. You had a whole video on YouTube about ordering local, buying local, help support local. What are some of the restaurants and businesses there you go that you've been going to? I'm going to get it wrong. I saw it but I can't remember the name.

Tommy: It's TexaCola. It's Southside Craft Soda. Brother Anguiano really lit a fire under my rear end. I, of course, reached out to our mutual friend Jodie Newman and Steve just to see did they have any of their restaurants open. [unintelligible 00:06:03] there aren't a whole lot but then you can always go to the Grub Hubs and things like-- I had to figure out what was open. I went down the Tito's Mexican restaurant. I've been just trying to spread the love as many places as I can, but really for my own health and just because I am in such a busy schedule where I don't necessarily have time to go out a lot of places, I've actually been cooking a lot here at the house and meal prepping. We've been doing a lot of that.

Justin: We had a group called Catalina Produce who dropped off. It had to be 10 or 15 pounds of produce, delivery and everything and we had to cook [crosstalk]. It was great.

Tommy: Yes. There's a lot of great options for folks. You've got everything from American Express with the small business centers that they offer online. We're putting some lists together on Bear County. Thanks to Brother Anguiano from Southside Craft soda raising the awareness. I'm trying to get our county institutions to do things like purchase his soda whether it's a university houses.

And we're not really operating our cafeteria very much at the courthouse right now because of the real decline in the way the courts are operating and just there's not a lot of people really. A lot of us are working from home but we're doing what we can.

Justin: We are. We're doing the same thing in my house and doing the best but it's a weird mix. You don't want too much interaction but at the same time, you want to support. We're doing that every other day. We're cooking. Every other day we're ordering out.

Tommy: Keeping it real. That's what's going on.

Justin: What is your precinct? You explained it to me one time and it's gigantic. Just give us a general geographic location.

Tommy: It's God's country and we represent-

Justin: Better be.

Tommy: -all the great things that really make up Texas. My precinct is bigger than major cities like Milwaukee. It has half a million people in it. It's downtown and the Alamo, it goes west to [unintelligible 00:07:59] and Hildebrand by Chris Madrids. It's South East Brooks City base and the Pecan Valley and Elmendorf and beyond as if you're going into the Eagle Ford Shale down 37. It's the east side and going all the way down IH-10 as if you're going to Houston. It's the northeast side. It's [unintelligible 00:08:16] and Lookout Road and Selma, Universal City, Live Oak shorts, Windcrest, Converse, Kirby, all of those northeast cities. About the 12 cities, half a million folks.

It's the most diverse precinct so we have, like I said, the pearl and we have great poverty and great opportunity as well. Of course, the new challenges of the economy coming out. I'm not sure everybody is truly pivoted to the before coronavirus and after coronavirus understanding yet but I don't think this is going to be gone any short of two years. The president's own memos indicate it's an 18-month situation and most scientists and people who deal in disease, infectious disease, recognize that the virus will probably come back in the fall again.

It could come back worse than it is now. That's what the flu and things like that do. They actually come back a second cycle after their first cycle even worse. We have to remember that this particular disease has mutated like eight or nine times. Right?

Justin: Yes, seven or eight.

Tommy: Even if we get a vaccine it may mutate in the time that the vaccine is created and then once you get the vaccine, think about how long it'll take the world to actually receive it. It'll take years. This is a life-changer. We're in a disaster economy and we're in it for years because as a guy with an economics background, there's not a lot that the government can do other than maintain basic bills. Just basically pay people's minimum sustenance because normally when you have stimulus and things like that, you can stimulate the economy, but if you literally can't get out because of a health issue of the disease to work, the only thing the federal government can do is to print money, like only, it can do states. Local entities cannot print their own money and help just maintain, I would call it a reset. It's a flatline kind of economy. I'm not sure you knew but I think--

Justin: It's a great point. Even if there's a million jobs, a million healthy people can't work in them because you can't get out of your house.

Tommy: Well, and it's worldwide.

Justin: Yes. No, that's right.

Tommy: It's all over the world.

Justin: We're going to get into this a little more in-depth, but I wanted to have you run through real quick. You've been appointed co-chair of the social services COVID-19 Community Action Working Group which apparently it looks like a mix of city and county elected officials, some citizens, but it's a pretty high powered group of people. What is the role of the Community Action Working Group?

Tommy: There's actually more community citizens on it. It's just that the elected officials are chairing it except the philanthropy committee. Social services, in particular, is really, I think the frontline of what we have to deal with. It's a broad enough subject matter talking about nonprofit social services that we can dabble into what we want, but there are other committees that are dealing with the frontline issue, which is food security or food insecurity. Let me tell you, there is a huge amount of food insecurity in San Antonio. If you look at the statistics in Texas, San Antonio of the six major cities actually is going to receive the most stimulus checks, the most qualified people because of the big cities not in terms of [crosstalk].

Justin: Per capita.

Tommy: Per capita. Because the wages are higher in other cities around the state. Our wages, you can't make more than, I think $150 or $140 or something like that. We're going to receive a lot of those checks. People are living paycheck to paycheck, and if we're at 10% unemployment now, by the time "this" clears up for a short-term in late June, mid-July, we'll probably be at 30% unemployment at that point.

We will be in depression era times and so the Social Service Committee is looking at everything from how do we get senior citizens who cannot go to a food bank distribution, who are not on a Meals on Wheels list,how do we make sure they're taken care of and the variety of needs dealing with staying aware of information because they may not be technologically savvy. Family are told, "You can't go visit them or else you might make them sick." It's some very complicated issues. How we deal with domestic violence, runaways because you and I are both getting amber alerts on our phones with children abducted.

Justin: Got one this morning.

Tommy: Exactly, I got one. We all got it. When people have to stay in domestic situations that they don't want to be in, obviously those situations happen, so domestic violence is probably going to increase 30%. What that means is human trafficking is going to increase 30% because people run away from the domestic situations and they become poached by pimps and traffickers. The organized crime networks want to focus on trafficking because they can't get some of the supplies across the border because of the closing of the transportation routes so they're going to start getting into selling of commercial sex, exploitation.

We're looking at everything from the fact that the schoolchildren in this city don't have access to internet. We have areas, I'm sure it's quite frankly, that don't have internet. I have large parts of my precinct that are rural in the east-central area and beyond that don't have a good internet connection. They're basically using satellite stuff, and it's very slow. How do you communicate with your teacher if you're poor and don't have internet? All those kinds of things are really major obstacles. What happens to the kids long-term when they don't really have the interaction with the teacher? Do schools need to be year-round? I think they do at this point.

One of the superintendents told me, "Well, we can't make school year-round because people have vacations planned." I'm thinking, I don't think he understands a lot of hotels are going to die. A lot of air routes are not going to be available. It's not going to be a lot of vacationing. People are still going to be concerned about their health in getting on a plane which is almost a sentence to get COVID-19 right now. We're told not to, so it's going to take a little while before all that gets back into motion where our plane routes have been cut in half in San Antonio.

We're looking at how do we use CPS Energy's dark fiber, fiber they're not using to be hooked up so that we have internet because we probably have-- I'm a dork that looks at spatial maps. I looked at the spatial map of 40 of the largest cities in the United States and San Antonio had the lowest internet usage. In the east, south and west sides, only 25% to 40% of the households have internet. North sides, 80%, 90%, 100% of the census tracks, so have a huge digital divide that's going to be a problem in a world where people are going on Zoom and all this other digital stuff.

There's tremendous issues before the Social Service Committee. We're prioritizing those, but at the same time, this is very important. What I'm encouraging our committee to do is we can't let the other nonprofits die. Just because we're prioritizing the stimulus funding the people feeding and sheltering, people have to go first, doesn't mean that with the increased capacity to feed, while volunteers are down to the food bank, because people are concerned about their health because there are a lot of seniors who volunteer at the food bank, and that's understandable, they should be concerned.

Why not use the workers from those other nonprofits to help and hire them from the stimulus funds to serve food or to help with the epidemiological fight or the hotlines when you want to call in and you want to get an appointment for a test and the line is busy, why not hire more people from the other nonprofits demand those lines, or the food service workers to take the food to the senior citizens as a job from the stimulus?

What I'm trying to get people to understand is, it's like a war. When we went through World War II, the men went to war and the women got into the manufacturing. They made the airplanes and the bombs and everything. I just don't hear a lot of that thinking from...