INTERVIEW by BRAD ROLLINS
Former San Marcos Mayor SUSAN NARVAIZ has been a familiar figure in San Marcos since moving here in 1995 from San Antonio.
Since 1997, she’s owned Core Strategies, a public relations and public policy consulting firm, and has been a prolific volunteer during her 17 years in San Marcos. After nearly winning an out-of-nowhere bid for mayor in 1998, Narvaiz served on the city council and then three terms as mayor between 2002 and 2010. In the political arena, Narvaiz has always drawn on her “origins story” — a high school drop out and teenage mom who dug in, fought hard and made it work.
But she faces an uphill climb in her bid for Congress — first, in Tuesday’s Republican primary and then, if she is the nominee, in the November general election race against either U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett or Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo. A third Democrat in the race, activist Maria Luisa Alvarado, also hails from San Antonio, where the majority of the district’s population resides.
We sat down with Narvaiz, one of three candidates seeking the GOP nomination for Congressional District 35, and asked her about the issues — and how she thinks she can win in a district designed to elected a Democrat.
Our interview with a second San Marcos resident seeking the office, industrial inspector Rob Roark, will be published later today.
San Marcos Mercury: Did I see a Susan Narvaiz hot air balloon the other day?
Susan Narvaiz: You did. You know, I have a lot of friends that are very talented and one of my friends has a hot air balloon and so we paid him for the banner and the propane and everything,. So, hopefully, you’ve seen it pop up out there now and then throughout the district.
Mercury: It reminded me of the Ron Paul blimps which gained him a whole lot of free media attention back in 2007 and 2008. So I thought it was a pretty creative way to campaign across such a far-flung district.
Narvaiz: Well, you know, I like to believe that I am creative in finding solutions to challenges and also creative in thinking outside of the box for ideas to move things in a positive direction. So I find myself trying to think of things that will get people’s attention.
Mercury: What makes you want to seek another office? You just finished your third term for mayor in November 2010 and, to be honest, it didn’t always look fun. It looked frustrating and thankless — that might be a better way to put it.
Narvaiz: I just think I have a compelling desire to serve and, in this case, felt called to stand up for my country, a country that I love and a country I believe is the best place to be on earth. While it has its challenges and even problems, it’s still the US of A, you know. It is the place where any of us can be what we wish to be through hard work. It’s a country of opportunity.
Mercury: Along those lines, I heard you say at one of the debates that no matter what people may have heard, the U.S. is still the best place on earth. The overwhelming narrative, to me, of the last few years is that people are just discontent everywhere. People of all political persuasions think the system is rigged, they think the country is broken. What do you think is the cause of that and what do you have to offer people?
Narvaiz: I believe that I’m a very good role model for people that maybe don’t have ideal situations, that they can make themselves into something that’s positive as a contributing member of their community and their nation.
And I think it’s always easy for everyone — I have even myself at times looked around and said, well that isn’t good or that doesn’t look right — and people are always eager to say “Well, who can I hold accountable for that?” In reality, we’re all accountable whether that’s because we chose not to be involved and vote over the last decade or we just gave up because we felt there wasn’t anyone that was leading that we wanted to follow. I think it is in the hands of the American people to always stand up and turn the ship in the right direction. I believe solemnly that that’s where our country is right now.
Mercury: It’s kind of interesting the role reversal because, as mayor, you were the symbol of local government and you got alot of the anti-establishment discontent. But here, you’re running against an incumbent —
Narvaiz: No, I’m not! There is not an incumbent in District 35. Oh, no: there is no incumbent. This is an open seat. This is a brand new seat.
Mercury: That’s right, technically, because U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett switched from District 25.
[During the 2011 redistricting process, the Republican-controlled legislature dramatically redrew the state’s congressional district, transforming CD-25, which Doggett currently represents, from an Austin bastion into a mostly rural district stretching from western Hays County to the outskirts of Fort Worth. The new CD-25 is a district that is certain to be held by a Republican. Doggett chose to run instead in the newly created CD-35, which includes parts of his current district but also includes a big chunk of Bexar County, which he has never represented before.]
Well, since you bring it up, do you expect Doggett to be the Democratic Party’s nominee?
Narvaiz: Well, all indicators are there but I believe the voters have to say, so who knows. But I do believe that will be the case.
But I want to go back to what you just said. While people might perceive that I was part of the establishment, they forget how I challenged the establishment as mayor when I was there. Whether that was challenging the [San Marcos Chamber of Commerce] on their economic development contract or supporting raising impact fees on developers so as not to put the cost of new development across-the-board on the taxpayers, I believe I was able to find a balance. In fact, I had everyone not happy with me at one point or another — not all at the same time, which is good — but I believe that is what I am good at doing, trying to find a balance. So, I take on the establishment when I think it’s the right thing to do.
Mercury: What about being mayor of a relatively small town like San Marcos equips you to serve in Congress representing what is, for the most part, a very urban district?
Narvaiz: I think there are a lot of things about being mayor of a community that bode well as someone who knows how to serve the people. I am directly accountable to the people in that role. I live and work and have my home right in this place where the people are — I’m accessible to them and I want to hear from them — and that’s what we might be missing a little bit of in Washington.
Whatever policy Congress forms for the role that the federal government has, it should be good policy and then they need to come home and continue to be who they are. I think as a mayor, I did that every day. I put on one hat in the morning and had to go to City Hall and be the mayor but I didn’t forget that I am Susan Narvaiz — married to Mike, mom to eight, grandmom to nine. I work for a living. I have customers. I have to balance the checkbook at home and at the office. I never forgot that.
Mercury: District 35 was drawn — by Republicans — for a Democrat. It is heavy, heavy Democratic seat. [John McCain drew about 35 percent of the vote in 2008 from the voters who now comprise CD-35.] Do you know something we don’t know about how you’re going to win?
Narvaiz: I know that I live in the middle of it and I know the areas really well and I know that, ultimately, it’s the voters that get to decide because this is America.
While we can have strategists and people who look at the numbers and say, “We think this will be the outcome,” I have really great trust in the people who go to the polls and punch the button or pull the lever. At the end of the day, when the American people fail to go to the polls and vote for who they think is the best person to do that job, then there’s part of the breakdown.
Mercury: Because you served three terms as San Marcos mayor and decided not to run again, do you see this — as far as the results in San Marcos go — as a referendum on your term as mayor, a gauge of how the people here thought you did in office?
Narvaiz: I don’t really think about it in any other terms than that I am just one average citizen that decided to step forward and put my name out to bring some common sense solutions to Washington.
I am very very humbled and honored to have been invited back four different times on the ballot in San Marcos (one term on city council, three as mayor) and the people said “yes” each time. But this is a new role to serve in and it’s much broader than San Marcos and Hays County. And the issues that each city or county in the district have are different, and sometimes competing.
I don’t look at this as having anything to do, directly, with my service in San Marcos although I would hope that everyone that voted for me as mayor would want to vote for me again.
Mercury: San Marcos is a small part of this district, population-wise, but you have San Antonio roots, too, I believe.
Narvaiz: I do. I grew up in San Antonio, but moved from San Antonio to San Marcos in 1995. I attended South San [Antonio] High School, which is just outside the district. But it’s kind of neat to have the opportunity to maybe represent part of your hometown.
I think it is such an amazing thought to be anchored in the center of this corridor that everyone knows has been the fastest growing corridor in our country for years. I’m right here in the center of the district and I’m so excited that we have this chance to bring together Austin and San Antonio to become a powerful, positive influence throughout the country.
Mercury: Is that part of how you see this shaping up? If Rep. Doggett has angered San Antonio interests because he will have defeated two San Antonio candidates, do you think people in San Antonio who normally vote for Democrats are going to be willing to take a look at you? I’m still trying to understand what you think your pathway is to winning in such a Democratic district.
Narvaiz: You know, I will take anything in regards to whatever others are doing that is a negative for them and turns it into positive for me. But I’m focused on what I can bring.
And I think I’m a new face, in this regard, with new ideas. Again, for me it’s really about understanding the level that the federal government should be involved in our lives — which is limited — and allowing the people that are actually close to the citizens they serve to have authority to implement things at their level of government. Which means to me, if you are clearing the way so that your state and local elected officials can listen to their constituents and do what’s needed based on their constituent’s needs, than that is the best possible solution.
Mercury: What are the core issues in this race?
Narvaiz: I have these cards that I take with me everywhere and ask people what they believe are the top three things we should be focusing on in D.C. It’s been amazing. Because whether it’s been an eighth grade class or a group of seasoned seniors, I get the cards back and put them on a spreadsheet and the top three or four things are pretty much the same. That is: Reduce spending. Balance the budget. Repeal the Healthcare Act. Secure the border and address illegal immigration in this country. Those are things I’m hearing about in District 35.
Mercury: How does the immigration issue play in San Antonio which, obviously, is heavily Latino, especially the part of San Antonio you’re trying to represent.
Narvaiz: It doesn’t matter what their background is, or how they identify themselves, they want something done about illegal entry. They do not wish for this country to let people break the laws and stay here and have the benefits of citizenship. The people I have talked to feel very, very passionately about that.
You might think the minority groups would have a softer stance [on the issue of immigration] but not the people I’ve been hearing from. Someone said, “Well, that’s because you’re only hearing from Republicans at this point,” and I said, no, the meet-and-greets are in the neighborhoods and everyone is there. It’s been very interesting because they are almost more passionately for us doing something about it.
The attitude is often, “My family generations ago did this the right way and they had to work hard and do all the things necessary. They had to stay within the law and then they had the opportunity just like all those to reap the rewards of their own hard work. And we don’t think anyone should have a pass.”
Mercury: You mentioned healthcare. Is that something you’re committed to, if it comes for a vote, repealing the healthcare law?
Narvaiz: I am.
Mercury: And what do you think is the alternative? Or do you not think we need an alternative?
Narvaiz: I believe in the free market alternative. And I think the government should not be in it but I do think that we need to do all that we can to make it affordable and allow the free market to be more competitive, whether that be across state lines.
You know, I am committed to doing all that I can to look at it when I’m closer up and can maybe see it from all aspects. As mayor, people would say, “Well, you should have done this or that on any given issue.” Well they didn’t always have the information that I had. I at least acknowledge that there might be some things I don’t know today.
Mercury: Is there a role for a social safety net in the form of federal government programs?
There are safety net programs that need to be retained and I do think we should put the money back in Social Security for those that we made a promise to. For people my age (54) and younger, we have to have a different option there and I believe more in a free market option. But for those that have paid and are close to receiving their Social Security, and are receiving it, we should fulfill the promises of Social Security and Medicare. We need to take good care of our veterans. I believe a veteran should be able to go to any hospital where they live and get good care.
Programs like those are the things that I would be inclined to support.
Mercury: What are the issues related to spending and debt, in a nutshell, and what would your position in this area be?
Narvaiz: First, we need to simplify the type of tax system we have and make it fair. I’m more inclined to think about a flat tax with some specific deductions for homeowners and that type of thing where everyone can understand it. But the key is to make it simple.
And then I’m a big fan of saying let’s send less to Washington, that will force them to put themselves on a budget. If they get less, they will have to make some decisions.
I think we should look at all of the at regulatory departments that we have been instituted over the last few decades that were not necessarily a part of the original document that the federal government would be working from. We need to see if this can be reduced or combined in anyway.
You prioritize your spending. We do it here in San Marcos, we both probably do it at home.
Mercury: Are you finding that primary voters in District 35 are wanting to talk about social issues? Not too long ago, the president said he supports gay marriage which raised again the prospect that we’re going to be talking about social issues this cycle.
Narvaiz: No, there’s anger about that. It’s almost like they’re insulted that President Obama would actually think that we should be talking about the social issues when we have far bigger issues that we should be focused on. [Issues like] electing leaders to go to Washington to pass a budget on time and then live within the budget that they actually passed.
So, no, the people aren’t focused on social questions although the media like to ask them. One of the first questions in a radio interview the other day — in fact, the very first question — was about President Obama having said he supports same sex marriage and they wanted to know if we had people we knew that that would apply to and how do we feel about that. And I think all of the [Republican] candidates were surprised that, of all the issues out there, this one would be the first they would talk about.
[EDITOR’s NOTE: Questions and answers were edited, sometimes extensively, for clairity and cut down for space. In some cases, questions appear here reworked to include background and context that was not mentioned in the course of the interview.]