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Striving to bring a voice to the people: Q&A with Waco City Council District 3 challenger Dustin Weins

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DUSTIN WEINS1

Weins

Dustin Kyle Weins, an insurance agent who turns 34 on City Election Day, is challenging Waco City Council District 3 incumbent John Kinnaird. Weins says he was prompted to run by Kinnaird’s opposition to a city ordinance regulating predatory practices of local payday and auto-title lenders. (The ordinance was approved by the rest of the council in February.) Weins, who also participated in anti-smoking efforts earlier, is known in some circles as a standup comic performing at clubs. Election Day is May 7 with early voting beginning Monday.

Q    You say you were prompted to run because of incumbent John Kinnaird’s vote against an ordinance placing restrictions on what some call the predatory practices of local payday and auto-title loan businesses. But given the ordinance passed overwhelmingly, isn’t at least some dissent useful, especially regarding whether to lay down yet more restrictions on businesses?

A    I agree. Debate and opposing views are necessary and wanted. I just felt like since he was in my district that I could address this by running against him.

Q    But if you were spurred to action on this, why did you delay till the very last day of filing?

A    It was kind of a strategy, to be honest with you. I didn’t want him to know he was going to have opposition. I wanted that to be available to him only at the last minute.

Q    And so how does that help your strategy?

A    I’m not sure. It did take him a while to start campaigning. Had he known I was going to be running, he might have started that earlier. I’m hoping that will reflect in the votes.

Q    How long before your actual filing date had you been contemplating the run?

A    Since last summer [when Kinnaird also voted against a city ordinance on smoking]. I’ve lived in my opponent’s district his entire tenure and, to be frank, I had no idea who he was. To my knowledge, he has never been to my neighborhood. I’ve never been asked my opinion on important issues such as payday lending or the smoke-free ordinances, so that really motivated me as well. I hope to kind of change the culture of the City Council.

Q    One of the things John Kinnaird has brought to the council in terms of experience is work on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. What experience do you bring to the council? Have you served on any of the city commissions or boards?

A    Nothing really. The only thing comparable I can think of was the board of the first smoke-free Waco initiative some six years ago. I got really involved there and presented to the City Council at the time. Other than that, I’ve been vice president of my son’s PTA. That’s about the only other organizational experience I have. But I will say that what I do hope to bring is the people’s voice back to the council, which I feel was largely lost when [District 4 City Councilwoman] Toni Herbert decided not to seek re-election [in 2015]. That’s my main goal — to bring the voice of the people back.

Q    How long have you lived in Waco?

A    I’ve been here virtually my entire life. My family moved here when I was 3 years old so it’s the only thing I really know. I attended public schools here, graduated from McLennan Community College and Tarleton State University through MCC. Currently I reside and work in my district. My son attends school in the same district.

Q    Describe for us District 3.

A    Well, District 3 is a challenge just from what you see on the map. It’s a sprawling district that goes everywhere from Hewitt to South Waco to over by Richland Mall, so it’s really been a challenge to reach out to everyone in that district. But in the same vein, it opens us up to even more experiences. One thing I am proposing if I am elected is to hold regular town-hall meetings at different locations throughout the district so hopefully more people can attend and voice their concerns.

Q    You say you’re interested in what the people want. What issues are people talking about?

A    I think we all kind of have the same issues, whether it be streets, trash, dogs. What I’m finding out is that our unemployment numbers are low but the types of jobs available aren’t always the best or pay a living wage even. I know as a city council we do have some influence on the type of businesses that we attract and I want to make sure we’re attracting the right businesses that aren’t just coming here because we’re an at-will state where they can pay their employees less than they pay in other places.

Q    To your way of thinking, what is a livable wage?

A    That’s a tough one. A livable wage would be where you’re not having to seek out payday loans to pay for necessities such as groceries or rent or car payment and insurance and so forth.

Q    The debate over a minimum wage has been a national one obviously, but do you have any measuring stick for what that wage actually is?

A    I’ll be honest. I haven’t done a lot of research on the exact dollar amount I’d like to see that at. It is something that I would like to research and use the resources available to me if I do get elected.

Q    Well, regarding the economic incentives that we offer now, do you like them? Some small-business owners feel they’re cheated of the economic incentives that go to major plants and initiatives, though some would also argue that when you fund something like McLane Stadium, a savvy small business sure ought to be able to find a way to make that significant an entity count toward its own bottom line. If the Magnolia Market Silos benefit from economic incentives, so do nearby places such as The Findery and The Backyard Bar, Stage & Grill and the museums. Give us your philosophy about economic incentives and how targeted they should be.

A    I think they should be extremely targeted and used not so much as a last resort, but I want to make sure it has been studied sufficiently to make sure we are getting a return on our investment.

Q    Going back to payday lending, Mr. Kinnaird has suggested that such regulation should really be a state responsibility.

A    I agree wholeheartedly. The only thing is the state legislature only meets every two years and so they’re slower to respond to things that I think we as a city could do quicker in the interim.

Q    Mr. Kinnaird says he also prefers to work on alternative initiatives through Prosper Waco, alternatives that could be employed in lieu of a payday ordinance. What do you think of some of those suggestions?

A    If you’re talking about setting up this system of loans for city employees and Waco ISD — that is something I commend Mr. Kinnaird for helping create and, if elected, I want him to feel confident that I will fight to get that expanded to the private sector.

Q    So what would have to happen to expand that to the private sector? It’s one thing for the Community Loan Center to set up and make loans to big employers such as the city and school district.

A    Honestly, I’m kind of shocked that it hasn’t been expanded already.

Q    You’ve said that one of your concerns is poverty. What is your impression of the strengths and weaknesses of Prosper Waco and specific initiatives offered in the critical areas of education, health care and financial security?

A    I think the idea of it is a great idea, anything to help the lower-income residents of the city. To be honest, I’m not really well-versed on what they’re doing right now. That might be something that I would like to see them increase their public awareness about.

Q    But I’m sure you’ve kept up with at least some of it. I mean, your opponent is working on some things in financial security that have been reported in the local news media. These are things that you and he are both concerned about. The Community Loan Center model is one example. Financial literacy is another example. And they’re doing all sorts of things in education and health care as well. Are you just not familiar with those yet?

A    I’m not.

Q    One of the things Toni Herbert used to talk about was the merit of City Council members not being elected as Democrats or Republicans. She said that was one reason the council was able to get things done and reach consensus. So I’m puzzled you spoke recently before the local Democratic convention. Do you not agree with her philosophy? What is the strategy behind your move?

A    That’s a fair question and I agree with her. I do believe it should be a non-partisan position. It seems that’s the only way to get anything accomplished these days. Speaking at the Democratic convention — I did reach out to the Republican convention as well, but they did not allow me the time. That’s the reason I visited one but not the other.

Q    Regional water-supply companies are reaching out to work with the city of Waco on solutions that might dilute the amount of arsenic in some of those companies’ drinking water. You also know that every year we’re getting hotter and hotter and there are growing fights over who has priority over water use all the way downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. Do you believe we’re pretty well set on water needs?

A    Water would be one of the first things I would explore if elected. I know council members have a lot more access to information than John Q. Public, the regular citizen. I think we’ve had some great foresight as far as raising the Lake Waco water level, but on the other side I have noticed — I read four articles in the Trib last year — about the wastewater and where hundreds of thousands of gallons if not millions were spilling into Lake Waco and the Brazos and at the time a city official was quoted as saying they believed the water hadn’t been affected. Being a citizen who uses this water, it didn’t give me the most confidence. I definitely want to check into that and make sure we are being proactive. Flint put this on everybody’s radar. We want to make sure we’re being proactive and our water not only tastes good but is safe for us as well.

Q    You mentioned the smoke-free initiative several years ago really got you civically involved. What was your role in all that?

A    I’m a cancer survivor, so after I was diagnosed with cancer I got involved with the Livestrong Foundation — Lance Armstrong’s old foundation — and they’re the ones who actually reached out to me. They asked that I speak on their behalf so I spoke on behalf of the American Cancer Society and created this great board of some really phenomenal members. Unfortunately the ordinance did not pass at that time. They passed a watered-down version where existing restaurants and bars grandfathered in could keep separate smoking sections, even though the science proved that those separate smoking sections do not work.

Q    What do you think of the most recent revision?

A    I think it’s a great protection for the workers who work in those environments and I believe we will see an increase in revenue. I’ve seen other cities pass similar measures and the revenue has increased.

Q    But what of the businesses that took the word of the city last time, invested in making these separate smoking rooms and now see their investments fall prey to this latest anti-smoking ordinance?

A    I would agree with them. It has to be frustrating to have spent that money on that investment and then to see it thrown out the window. I think that’s why we need a stronger council that would have passed this six years ago in its full form rather than revisit it six years later.

Q    We have three state lawmakers. If you could convey a message to them from a city perspective that you want them and the Texas Legislature to take to heart, what would it be?

A    The main thing would be for them to fight for expanded Medicaid in this state. When Obamacare was implemented, we were one of the red states that decided not to fully implement it and as a result we have 25 percent of the population still uninsured. That’s the most pressing issue right now.

Q    You’re a political novice. Would you agree with that statement?

A    I’ve been following politics since I was 10 or 12 years old. I dressed up as Ross Perot on Halloween. [Laughter in the room.]

Q    What’s the experience of running for council been like for you?

A    It’s been a little overwhelming, to be honest with you. I didn’t fully grasp how much this would entail. But it’s been rewarding, I’m excited about it and I’ve got a fire in my belly.

Q    Last year during the Waco ISD tax ratification election, there were a series of meetings all over town to explain how it worked and what was being offered. Did you attend one of those?

A    I did not.

Q    Do you think anyone would come to a town-hall meeting if you held one?

A    That’s what I’ve been told as well. It’s definitely something I would love to explore.

Q    Well, when was the last time you attended a town-hall meeting?

A    That’s a good question. I haven’t been made aware of one, either, though, to be honest.

Q    How about a Waco City Council meeting?

A    The last City Council meeting would have been during the smoke-free initiative [last summer]. I just sat in the background and kind of observed.

Q    You say you want to be the voice of the people. Where do you go to find the people?

A    It’s getting out every weekend, going to events, the food truck rally, just making yourself available. I plan on having an open-door policy and making my cellphone available. I think it’s just opening yourself up to that. People aren’t used to that so it might take them a little while to come into the fold.

Q    What are the top two issues people are talking to you about?

A    That’s another thing. I just don’t think they’re used to being asked that question, so they don’t have a prepared answer. So a lot of times you don’t get feedback. But you have to put yourself out there and, if they do think of something, they can come back with that.

Q    So is everybody in Waco happy?

A    I don’t know if they’re happy, but they haven’t voiced any specific concerns.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.