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Patrick Svitek, Texas Tribune Political Correspondent
Episode 4426th January 2022 • The Alamo Hour • Justin Hill
00:00:00 00:57:16

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Patrick Svitek is new to San Antonio but a long time political reporter covering the state of Texas. He works for The Texas Tribune and covers Texas politics and policy from a local level to how they affect national discussions and trends. We have a lively discussion about what is happening in Texas and how he is enjoying San Antonio.


Justin: Hello. 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 Antonian and keeper of chickens and bees. On the Alamo hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique in the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here. Welcome to the Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Patrick Svitek. He is the primary political correspondent for the Texas Tribune. If you don't know, Texas Tribune is become a really a nationwide leader in nonprofit journalism and reworking the way the business model works.

He's their primary political correspondent. He's previously worked at the Houston Chronicle. He's covered the 2016 campaign trail. He's in my estimation one or two of the biggest Twitter accounts to follow if you're interested in, especially state of Texas politics. For me, it's really cool able to have you here because I've been following you for a long time. You recently moved to San Antonio so I took the opportunity to ask you to come on my show. Thank you.

Patrick: Thanks for having me. I'm excited about this.

Justin: You're recent to San Antonio as of Labor Day, I think you said.

Patrick: Around Labor Day weekend, me and my girlfriend moved down to San Antonio. She got a new job here. We decided to pack up and come down here and we bought a home in Beacon Hill, and we're loving it so far.

Justin: You're living like real San Antonian and so many people are like, "I live in San Antonio, I live in our north or here," but they are in San Antonio. It's just a different experience. All my shows I always get some information on people, the city of San Antonio feel for you. You're new here, so it'll be interesting to get some of your takes. This is your first time to live in San Antonio, right?

Patrick: That is correct. Previously only had traveled to San Antonio for work basically. I think I've made a number of trips, but only even spent the night just once is usually an afternoon day trip [unintelligible 00:02:00].

Justin: Sure. You've spent so much time in other Texas cities. What stand out to you after being here for the last few months as what sets San Antonio apart in your estimation?

Patrick: I think it's more laid back in a good way than other major Texas cities, especially compared to Austin. I think the two cities are hard to compare in some ways, but one comparison I will certainly make is that it's more laid back than Austin, and in a good way. A big city with a small city culture, I think in some ways. Again, I mean that in a positive way. Absolutely. I've loved the people so far. I've loved living in Beacon Hill.

My girlfriend and I wanted to live somewhere really central in this city as we were talking about that also had its own identity, it wasn't just blended into downtown or Midtown or the urban core. We're getting that with Beacon Hill, and we like it a lot.

Justin: I think it's one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Antonio. I'll speak out to turn, but I remember when I was doing some research, I wanted to move by building over there and move office over there. I was doing some research, and I was surprised at how historic that neighborhood is for the City of San, which is already a historic city. Have you found any hidden gems in San Antonio that you've just been shocked by or surprised by? The first time I went to the Japanese Tea Garden, have you been there?

Patrick: I don't know.

Justin: You'll go and there's a waterfall coming out of a limestone cliff and huge koi ponds and it's in the middle of the city. Anything like that, that you've been able to experience and just been surprised by?

Patrick: We we've been to, I think at this point, all the major neighborhoods. In terms of, we like South Town, King William, we've obviously as I pointed out Beacon Hill, I think has a lot to offer. We have made it outside of the Outer Loop a little bit. We took our new Chihuahua dog on a hike at Government Canyon State Park a couple weekends ago. We enjoyed that a lot. Was surprised by how close that nature was to the city. I don't know if I'd call that a hidden gem because I think everyone probably knows about the Government Canyon State Park but it was very [crosstalk].

Justin: I think there's some dinosaur tracks out there, maybe. I've never seen those.

Patrick: We didn't see them, but we read about them.

Justin: Because you had a dog, you can only go to a certain park.

Patrick: That's true, it's the front country trail.

Justin: I got lost there with my dog in what had to be like June one time. I had to carry him over my shoulders, he puked. It was hairy getting lost out there when the heat was really hitting, but it is, it feels very desolate out there. I was going to ask you about pets, you've already answered that. Any odd hobbies?

Patrick: Odd hobbies? No, I have a hobby, it's not odd. I like to run most evenings of the week, and this is also ties into what I like about San Antonio. We live relatively close to San Pedro Springs Park. One loop around the park is basically one mile. If you're like someone like me who likes to run round distances and challenge yourself based on a one-mile loop it's a good place to be. I like running down there.

Justin: The Springs are beautiful.

Patrick: We, unfortunately, didn't get to experience. By the time I started branching out after she moved in and looking around for places to go out to parks and stuff like that, it was getting a little cold and past the prime time for the spring. We're looking forward to that this [crosstalk].

Justin: I don't think anybody's been in the Springs in years, I think because of COVID it's been shut down. [crosstalk] Literally they used to have a fence around it. I thought there's a fence around it and there is nobody in it. It is beautiful, and the theater there is actually really-

Patrick: Oh yes It's gorgeous. I haven't been in, but I run by it all the time.

Justin: We need to support, San Antonio doesn't have the Zack. Austin has three professional theaters. That is our only professional theater and it struggles. San Antonio is a city that's growing, so do go see it. Have you been to Fiesta yet?

Patrick: No.

Justin: Are you going to stay in town for Fiesta?

Patrick: Yes. Oh, definitely, planning on it. Haven't experienced it yet.

Justin: Is your girlfriend from here?

Patrick: She's not. She had lived in Austin for a number about maybe three or four years. Then before that she went to school in Virginia, lived in Virginia, but she's originally from Colorado.

Justin: I'm jealous you're going to get to experience Fiesta for the first time. We're both looking forward to it. I think enough people don't realize how much fun it is. It's our Mardi Gras, and it is a huge party for multiple days. How many counties do you think you visited in Texas? I know a lot of political correspondence really get out and about.

Patrick: I would say, so we got 254 counties in Texas. I'm confident that I have at least driven through- it's a bold claim to make. I want to make sure that I don't get out in front of my [inaudible 00:06:41] here. I've definitely driven through over half the counties in Texas. I wouldn't be shocked if I tied them all up, and I've driven through at least up to two thirds of them.

Justin: I didn't know if you got stuck following Beto on his every county tour or something.

Patrick: In his 2018 campaign, I got to travel to some remote places, and we drove for Christmas from San Antonio to Fort Collins, Colorado up through Amarillo. That was I knocked out like probably 14 to 15 new counties in Texas for myself doing that.

Justin: Probably more.

Patrick: That added some new names.

Justin: Did you go up through Amarillo?

Patrick: Yes. San Antonio, basically nothing between San Antonio and Amarillo, I guess you go through Big Spring, maybe. I don't know.

Justin: Maybe Abilene, Big Spring [crosstalk]?

Patrick: Your west of Abilene. Otherwise, there's not much between San Antonio and Amarillo.

Justin: My dad was born up around Amarillo, but we don't go up there. I grew up in the Wichita Falls area, but I've seen quite a bit of [crosstalk].

Patrick: Definitely got some new counties to add to the list from that drive.

Justin: I was doing some research. I saw you have a lot of TV appearances and you're the guy who comes on, talks about what's going on in Texas. Any particular interviewers that you thought were just really good and impressed by?

Patrick: I always like doing podcast interviews, or like the longer form interviews, whether it's like sometimes the local TV anchors. They'll have you on for like a five minute hit and then they got their personal podcast and like, come over here and talk for half an hour. Those are always more fun sometimes stuff. Exactly like we're doing right now. I always enjoy that a little more.

Justin: Most of the ones I saw you were like two minutes and 40 seconds.

Patrick: Exactly. It's like you come on MSNBC or CNN for a little bit, and you just got two questions about, tell us how big of a deal this is in Texas right now. How's it playing out on the ground? I like the longer form stuff I'd say.

Justin: Do you like doing the TV stuff, or the written more?

Patrick: I like appearing for the Trib on TV gives a good opportunity to talk about, I think it's good to show that the Tribune has reporters who are working hard on these stories and that have national impact the national reach. I enjoy that. I think it's a great opportunity for the Trib's profile. I'm also doing more video work for the Trib. We have this new campaign video series that we just started recently. We did a soft launch first episode that was about the governor's race. We're working on a second episode about the Republican primary for AG. I've been trying to do a little more video work for the Trib because it does continue to intrigue me.

Justin: I'm sure I butchered it, but for our audience, how would you describe the Texas Tribune because it is non-traditional media.

Patrick: Absolutely. We're a nonprofit newsroom. I'd say our focus is statewide government and politics. If you want to know what's happening at the legislature, if you want to know what's happening in campaigns. If you want to know how our politicians and our policies are impacting the entire state and in some cases the entire country, we want to be the go-to source for that. Not just to explain those things and explain implications of those things, but to hold folks accountable, and really dig into what's behind some of the decisions that our leaders are making.

Justin: Evan Smith was the editor, but he recently retired.

Patrick: He recently announced that he'll be stepping down by the end of this calendar year so he's still with us.

Justin: Yes, but he had come from Texas Monthly, he has a big pedigree.

Patrick: Exactly, yes and he's [unintelligible 00:10:09] and he goes out saying Evan is a singular figure, not just in Texas media, but in the national media landscape, and is so central to the success of the Tribune.

Justin: Did you see the Washington Post about him today?

Patrick: I did yes, absolutely. [crosstalk] What the Trib has done over the years, in terms of trying to create a better environment for local news as a statewide organization, I think has been really important. Whether it's just like the fact that we let local newspapers republish our content, as long as they give us credit, they put the byline on it, but we republish it, in its full form. I think that's a really important thing the Trib has done over the years. Also and I know COVID has tamped this down, but our events business has increasingly held events outside of not just Austin, but outside of the big four cities or whatever the big Metro area is.

I think that's obviously, really good for informing the public but also just good for our brand to be in places like the Rio Grande valley and Lubbock. Providing a forum for local legislators or local elected officials to face some questions, and not just from the moderators, but oftentimes from the public who come or something like that. Stuff like that makes me really proud to be [crosstalk].

Justin: Are those events just like Tribfest, we all have [unintelligible 00:11:28].

Patrick: Yes. If you think about the kind of events that you see at Tribfest, whether it's a panel of like three lawmakers, two Democrats, one Republican, two Republicans, one Democrat. Yes, we have events like that in other parts of the state. I'm not involved in our events business, but that's something that I always just, as a reporter working for the Tribune, and I was always have liked to see that. Because I knew when I was hired by the Trib several years ago, it had a robust events section.

One of the things I saw just being a reporter for the Trib over the years was how that events section branched out of just holding the typical interview with an Austin-based politician in downtown Austin in the Tribauditorium or the local, another venue. I think that's important getting that [crosstalk].

Justin: What always surprised me about Tribfest was how successful it was in getting everybody to come. All the politicians wanted to be there so Texas Tribune, in a time when every media is somehow maligned as political or whatever. Dexter Tribune's been able to stay above it and when they have events, people want to be part of it regardless of the party they're in, which speaks a lot to the [crosstalk].

Patrick: Yes, we obviously, live in a very polarized political environment. We're not going to get every elected official to show up at our events. I think that the ones who do never, by and large, never walk away feeling like they weren't given a fair shot. Even the most Republican lawmakers or elected statewide officials who you think would be the most hostile toward the media. Those ones who choose to show up and participate, I've never heard them walk away and feel like they didn't have a fair opportunity or a fair interview.

Justin: Well, it seems like there's a way to phrase questions that's fair when you can ask it the same way with a different inflection, and all of a sudden feels like an attack. I've seen a bunch of Evan Smith interviews, and he just has that really good way of asking questions, even when it is, "Hey, here's something that maybe makes you feel defensive, but I'm going to ask it in my way, and you're going to feel comfortable answering it."

Patrick: Yes, absolutely. I think he has a great interviewing style. He knows how to really push people, and maybe in some cases being- he would say sometimes I'm a dick in an interview, but it's effective and people don't walk away from it. The interview subjects often don't get offended. They understand what's behind the questioning and the persistence and the questioning.

Justin: You are a political correspondent. What is that?

Patrick: Yes, so it is covering all things politics in Texas. Correspondent obviously, is I think in journalism, maybe a little dated bit of a term. You think of someone on the scene in all these different cities. Although I do like to embrace that a little bit, pre-COVID, I definitely, took a lot of interest in traveling the state, traveling the country, even for the presidential campaigns, and really getting outside of Austin and covering the stories where they are at. As COVID has gone on and become the new normal. I've gotten back out on the road and I've really enjoyed it. Well, maybe a bit of a dated term correspondent, I do embrace the part of it that makes people think about someone out and all these different things.

Justin: You mentioned this before we got going, but sometimes you meet with sources and things like that. Part of it is you just being present, able to report on things that other people aren't present for. Part of it actually has to do with like creating and having your own sources of information that it gives you insight and information that other people don't have access to. How do you go about cultivating sources in, like you said, a highly charged political environment?

Patrick: Yes. I think you just get to know people through multiple election cycles and multiple campaigns. You try to keep an awareness of oh like that person worked on that race last cycle. Now I can see they're working for this person this time around. Either I'll proactively reach out to them and say, "Hey, it's, Patrick Svitek. You maybe remember me from this race last cycle," or something like that. I think it's just a matter of having a good knowledge of what people are doing in their professional lives in the political and campaign realm. Staying in touch with them and always making clear to them that I'm always interested in sitting down having a beer, having a coffee, and talking off the record.

Make it clear to people that like, I want to have a relationship that's not just based on you giving me some public on the record statement, or something like that. I'm sure if there's any political journalist listening to this, this is not a crazy innovation for me to be saying this. I think that's how political reporters tend to operate and tend to be successful in building relationships.

Justin: I'm sure, how you present the information given and how you keep your word ends that relationship or builds it over the long term,...