Robert Cervantes, 40, an Iraq War combat veteran and administrator with the Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans at the Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center, seeks election to the Waco City Council to represent District 5, encompassing much of West and North Waco. He serves on the Rapoport Academy Public School Board and in the American GI Forum. In this interview with the Trib editorial board, he discusses the potential for racial unrest in Waco; his belief in more focused community policing; and principled reservations about economic development. The election is May 9.
Q With so many other responsibilities at the VA Center of Excellence, why dive into the Waco City Council race?
A My responsibilities at the VA are not about the leadership. I’m in no way involved in that. I have my job but after 4:30 my time is mine. But the catalyst was Ferguson, then New York and then back to New Mexico (involving incidents of violence between police, the poor and minority populations). We need to have more people get involved in local government, more diversity in local government. And I’ve kept saying, “Why aren’t there more people? Why aren’t there more Hispanics on the board?” And then it dawned on me: “Why not me?” And so it’s got to a point of put up or shut up.
Q But how does this tie in to Ferguson, New York and New Mexico?
A Every city has the opportunity to have an event like Ferguson. Waco is not immune. We’ve had them in the past. I just want to make sure that everything we’re doing now — I mean, we need to try to mitigate those situations. And having that voice from the outside say something different and raise a different thought and ask a different sort of question is vitally important.
Q But is there some protocol that you feel we’re not doing right now that could lead to, say, a Ferguson situation? Have you seen something locally that gives you pause?
A I would love to see more community policing. And there are two sides to that like everything else. In my particular district and my neighborhood, I notice that the demographics are changing. With that, we have an increase in property crimes, in personal crimes, and it’s all related, but I don’t think anyone is really paying attention to that, at least from my perspective, the perspective of someone who lives in District 5 (in the area of Park Lake and North 19th). We tend to think of District 5 as a more affluent district. It’s kind of out there by the lake and off by itself, but really we have all the same problems.
Q Yes, but community policing is hard to define. The need for community policing was debated on the Trib opinion page recently and Waco Police Det. Aaron Whelchel noted police already work 15 individual beats. Police argue that constitutes community policing.
A From his perspective, he’s probably absolutely correct. But from my perspective, I think we can do more.
Q So what are you thinking of?
A You know, the division of labor in the police department could be better. I don’t think I want police officers necessarily handling wrecks or fender-benders. Why don’t we have civilians do that so we can free up the police officers to actually be out in the community a little bit more, not tied up with paperwork?
Q Do you believe that civilians can always work it out after a fender-bender? I mean, without shooting each other?
A Well, writing a report — I don’t think it takes a police officer to do that. That’s just my little pet peeve — seeing a police officer in whom we’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and equipment and all that, yet writing a report on a fender-bender for someone not paying attention.
Q How did growing up in North Waco shape your experiences? There are parts today that are nice and then parts that still make you wary of being out after sundown.
A Just being able to walk in the neighborhood, even though you knew there were nefarious elements out there, it taught me to be aware, to take personal responsibility for what’s around me and situations I put myself in. Good or bad, it helped me be a little bit more protective of myself.
Q Has this given you any specific ideas regarding public policy, growing up in that particular neighborhood?
A Well, right there at Bosque and North 14th Street, there is this old convenience store. When I was really small, it just kind of went away. It never really took off again and it’s become an eyesore in this neighborhood. I think the city has kind of marginalized the area and that’s natural, I guess, but I didn’t see the effort there. And that lack of effort is now spreading in how the demographics are changing.
Q I was over there a few minutes ago. Are you aware of the revitalization that Mission Waco and the Waco Community Development Corporation have done out there? We’d consider it really pretty transformational.
A But is the city leading that?
Q Well, it works to help get grants and give them free lots to build on, but nonprofits are doing most of this.
A In that case, then I do see a role for the city to take a leadership role in that.
Q Prosper Waco had a big launch with three massive brainstorming sessions involving ideas about education, financial security and health care.
A Yes, and Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk actually came back to me the next week and invited me to be on the steering committee for the education piece. I was very honored to do that. I’m a big fan of Matthew Polk and the work that he is trying to do. At the Rapoport Academy, where I’m on the board, all this is just an extension of that work.
Q What did you think of the ideas at the Prosper Waco brainstorming sessions?
A Well, the one young lady brought up the payday lenders and how that needs to be regulated. My gut instinct is to say — ugh, regulation. That is a sticky subject. I really don’t want to see that. How we change that is to give education to those who are economically disadvantaged. Like at the NAACP forum they had the other night. They have this class for financial independence.
Q Economic development is increasingly controversial. Some think it’s picking winners and losers, others say it’s a way to help draw or expand significant industry to help grow a certain kind of job.
A Isn’t this why we have a chamber of commerce?
Q I think the idea is to have some money behind the pitch.
A It’s a very hot-button topic for me. I like market forces. I’m very conservative in that regard. Waco has done a very good job of laying the groundwork, but now we’re trying to micromanage it when we should just let the market forces take over. We can’t say that we want a certain type of industry here.
Q But don’t you like the idea of trying to draw or incentivize industry that offers better wages rather than one that offers barely a living wage? Wouldn’t that address the poverty problem you talk of?
A Absolutely, but I have higher priorities than that, including education and breaking that cycle of poverty. First we have to get everyone qualified, trained and educated, and we’re failing at that. So I don’t think that’s sustainable. If we want to bring in industry, we have to give them something to work with.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.