Christian Archer moved to San Antonio in 2005. In 15 years, he has made his mark on local politics, bond projects, and the city's move politically to the left. He is full of stories and backgrounds of some of the biggest San Antonio stories of the past 15 years.
Justin: Hello. Bienvenido 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 Antonio, 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.
All right. Welcome to the Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Christian Archer. Christian Archer is a man of many things, I was learning today. I think best-known to me, is you were good friends with my old boss and former mentor and former guest, Mikal Watts. You all worked on a bunch of projects together, but I knew you also ran Julian's campaign, Hardburgers campaign. You were instrumental in getting Sculley to come to the city and you're also a filmmaker and author now I read.
Christian: [laughs] Yes. That's right.
Justin: When's the movie coming out?
Christian: We're working on it. In fact, I'm working on it today. We've got a guy who is closely associated with Bradley Cooper, who's now taking over the project and he wants to do a several part series. Back when Mikal got indicted on 95 felony counts, most people thought he was going to prison.
Justin: Because most of the people when that one happens.
Christian: 99.7% of them to be exact.
Christian: When Mikal got indicted, a lot of people thought Mikal was done. His story was just beginning I think. Obviously, it was a terrible, terrible time but I lived it with my best friend, a mentor to me. A guy who I love dearly. I know, we both do, Mikal Watts, he's just an amazing person. I wrote a book about that experience and what it was through my eyes, to watch somebody go through 95 felony counts and watch a lot of people turn their back on him. A lot of good friends disappear. You really do learn who your friends are. I went to trial with him in Biloxi. We planned basically live there for four months and he defended himself. It was the craziest thing you've ever seen in a lifetime, and it was enough to make a movie and a book about.
We're working on the book, and the movie, right now, the second part to that is we're looking at an eight-part episodic series on what happened to Mikal because during the trial, I don't know if you know this, but I filmed the whole thing. Brought in a film crew and shot the whole thing.
Justin: I knew there was a crew, I didn't think you were actually the one holding the camera, though.
Christian: Well, I wasn't holding the camera thing.
There is actually usable footage of this.
Justin: When did you all start the film? When did you all know you all were going to start making a book or a movie about this?
Christian: You know what, it was funny. What was it that big Netflix hit?
Justin: Making a Murderer.
Christian: What was it?
Justin: Making a Murderer.
Christian: Making a Murderer.
Christian: Had just come out [chuckles], and Mikal and I were talking about this. Obviously, look, there was severe depression. After so many years of not knowing if you were going to get indicted, then the indictment in the trial and all of the above, and just to lighten the mood I told him, I said, "Wouldn't it be great to write a book about it or do a making of a murderer style, a Netflix doc." It's like a light bulb went off. It gave him a little bit of hope and a little bit of something to take away from his daily dose of 95 felony counts, which was a brutal, brutal thing to watch. [crosstalk]
Justin: Jesus. Because people who listen to the Watts episode, they're going to know, like there was the investigation in the raids, then there was nothing for a long time. Then Ron Johnson put a bug in somebody's ear and next thing we know there's an indictment. When did the film and bookmaking process start?
Christian: It was really after the indictment. After we read the salacious stuff that Watts didn't know about, regarding the other people who were indicted, Greg Warren and Kristy Lee, who ended up obviously going to prison for what they did to Mikal. But it was really after the salacious parts of how they blew through his money and all of the lies that they told. It was like, "Wow, you couldn't even make up that script." Nobody in Hollywood would buy it if you tried to sell the script. Yet, I got to watch my best friend go through that tragedy of his life in the prime of his career. Right smack dab in the middle of Mikal Watts, his trajectory was like the space shuttle at the time.
Christian: Then it all came crumbling down for four years. It just crumbled around him. It was hard to watch. Obviously, there's a redemptive part to that, part of what will be included in the series. I think one very important thing it was missed out was here he was. Our close friend preparing for the trial of a lifetime. The pinnacle of his career and he worked a year just tirelessly on this PowerPoint presentation about BP and everything that went wrong. Kind of the, we were all robbed of watching him and his genius at work.
Justin: People who don't know Watts as a worker, at a different level than you would think. When you say he really worked, that guy's a different kind of animal when it comes to working.
Christian: Yes, and watch that switch, when he realized I'm going to do this and the decision making of representing himself, which every major, every well-known lawyer in the country called either him or me and said, "You are a lunatic. If you think you're going to represent yourself against the 95 count felony charge against yourself--"
Justin: To be fair, he had a good co-counsel and Mike McCrum who was going to be trying it with him. It allowed a little bit of extra padding than just literally trying that alone.
Christian: Yes. Justin, it was a beautiful thing to watch those guys battle back and forth during the trial itself. Mike McCrum is a genius. Mikal Watts, he was wanting to know is a defense lawyer and it's a good thing he had Mike McCrum. It really is, and to watch those guys, it was truly a ballet each day to watch them in court and how they played off of each other. That experience watching the jury, watching the federal prosecutors just do such a horrible job, and two really brilliant lawyers going at them in court, was something special. That'll be the basis of the first part of the series. The next part, a second season we'll actually deal with the California wildfires. This is what we've been working on for the last three years.
Justin: His first season is kind of part Mikal, but also part of the problems with our criminal justice system?
Christian: It definitely is. There are some real problems with criminal justice reform. I'm not a lawyer. Watching the fight that he had to go through each day, when it came to all of the roadblocks put up in front of someone trying to make a defense for themselves, it was incredible. The power that the federal government had over the judicial system and how they just robbed him of knowledge of, "Well, what are you trying to convict him of?" They wouldn't give him who was going to testify him. Who's going to be in court the next day until six o'clock at night. Then they'd give him this long, completely bogus list of 30 people when you know they were only going to call five, but yet we had to prepare for 30 because you didn't know which ones would actually be called.
Justin, it was the craziest abuse of power. What John Dowdy did, who was the guy who ended up indicting him, the wannabe governor of Mississippi, who was the interim federal prosecutor. He just wanted to notch on his belt. He wanted to bring down a big name trial lawyer, and it was embarrassing what he did to our judicial system, what he did to Mikal. Then the guy quit about a month and a half before the trial started because he knew Mikal Watts was going to whoop his and had that guy showed up in court, he would've had his whooped. Instead, these other prosecutors kind of inherited this case and it was an embarrassing thing for the government. Mikal and his brother, David, and Winter Lee, just slammed the door shut, on their case.
But in the end, Justin, when you think about a civil case and how there's remedies. In a criminal case, "It's just go home." You took all of his money, froze all of his bank accounts, destroyed him reputationally, destroyed him during the prime of his career. Then it was, "Oh yes. Not guilty." "Okay. Go home." No repercussions, no slap on the wrist. No, "Oh, sorry. We destroyed your life and everything you'd built over your career, but you can go home now." It's scary.
Justin: Now Mikal's rebound has been quite impressive in itself so, "Destroy yes." I think for most people it would have, but for Mikal, he has bounced back in, I think even a bigger way than he was before, it sounds like.
Christian: Justin, I think the way that he works, we talked about his work ethic, it's unparalleled. The guy just works his tail off, but I don't want to speak for Mikal, but I can tell you, buddy, he went through a real depression. I think his brother, David, who's a dear friend of mine is still suffering from PTSD. Look that year, there was a 99.7% conviction rate. Mikal knew that he was going to go to prison for the rest of his life and his brother, David, was for something that they didn't do. It took a while for him to get out of that and now I think he's out of it. I think that he's just so incredibly driven to go get those four years that were robbed from the guy's life.
He's just not going to slow down. He's just going 1,000 miles an hour. There is redemption. I think that his work ethic and what he's doing now is trying to get those four years back, but his brother, David, still suffering from it. You can see it in his eyes.
Justin: I can't imagine. The toll it takes on everybody around you, not just yourself, your family and your friends and reputationly and people abandoning you. There's just got to be a lot.
Christian: Yes. It was really, really tough to watch somebody who at least in my mind and in my eyes, such a bright light in Mikal Watts to watch him go through it was incredibly impressive.
Justin: I'm glad he had you there to help out and to make sure it got documented because documenting it turned out to be a really good idea. If it had not turned out the way y'all wanted it to, that probably would have gotten tossed.
Christian: Justin, in the end, he ruined the end of my movie. The end of my movie was going to be him going to prison. He wrecked the end of my movie.
Justin: Just have a Choose Your Own Adventure version and people can decide what they want to do. We got off track of my normal process because I was wanting to know about your filmmaking, which now I think I know, but I want to run through a few small things I do with everybody who comes on the show. Obviously, you've got San Antonio chops, but how long have you lived in San Antonio? What brought you here?
Christian: I came in 2005. I just come off of the successful mayor's race in Houston in 2003 for a guy named Bill White and I met Phil Hardberger. My very first meeting, I think I fell in love with him. He was running for mayor in '05. There were three major candidates running, a guy named Carroll Schubert, who was the Republican North Side city council member. Obviously, Julián Castro was the favorite in that race and was blowing Hardberger and Schubert away. It looked like he might even win without a runoff.
Justin: How old was he then?
Christian: Who, Castro?
Christian: Oh, gosh. [crosstalk]
Christian: I want to say he's probably 28.
Justin: Yes, maybe.
Christian: He was young. He was coming off a rough period of time in San Antonio's history. Three of the city council members went to jail for minor bribery charges, but they took $1,000 bribe here and there. We made a joke during the Hardberger campaign that if two more council members went to prison, that they would have their own quorum in jail, so we needed to be careful so nobody else would go to jail, is to be able to hold council meetings inside the Bexar County Jail.
I moved here in 2005 to run Hardberger's campaign. I really didn't think that I would stay, didn't realize how much I would fall in love with the city and like you said in the intro, what a hidden gem the city is. The power that the people have in the city was awesome. In '05 is when I moved here. I ran Hardberger's campaign. My every intention was to run the campaign, hopefully, win, and then go on and run another political campaign, but we came from way behind to end up beating Julián in the runoff.
Phil asked me to stay onboard outside of city. I never wanted to go to work for a city. I wanted to be a outside political arm to be able to get things done from outside City Hall. We made some real magic things happen for the city and it was the funnest time that I had in politics, were the four years that Phil Hardberger was mayor.
Justin: We're going to talk a little bit about Harberger because it wraps into the scaly thing in a second, but you brought me to one of the next things I do with everybody, is some of your favorite hidden gems in the city. Nurnberg brought up a Denman State Park, I think, and some of these things, I've never even known about in the city. Do you have any, those hidden places in the city where you tell people, "Hey, you really got to go check out this thing you've never heard of?"
Christian: I would say it's so sad I wrote about it in the newspaper, my favorite little restaurant. My mother [unintelligible 00:14:54] my family is from New Orleans and there's a restaurant called The Cookhouse, which was my favorite hidden gem restaurant in this tiny little house over off of St. Mary's. I think it's maybe 20 tables in the old place and it was some of the best food-
Justin: They shut down?
Christian: They're going to keep it. He's just changing, I think, what they're doing, but that would have been it. It was in the newspaper that it's closing.
Justin: For good?
Christian: There are so many hidden gems, Hot Wells is probably a hidden gem. It's beautiful. If you haven't been on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, you're missing out. Hardberger Park is another one of my favorite places to go in the city.
Justin: I got to check out the landbridge.
Christian: Wait, say that again.
Justin: I need to check out the land bridge.
Christian: A land bridge is now open.
Justin: I went to Cookhouse for lunch one day and I guess it wasn't open but the front door was open. I walk in and it is death metal as loud as you can imagine. There's just some dude cleaning. That was my last time to Cookhouse. The food's great, though.
Christian: Oh, my gosh, the food's great and it's open for another month.
Justin: Then closed or just changing menu.
Christian: He's changing the direction of the restaurant. Restaurants have a lifespan and Peters just reached the lifespan of the New Orleans Style Restaurant.
Justin: It was a trailer in EatStreet at first, wasn't it, in that little trailer park that Jodi and Steven Newman own? They ran across from battalion. I think that's where it started and then they got their brick and mortar.
Christian: Y[crosstalk] It's open, go check it out. I think it's open for another month.
Justin: You covered two things in that answer. What are your thoughts on the most recent election locally? I'm not going to get into Donald Trump stuff, but it was a pretty surprising election. What do you think it told you about San Antonio or San Antonio-based podcast? What did you see in terms of trends here locally?
Christian: First, we elected the first two women to the Bexar County Commissioner.
Justin: Are those the first two ever?
Justin: I didn't know that.
Christian: Rebeca Clay-Flores defeated in one of the biggest surprises of the Democratic primary, was Rebeca Clay-Flores beating Chico Rodriguez.
Christian: It was a blast. That's right. I certainly didn't see it coming. Chico's a good friend of mine. I think that we thought he was going to win. I wish he had run a more aggressive campaign, but good for Rebeca Clay-Flores and her campaign manager, Frankie. They ran a heck of a campaign. Then Trish DeBerry on the Northside had her own runoff in the Republican primary against a guy who ran against Nelson Wolf, who's one of my clients, a guy named Tom Rakoff.
I was glad to see Trish win and the fact that there are now two women on the Bexar County Commissioner's Court is great. I think Bexar County, every year that goes by is becoming more and more Democratic when you look at the fact-- Used to be Justin, that in the gubernatorial years was the big year for the Republicans to be competitive and then in the presidential years because of the turnout, the county would go wholeheartedly Democratic.
In the gubernatorial races, they were mostly Republicans would win. In the last gubernatorial election, the Democrats swept out all of the judges every seat, if there was a Democrat running for it, the Democrat won and elected a lot of new judges. This two years from now, if it's affirmed and Democrats continue to win, I think Bexar County is going to be a solid Democratic county for the foreseeable future.
Justin: Yes, that was going to be my question to you because when I first moved here, it was like that and it was even what, maybe six or eight years ago when they had that election that every Democratic except for David Rodriguez in the...