A Historic Win
Public Alliance was retained by the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association (Client) in August 2020 to plan and manage an integrated city-wide campaign with the goal of defeating Proposition B, which was on the May 1, 2021 San Antonio municipal ballot, and if approved by voters would have repealed collective bargaining rights for San Antonio police officers.
The subject of “police reform” and “police accountability” have been hot topics throughout major cities in the United States for many years. The summer of 2020 saw a series of incidents that galvanized police reform activists to accelerate the push for reform measures through legislation in state capitals or through the ballot box at the local level.
Since the summer of 2020, there were at least 20 measures placed on municipal ballots throughout the country. Every one of them passed by no less than 18%. Our Client was told by Ron DeLord, a leading public safety union contract negotiator, who the New York Times said “helped write the playbook that police unions nationwide…have followed for decades,” that they should do whatever they could to avoid a vote on any “police reform” measure, since recent history had shown that when one gets on the ballot, it passes.
Feeding off the reform sentiment in major cities across the country in the summer of 2020, “FIX SAPD” (FIX) was organized in San Antonio. FIX is an activist organization dedicated to police reform in San Antonio. They are affiliated with other like-minded national organizations, some of whom have promoted extreme reform measures, including calls to “defund” police departments. FIX announced in the summer of 2020 that they would seek to strip San Antonio police officers of both their civil service protections and their right to collectively bargain with the city. In late summer 2020, FIX began a petition drive to gather the necessary signatures to get both measures on the May 1, 2021 municipal ballot.
Our Client was facing harsh political headwinds going into an election. In addition to the intense media coverage throughout the summer and fall of 2020 concerning incidents involving police-related shootings in major American cities, our Client’s opponents were being well-funded (media estimates are that FIX eventually would go on to receive and spend about $1 million from a major grassroots activist organization) and had the support of some high-profile local politicians and celebrities, including former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and his brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro, as well as San Antonio Spurs basketball coach Gregg Popovich. It was apparent early on that our Client would be facing a very tough election.
With the stakes so high, our Client knew they would have to take this threat to their livelihoods seriously. In late August 2020, Public Alliance was retained by the Client to plan and manage a campaign to defeat any ballot measure that would repeal officer rights and protections. For this effort, Public Alliance partnered with McShane LLC, an award-winning political consulting firm based in Las Vegas, NV, to provide select services.
Our team’s first step was to conduct integrated polling and data modeling to develop strategic voter data and targeting. Polling was meant to gauge public opinion, not about “police” or “public safety” — which both enjoy wide support here in San Antonio, but about “police accountability,” “collective bargaining,” and “civil service,” all of which were in the news at the time, and not in a positive way. Our initial polling showed that this would be a challenging environment.
With key data in hand, we approached the Client with our campaign strategy and plan for a comprehensive and integrated voter education campaign. We knew that to be effective we had to counter the opposition early, so even before there was a Proposition B, there was a campaign to stop it. Starting in the fall of 2020, we began to engage with voters and the San Antonio City Council, educating both about the merits of collective bargaining and civil service and asking them to oppose a petition to put collective bargaining and civil service on the 2021 municipal ballot. Our efforts last fall included targeted digital advertising, social media, public relations, grassroots initiatives, and polling.
Our first success came in September 2020 when the City Council was considering the new police budget of $487 million. This came in spite of vigorous lobbying to reduce and redirect funds from the police department by police reform activists. Throughout the council’s budget negotiations, we engaged in an aggressive campaign to educate city council members and their constituents about why the city needed to adopt the proposed $487 million budget. This included using SAPOA’s digital platforms (social media and backsablue.com) to mobilize voters to express support for police and the proposed budget to the mayor and the city council. This resulted in council members receiving more than 8,000 emails of support from their constituents. We also employed a robust public relations campaign, holding press conferences and issuing press releases. Our work paid off on September 17, 2020, when the San Antonio City Council unanimously passed a $487 million police budget, an $8 million boost in police spending from the previous year.
The next step by the repeal proponents was to escalate their signature-gathering efforts. To get the thousands of signatures they needed — 20,000 to get collective bargaining on the ballot and 80,000 to get civil service on the ballot — FIX SAPD needed a public event that would attract thousands of registered voters. The ideal opportunity presented itself with the 10-day early voting period that would precede the November 3, 2020 general election. Our team knew that we had to also use this as an opportunity to engage and inform the public. Consequently, our campaign organized a volunteer effort, comprised of hundreds of San Antonio residents to work polling locations and to tell voters, “Don’t Sign the Petition.”
The petition collectors fell well short of the 80,000 signatures they needed to get civil service on the ballot, but they did barely get enough signatures to put collective bargaining on the May 2021 ballot. Had we not engaged voters at the polls, the activists may have reached their goal of getting both collective bargaining and civil service on the May 2021 ballot.
As the year 2020 ended, we ran another poll that showed that the public was fairly evenly divided on the issue of “for” or “against” collective bargaining and a third of the electorate undecided or not sure what the issue was really all about. Knowing that collective bargaining would be on the ballot, we kicked off the year planning to continue a comprehensive voter education campaign. The expanded campaign would consist of cable TV and online advertising, print collateral, and digital and grassroots outreach. We supplemented all of this with a rapid response PR campaign.
The Back SA Blue campaign put out almost 500 original posts on both Facebook and Twitter reaching 78K+ people daily on social media. We also recruited more than 8K supporters to sign up for our emails and sent messages directly to their inbox every week for three months (twice a week in the final month of the campaign). We had more than a strong digital presence, however, we also mounted a strong ground game. Leading up to the election (from February to the end of April), our canvassing team knocked on 90,000 doors. As Early Voting neared, we recruited more than 1,500 supporters (including active duty and retired police officers) through social media and email campaigns to volunteer at polling locations throughout the city.
On May 1, 2021, Proposition B, which would have repealed collective bargaining rights for San Antonio police officers, was defeated by a margin of 3,458 votes out of 150,208 total votes cast. This was the most important public safety election since collective bargaining was adopted by San Antonio voters in 1974. The intense media attention on Proposition B and police reform in general, as well as the vigorous campaigns being waged for and against ensured that voter interest would be high, and it was. Proposition B, and what it would have meant to public safety and the quality of the police department in San Antonio, was so important to voters that the ballot measure drew 1,318 more votes than the race for mayor. Final election data revealed that our campaign was able to persuade a broad cross-section of voters, meaning that not only moderate to conservative voters rejected the proposition, but also a significant number of liberal voters, a necessary component to victory in a city as diverse as San Antonio.