Poncho Nevarez and Justin have been friends for a decade. Poncho was elected as a State Representative in 2013. Since then, he worked his way up into powerful positions. In 2019, he ran into trouble with drugs, got clean, chose not to run again, and joins us to talk about his journey into the dark and back. His honesty is refreshing.
Justin Hill: Hello, and Bienvenido, 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 Antonioan, 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, and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here. All right. Welcome to the Alamo hour. Today’s guest is Poncho Nevarez. Poncho is a current state rep of district 74?
Poncho Nevarez: Yes.
Justin: Covering Eagle Pass all the way out through Big Bend. I think it’s one of, if not the biggest political district in the contiguous US.
Poncho: In the world. [chuckles]
Justin: Well, probably not. He’s an injury attorney. He’s a musician. He’s a rancher. He has a Watusi or three, maybe, a father, husband, friend. Admittedly, and he just wrote a big article about it, we’ll talk about some, an alcoholic and an addict. When he’s not running for reelection, he is working on an album, apparently, which we’re going to talk about a little bit as well. Poncho, thanks for being here.
Poncho: Thank you for having me. I couldn’t help but catch in the promo you were talking about, “This is about San Antonioans, for San Antonioans,” and I would ask– I spent a good part of my adult life in San Antonio for law school, and then because of my law practice, so if they’ll claim me, [chuckles] I’d say I’m somewhat from San Antonio.
Justin: So, you’re co-opting me here. It’s a show about San Antonio, but there’s a lot of people that have some interaction or have lived here in the past that they have something to add about our city as well.
Poncho: Well, it’s like Eagle Pass, I’d say. It doesn’t matter where you go. There’s some connection to Eagle Pass. You could be standing outside the pyramids of Giza [chuckles] and there’s somebody from Eagle Pass there. I think the same thing applies with San Antonio. It’s the same thing.
Justin: Well, good. You’ve got something to add. When I met you, you had a home here yet, an office here. I think you still practice law here on occasion.
Poncho: Yes. I think that was back in maybe 2005 or 2006 a bit.
Justin: Well, you went to law school here, and then you and I would have met around 2007, 2008, and then we worked on that case through ’11 probably.
Poncho: I graduated from law school ’99 and then I was away. I was here in Eagle Pass for a few years and then I moved back and then Miguel Chapa and I were partnered up and we’re in San Antonio. That was back in 2005 when Miguel and I got together. He’ll deny this, but we put that firm together at a Hooters.
Justin: I’m not surprised by this.
Poncho: True story. We were going to go to Vegas, that night, I think. It was me, Jason Hoelscher and Miguel, we were going to go to Vegas and we were killing some time and that’s where we formed the firm.
Justin: Well, I do a top 10. It’s just a general number of questions. Sometimes it’s 3, sometimes it’s 10 with all of my guests to give some sort of flavor and background on who you are. The first one was, “Talk to us about your time in San Antonio.” We’ve already knocked that one out. The next thing I want to ask you is what are some of your favorite places in San Antonio that people maybe don’t know about? We talk about hidden gems in the city.
Poncho: I liked the McNay, the museum a whole bunch. I really do. I lived in that neighborhood, different parts of Alamo Heights through my last two years of law school. Then it was the first home that I bought over off of North New Braunfels. I really enjoyed the McNay. There’s a cafe there, two Twin Sisters. I really like South Florida Street. To me, Latin America starts in downtown San Antonio. That’s where Latin America begins. So I have an affinity for that. I love the Mission Trail. It’s great. I can go on and on, but those are places that I– I love the Alamo man. That’s just one of those places that I’ll never not want to go to or experience. It’s just one of those places.
Justin: The Missions are like that with me. The first time I went, I’d lived here four years and thought, “How did it take me so long to get there?” What does prone to brawling mean?
Poncho: I don’t know. When I read that, one, I’d forgotten they said that about me and it reminded me of a speech that Dr. Evil gives in the first Austin Powers that he said his dad was prone to buggery.
Justin: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. I forgot about that. For background, Texas Monthly did a little bit on Poncho and they said, of many adjectives, that he was prone to brawling and I didn’t know what that meant.
Poncho: Well, I don’t know. [inaudible 00:05:17] I think maybe the session before, or two sessions before, they had likened me to Sam Houston and I’m starting to think, not the good parts. [chuckles] Not the good side of Houston.
Justin: Well, maybe you’ll have an 80-foot marble statue made of you at some point. [crosstalk]
Poncho: [unintelligible 00:05:34]
Justin: Right. [chuckles] One time I was in DC and I got a tour of the Capitol and I learned all these neat, weird tidbits about the Capitol. Do you have any of those about Austin Capitol that people might not know about?
Poncho: Yes. There is, one, it’s a fantastic place and if you haven’t been there when we get past all this madness, you should because it’s just great. I want to say by just a little bit, it’s taller than the US Capitol, which is by design. Then I was told my first session that my desk had been Sam Johnson’s desk which had been Lyndon B Johnson’s dad. I was told that Lyndon B Johnson would play at his father’s feet at the desk. I don’t believe that to be true.
Justin: Cool story.
Poncho: I thought so. One of the other things too is the original. During the session, the original battle flag from San Jacinto is exhibited behind the speaker’s dais. Only during the session as the original battle flag there, which is pretty damn cool. It’s just one of those neat places. I remember my first session, I would look up at the place and think about, one, all the characters that had been in there and then two, just the amount of history. The conversations, all kinds of stuff. It can’t help but affect you in a good way, I think.
Justin: How can a normal Joe like me go get a good tour of the Capitol?
Poncho: I got four more months there. I can give you one. [chuckles]
Justin: Do you just contact your Congressman or your state rep?
Poncho: That’s exactly right. That’s probably the best way is to go. You can get a tour and the tour guides are phenomenal. I used to sneak away on Sundays when stuff would get really heavy and follow the tours. I learned a lot following the tours but your state representative’s office should be able to guide you on a pretty good tour.
Justin: I asked Ina this when she was on the show a couple of weeks back, any unlikely friendships in Austin that you formed?
Poncho: Wow. You’d be surprised. I got along really good with a lot of these guys that you would think publicly, I wouldn’t have any business with them. Guys like Briscoe Cain.
Justin: Oh, that was going to be the name because her, I did Stickland and she said they actually were really good friends.
Poncho: Sometimes we’d get into it. Especially Briscoe, I could really relate a lot to him because he was trying so hard all the time and he’s a really smart guy. He’s got this [unintelligible 00:08:26] that I don’t understand but I guess he looks at me the same way.
Justin: He looks very young.
Poncho: He’s pretty wise when he’s not. [chuckles]
Justin: Was Rinaldi the one that you butted heads with?
Poncho: In hindsight, one of the things that you do as a recovering alcoholic and addict is you try to make amends where you can. I probably only got an apology for getting physical with him because you should never do that. Although I say that, I’d probably do it again. [chuckles]
Justin: Well, now I know what prone to brawling means.
Poncho: There you go. In all seriousness, I think there was something about him, he just wasn’t a very happy guy. Unless he was taking lunch money away from school children. He just wasn’t happy.
Justin: [chuckles] Is he still there?
Poncho: No. He lost. I hope he’s doing well. I really do. I don’t wish the guy any ill.
Justin: You’ve got a new album coming out. We’ll talk about it a little bit but who would you compare the sound to?
Poncho: I hope it sounds like T. Rex and The Sweet had a love child with Jason Isbell and Bryan Adams, but I know it doesn’t. I started thinking about when I started writing songs, some of the artists that influence me, and I grew up listening to a lot of rock and roll in the ’70s. I wanted it to sound rough and it does. There’s something really grainy about it. I can’t describe it, it’s really mean where it needs to be mean. It’s a rock record. Somebody was asking me like, “What kind of music is it?” I don’t know. It’s fast sometimes, it’s slow sometimes, it’s loud, it’s [unintelligible 00:10:29] and it’s rough. I take credit for all of that shit.
Justin: Is there a release date?
Poncho: I’m trying to pin myself down but I’m avoiding that because– I may have told you this last week when we were texting back and forth, is that we’re finishing up most of the vocal work this week so it should be in a form for us to be able to start mixing it next week. I can’t wait because I’m already hearing some of the stuff that we’ve been doing as we finished each track. There was one song that I had some doubts about and I just went back and I reworked it and I’m a lot happier about it.
I resisted the urge to allow myself to be married to certain things and saying, “This is the way it’s got to be because it’s got to be.” I allowed myself to be guided by what I call a really talented producer and musician too because he’s helped me musically on the record too. It’s worked because I’d been reading this biography of Tom Petty, and he made a point in stressing about how you can change everything up until the last minute. I’m very indecisive about a lot of things but it allows for a lot of flexibility. I think that long answer to your short question is I don’t know when the release date is.
Justin: It’s not the longest answer I’ve gotten before. What is your current lineup of animals at your home menagerie? You bought a house that had almost essentially a zoo in it, you kept some of them. What do you have now? Do you still have a kookaburra?
Poncho: The kookaburra was eaten by a [unintelligible 00:12:14]
Justin: [laughs] Is that true?
Poncho: True. There was one lone feather in an orange tree that survived the attack and then a very traumatized waka maya that, because of the trauma of surviving the attack ,pulls the breast– He died an untimely death, I think he committed suicide. He would pull his breast feathers out and I can only surmise that he had survivor’s guilt. I hate to diagnose–
Justin: No, go for it.
Poncho: I think he had PTSD, dude and he had some depression. I really believe that he ended his life untimely. I had a vet that came by to help me with some other animals, I went to high school with her. I asked her, I said, “Dahlia, what do you think?” “She needs a bird psychologist.” I’m like, “Huh?”
Justin: [laughs] That’s a thing, or a joke?
Poncho: I guess. I did my best but look, two sick people together can not help each other so I was [crosstalk]
Justin: That’s a good point. Do you still have the watusi?
Poncho: Yes. I moved him out to what we affectionately call the bigger ranch that we got, about 500 acres. I moved them out there and they’re doing real well. I’ve got another herd of about 50 [unintelligible 00:13:41]cattle that we got on there. They’ve got a better chance out there. We still have fallow deer, the axix deer, I’ve got Dorpers now too. Those Dorpers are something else, bro. You can put them in a parking lot-
Justin: What’s a Dorper?
Poncho: It’s a sheep. They’re lambs, so you put them in a parking lot, they’ll eat rocks, they’ll eat anything. One of them ate half of my catcher’s mittens which is pretty sad.
Justin: Why did it have it?
Poncho: I was playing catch with my son, I set it down and when I looked at it again it had eaten it.
Justin: Any other animals in the cages?
Poncho: We have a parrot that is– The kookaburra was really good at mimicking voices, not necessarily the words, but the sound of your voice and the cadence. So you’d say something, he’d say it right back to you in a few minutes almost the way you said it. It was obviously nonsense, but also what you were saying was probably nonsense anyway. The reason I believe the bird learned that is because we leave the radio on, so he was always constantly mimicking whoever the DJ was.
Justin: If you take this too far, I’m going to start wondering how bad your addiction got in those time periods. Now your kookaburra is talking to you and–
Poncho: I didn’t talk back to it.
Justin: All right. So you were city councilperson at one point, you were state-
Poncho: School board.
Justin: School board, state rep, are those the only two elected positions you had other than class president or whatever?
Poncho: That’s it.
Justin: Have you been to any Fiesta events?
Poncho: It’s been a long time, I think the last one I went to was in 2019. We went to the IBC parade. We were at the IBC bank building for the river parade. That’s always nice, Fiesta is such a great time.
Justin: I love it, I’m a huge advocate of it. I want to talk to you about the legislature. The last thing I want to ask you in our top 10 is what has been the most important piece of advice that you have been given in your path to recovery?
Poncho: There’s been a lot, but if I had to pick one, it’s, “Live in the present,” that’s the biggest one. Live in the present. One of the things that overwhelms people that are sane or that are not suffering with this disease, is living too far in the past or futurizing everything. A lot of times people will mistake, “The guy’s nostalgic,” or if you futurize things, “He likes to plan ahead or he’s thinking several moves ahead.” You can do that without living in the past and without losing what you’re doing today. That living in the present applies to a lot of things, I just keep things in front of me that I need to keep in front of me.
It’s not that I don’t think about my future, I think about it and I hope I have one and that it’s healthy but my future won’t matter if I don’t do the things today that I need to do that are important to me and that make me happy. I’m not talking about indulge some petty notion of happiness that I have, I’m talking about happy. It was always there for me, I just lost it. The further I got along in my disease, the further I got along in feeding my dark angels or the worst part of my angels, I lost sight of that. Winning wasn’t something to be happy about, I was relieved. Losing was gut-wrenching and I don’t feel like that anymore, I don’t feel like that today.
Justin: Good. I want to talk more about that but I want to talk about something. You wrote a big essay that was just released and a bunch of people on Twitter passing it around, but some of the things that stuck out with me were about your frustration in working in the legislature. Just for a little bit of background, you’re in your third term?
Poncho: No, this is my fourth term.
Justin: Last session you were given some really big committee chairs, you were appointed to some really powerful committees. What have been your roles in the legislature and how has it progressed?
Poncho: Just like anybody else, you start at the bottom and I was fortunate in my second session, worked my way up from there and speaker Straus was good enough to see something in me and give me an opportunity on some good committees. That carried over to the last session that he was a speaker which was my third. This is my fourth and what will now be my final session. Speaker Bonnen was good enough to give me that responsibility.
Up until that point, I’ve been vice-chair of that committee for two sessions going in. So it seemed logical that I would get the chair, but nothing’s ever logical in the legislature, but I got it. I think I wrote in the essay that I’d become a more influential figure. I think I had, but the amount of pressure that one feels to be able to deliver some things, especially when you’re in the minority party, you have to dodge 141 days of stated and undercurrent opposition to just about everything you do.
I just wasn’t enjoying myself. The process was so frustrating to me, so dehumanizing in terms of what you can do, the pandering you have to do sometimes to get it done. ‘
Frankly, I’ll say this. I felt that way. The process is what it is. I can’t sit there and say, “These people are to blame for it.” I’m the one that allowed myself to feel that way. I let it overwhelm me. The truth is for most of us, if we’re being honest about the process as we were there, there’s a lot bad about it. That’s just unavoidable. If you can keep yourself sane and healthy and readjust your attitudes about a lot of things on a continuous basis, then you’re going to be okay. I just couldn’t anymore. A lot of legislators can do that because they’re not in the scrum all the time and I was. More often than not, I was right there. That’s just the way I’ve always been.
Justin: You talked about in that article that there were three constituencies that you had to deal with. You had to deal with your colleagues, your voters and then you just talked about interests. Is it fair to say that basically on every single issue there’s going to be people for and against? Is that one of the surprising things about dealing with it?
Poncho: Even the issues you would believe they would have some sort of unanimous wave for them, I just can’t think of anything really game-changing that would have that. It doesn’t really happen, unless we’re like, “There’s a resolution to name everyday taco day,” or something, everyone’s going to get with that.
Justin: Yes. Little league baseball resolution type stuff.
Poncho: You want to do one of these when you get that done, but the truth is, really hard substantive matters you’re going to have some strange bedfellows in terms of who’s with you and who’s against you. A lot of times the interests that you have at home collide with what you know is the best thing to do for, not just your district, but for the state. You have to balance those things. One of the things that I used to be really good at is saying no and being really blunt. I think my bluntness has survived my addiction and I needed it to, to be honest with you. You really have to be able to put people– To check them so to speak and check their expectations because the place is– All at once it could be wonderful and terrible.
Justin: I have to assume and I am assuming, because I haven’t done it, you have, that the lifestyle lends itself to maybe a casual drinker becomes a heavy drinker or just the pressures of the nonstop lifestyle. What was it like day to day during the 140 days of session?
Poncho: If you have a predilection to drinking, there’s a lot of opportunities for that. There’s always something going on. I’m talking about me personally. I don’t want to justify my behavior by saying, “Well, it’s like that.” Me, I came in there already predisposed to being this way. I couldn’t say no. I didn’t have any will to say no. A lot of people can navigate that stuff because they don’t have the disease. A lot of people can have a drink or two drinks. I can’t, that’s just not me. It really never has been me. There’s a lot of that and there’s a lot of that everywhere, but it just seems it’s really compacted into this 141 days. The further or the deeper you get into the session, the days are longer.
Justin: What’s a general day like during session? It’s Monday through Thursday for the most part?
Poncho: To me, the day that it’s more imprinted on me or the days, you’re up at 7:00, 7:30 or earlier to make a breakfast with somebody. You have meetings in your office with constituents, people that have interest in issues before the legislature, the lobbyists, different advocacy groups. You may meet with other colleagues. You may have caucus meetings. You may do some media, you hit the floor at 10, and then a lot of times it’s hurry up and wait on X, Y, and Z. Then things get heated up and before you know it, it’s, ten o’clock at night, eight o’clock at night. You go home, you pound a lot of bourbon. Speaking for myself and you do some blow and then you do it again. [chuckles]
That’s the way it was for me. I don’t say that because I’m trying to sound rock and roll, but in the end, that’s what it was for me. Whether it’s that or you’re overeating, there’s always something. If you don’t watch yourself, that’s how it’s going to go. I tried to channel all of those frustrations into some of the more creative things I was doing, I’d play my music, I’d write my music, but it just wasn’t enough, for me at least. It just made me sicker and sicker and sicker. I’d like to think that as injured as I was, I could still play, but the truth is, looking back and feeling the way I feel now, it’s a miracle I can play at all.
Justin: I agree. You and I have been friends for 10 years now.
Poncho: 13 years.
Justin: 12, yes. There was a time when I’d come up and see you or come down and see you and there was a little bit of a disconnect from the times when we just sat around and bullshitted and riffed off each other, it was a little bit of a different personality. You talk about in your article some of the things that you were most passionate about would get stuck in the mud and it almost made it sound like some of the issues that everybody cares about or anybody cares about, it’s almost flipping a coin as to whether something’s going to happen. I’ve reached out to you before and I’ve said, “Hey, does this bill have a chance?” and you always just like, “Yes, it’s the legislature.” Everything has a chance. Talk to me about some of the issues that were most important to you that you spent most of your time working on in those sessions that you worked?
Poncho: My first session, I worked on some higher Ed stuff for Sul Ross State, which is a local university. It was really important. I really didn’t have a grasp or concept of the things I could do and being in a minority, you’re checked. When you’re in the majority, there are certain people that are coming in that their ticket’s punched and they get there because they’re going to succeed, because they have to. I’m never going to know what that feels like because I’m not going back and there’s more likely going to be majority Democrats. So I wish them well when they have the wind at their backs. It’s going to be a very difficult session.
I give an example, this last session I worked just about from day one, till the last day on a bill that would have connected Laredo to Eagle Pass via Old Mines Road and a Old Laredo Highway that would have shaved about 45 minutes off the driving time from Laredo to Eagle Pass and it failed in the last days of the session. It really crushed me, Justin, it was a microcosm for how I felt about the whole process by then, how frustrated I’d become with it. How a lot of these things that you would look at– I think all of us as legislators have this frustration where something that we believe is the greatest thing since sliced bread, to the other 148 yahoos– I say 148 because I would never call the speaker of the house a yahoo. 149 yahoos, including myself. We all think every idea we have is the greatest and it’s not, they’re not.
Justin: Did it just die due to time, or was there some interest group who was against it?
Poncho: I don’t know if there was an interest group, but there was certainly, some legislators that were not for it. I can’t tell you why. Again, I thought it was a great idea they didn’t and I don’t know if it had to do with me personally or whether they just personally objected to there being a road built down here. I don’t know the answer to that. I just know that it’s maddening that they would get in the way of something like that. To the normal person, they’re like, “Why would they do that?” My answer to you is, I don’t know.
Justin: There’s got to be a lot of that at the legislator.
Poncho: There’s a lot of ticky-tack, petty shit that goes on. Like I said, in the essay that shit’s going to go on whether I’m there or not. it’s not like I’m leaving and now everyone is going to stop being ticky-tacky and petty, that they were just doing that shit to me, no. I used to be able to brush it away and get past it. I just couldn’t anymore. I was like the chicken or the egg. What was really affecting me there is I couldn’t control my emotions, or I was out over my skis because of my disease. I don’t know the answer to that. Together, those things revolve and they don’t help.
Justin: Lyle Larson recently wrote an opinion piece, I think it was in the San Antonio Express, about how the two-party system he thinks is– He is one of many voices over the last 200 years who’ve said that the two-party system is one of the big reasons that we have such gridlock and deadlock in our political system. What are some of the other things that you’ve noticed when you were at the legislature that just, a few tweaks here or there that maybe we might be able to be more efficient with our legislative process?
Poncho: People might disagree, but it’s time to lay by the side of the road the citizen legislature that we have. The reason I tell you that is we’re the 14th largest economy in the world. I would tell you it’s probably difficult for the legislature to be in session now and trying to decide all these things piecemeal and whatnot, but for no other reason than it will allow more voices of different people to serve if it was a job that paid. You can’t get a teacher in there unless they retire.
Justin: For some people that don’t know, our legislature meets every other year for 140 days and they’re paid not much, as opposed to California, who has a full time legislature who meets throughout the year, every year.
Poncho: I remember I had to pay my insurance at the end of every year and my wife would say, “What kind of job is this where you got to pay to be employed?” She’s right.
Justin: Oh, no benefits either?
Poncho: No. I remember somebody when I first got elected, somebody I can’t remember, it was some public forum. Somebody said, “Oh, you’re just want the legislature to get rich”. I’m like, “You better come rich to a legislature.” It’s going to take a lot of time away from you.
Justin: Citizen legislator, the two party system has and will always continue to be a problem. Any other things that you thought, “These would be some easy ways to make things work more efficient in Austin?”
Poncho: There’s a collegiality in the house. I know it’s different than the Washington. I could just tell by talking to a lot of people, but I also believe that the collegiality for the sake of getting along sometimes that things are going to happen when the majority wants them to happen. People would come to me as they’re so frustrated. How could you let [unintelligible 00:32:34] pass? Because those guys could count to 76 before we could. A lot of it is math in the end. I think if people were allowed to represent their districts a little more individually, if people were not slaves or so impressed by polls, things could change, but that’s the nature of the beast and some of us had more shield than others. No one, all those 150 was immune to pressure from the outside. All of us were.
Justin: So you’re not running for reelection. It’s going to be a safely democratic district, obviously. You’ve got a thriving personal injury practice. I’m sure you’re not giving up your passions about public service and the issues that matter to you other than maintaining your own law firm and continuing to be an attorney. Is there anything else you plan to involve yourself in to try to amplify your voice on issues?
Poncho: No. I’d say no. What I really like doing right now is I enjoy the not being in a hurry. I enjoy doing this, talking to a friend of mine and talking to you, I enjoy my life. I went to a forum the other day, that I was really glad to see here– I represent 12 counties over two time zones. Here in my home County, I was really heartened to see a city council, a school board and County commissioners all together with an agenda that mirrors what the community needs.
I was excited for them because they’re excited. At the same time I was so relieved that I don’t have to do that anymore because my interest in being an advocate is different now. I offered to be an advocate or a sounding board for whatever these issues are and offer my expertise on how the process goes as much as I can. I’m good that way. I know that my time as somebody whose opinion will matter or that people will seek, it’ll end because everything ends. I’m glad. I’m glad because I need to do something else and I’m doing it. I’m doing it today.
Justin: I love seeing you at peace with all of this because it’s such a tumultuous time when you went through that just publicly. I’m sure it was tumultuous in your head and your family. We are both attorneys. We are in the industry that is probably stricken with the most addiction issues of any industries. If not it’s one A, one B. How was there a point when you decided this is no longer manageable? Because you’re speaking to lawyers listening to this, people that have issues or listen to this, there’s a point where you realize this is no longer social. This has become a problem.
Poncho: Think about that, the biggest impediment at least for me that I had was me. I couldn’t get out of my own way. The minute, the second that I was able to now say it out loud, and really for me, I had this encounter. There was an investigation about the envelope. I went to go talk to the investigator and something he said to me– He said to me, “Do you need some help?” This is what he told me. He wasn’t talking about help with my case, with the situation he was telling me, “Do you need me, do you need help?” It cut right through me. I didn’t tell him right then and there, but I left the meeting and I sent him a text and I said, “I want to talk to you again”.
I went back, I went to see him a few days later. I told him I need help. I want help. I learned a lot about the difference between needs and wants. We talk about that all the time. Do you need it? Do you want it? I realized that I wasn’t going to get better until I wanted to get better. You talk about our profession. I think about some of the lawyers that– John O’Quinn, may he rest in peace. He battled alcoholism for most of his adult life and he was very, very successful as a trial lawyer. When he started, you and I as much younger lawyers — You talk about eating pie in El Paso seven o’clock in the morning.
We were working on these really big cases and going from town to town like the circus and that’s the way we thought we were supposed to do it is kicking ass, taking names, being the last guys to leave the bar. We had a lot of good examples of that. I would tell young lawyers coming up is, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” If I could talk to the 30 year old me I’d say, “Pace yourself dumb-dumb. [chuckles] You’re going to live a long life if you take care of yourself and life is better when it’s not like this”.
Justin: Some people might not know. You announced that you weren’t running for reelection probably November 8th. I looked up and then November 14th it became public that there was an envelope that ended up having cocaine that fell out of a car you were affiliated with. You copped all of it pretty quick. You just said that it was when he asked you, “Do you need help?” Is when you really got jarred, how were you justifying it, or did you even recognize it was problematic prior to that?
Poncho: I think I did. It’s one of those things around here that in the culture that I was bought up in, and I think for a lot of people that have this attitude and Spanish would be somewhat of a vulgarity, [Spanish language] rub some dirt on it so to speak and, “Toughen up” or, “Where’s your [Spanish language] wouldn’t buy them. The truth is I had no will. You don’t have it.
When you’re an alcoholic or an addict or you have this disease, your will, it doesn’t work. Until you start working a program, you’re not going to learn that. You have to give that up. You have to let go. In order to have some power, you have to give it away. You have to recognize that you are powerless over this and that’s okay. In our culture, not just being from [inaudible 00:39:44] but as a lawyer. Imagine that that’s the last thing that you want to admit, but yet in my head, I wrote a song about that. It’s called Whiskey and Free. In the song, I talk about these conversations that
I would have with myself about what I was becoming and what I was seeing. It wasn’t until it came out of my mouth the first time that I realized like, “Oh my God, this is where I’m at.” It was so liberating, Justin, I can’t even tell you. It was.
Justin: I reached out to you pretty quick after just to check on you and you were in very high spirits and you’ve remained in high spirits and it’s been very honestly encouraging and illuminating to see.
Poncho: It was almost a month to the day. In fact, it was a full month from the day I cleaned up to when I– The funny thing is in between seeing the investigator when I had the conversation with him, I was already abstinent but I was hanging on by a thread. I realized that I wasn’t going to make it if I didn’t commit to getting better. It wasn’t just enough to cover up the bottle, so to speak. I needed to commit to getting better. I was relieved, man, because I felt free. I really did. I knew there would be an avalanche of press and deservedly so.
I remember I was traveling that week in San Francisco, in and around San Francisco with my wife. When the news broke that Wednesday night and then early Thursday, the frustrating thing was getting home so I could see my girls and my son. That was the hardest thing, Justin. While I was coming to grips with a lot of this stuff, I hadn’t really thought about how I was going to deal with them and I wasn’t ready. That was the hardest thing for me. That was probably one of the longest days of my life, not because I wasn’t prepared to deal with it, but just because I had to get to my kids, I had to.
Justin: What were the steps you’ve taken to get clean? I know you said you went to an inpatient, are you doing group? What sort of the steps you’ve taken?
Poncho: I got back from California, the news broke late Wednesday night, early Thursday. I don’t think there was one telephone call or one text that I didn’t return from anybody that wanted to talk to me, good, bad, or indifferent. One, because I felt like I needed to and a lot of people that I love and respect were truly concerned about me. I wanted them to know that I was going to do something to get better. I didn’t want them to worry about me. That Friday, I’ve got a cousin who’s been in recovery for 10 years now, she cuts hair like three blocks from here. I walked over to her hair salon and I told her, I was like, “Edna, what do I do?”
She dragged me to my first AA meeting and I haven’t stopped going. As soon as I went, I was supercharged, man, because I looked around the room and there was probably about 13 people in the room. We were about as desperate as you can get. Immediately, I identified with each and every one of them, regardless of how different we were because we were all the same, man. I did that until January 14th and then I went to an inpatient clinic and I came back from that on February 18th. I really needed the inpatient treatment because it taught me a whole bunch more about how to deal with– I didn’t want to become this dry drunk, I wanted to be happy.
I didn’t want to just be abstinent. I wanted to be sober. I think in the essay, to me, there’s a difference between being clean and sober and being abstinent. To me, sobriety is– Part of it is maturing in a way that you’re able to see these things about yourself and not just because you’ve put a cork in the bottle but because you can accept these things. I come to accept and there’s days where I feel like I got to break myself down and do my first step. I do it because that’s what keeps me good today. I don’t obsess over the steps but they’re always very present. When I say the steps, I’m talking about 12 steps.
When you look at the 12 steps in recovery, there are things that people that are– Take the alcohol and the drugs out, there are things that the people that are healthy do on a normal day-to-day basis. There really are. I would encourage anybody that’s not familiar with them to look at and because it might help you understand an addict or an alcoholic that you have in your family on how to deal with them and how to understand what they may be going through. I can tell you that my wife had to detox from me, I believe. It’s funny, but everybody around me had– You mentioned something about seeing me like, you had to detox from me too, man.
Poncho: Sorry, Justin.
Justin: You talked in your article about one of the things that you thought maybe pushed you over the edge was dealing with grief. I lost a sister in 1997, you lost a sister in 2017. How have you approached dealing with the grief outside of substances?
Poncho: What’s funny is, first, my best friend died in the middle of a session on a Monday, and then my sister died on a Monday morning too. I tell you Monday because Monday always used to be one of these days that I just absolutely hated before this. I absolutely hated it after, but I really blamed them, like how could they do that to me? It just seemed to me that before this, nothing really bad had ever happened to me. I didn’t feel that way. I selfishly used those as an excuse to pile on myself more. An addict, an alcoholic will use a lot of different ways to justify and have commiseration for their sickness. Well, it’s not good enough and it’s a disservice to the people they were.
Now, what’s funny is– You know Larry, right, my friend Larry? His brother died a year ago, right around this time. His father passed while I was at the clinic so I couldn’t be here for him. I was talking to him about his brother. In fact, the other day when he came, he just really simply told me, like, his brother’s name is Bobby, that Bobby was okay. I thought to myself that that’s exactly right. All that’s okay. What wasn’t okay was not being able to get around it. It’s hard to grieve in the legislature because you don’t give yourself any time. I didn’t give myself any time and I didn’t give myself a chance.
Again, I don’t know what was coming first. this failure to control my emotions or my addictions and disease piling on. I don’t know, but it was hard to separate those things after a while. I remember you telling me about your sister and I couldn’t imagine, I couldn’t put myself in that position. I don’t know how you dealt with it. Better than I did, I think.
Justin: I was a kid, I was 15. Different experience. I still lived at home.
Poncho: It’s funny. Today’s my dad’s birthday so I went over to see him, we’re out there staring at each other and I can see my dad’s scaring off in the distance and I know what he’s staring off from a distance at. To put that in perspective, I don’t care how old you are, losing a child is hard. I thought, how selfish of me that this is how I’m reacting to my grief. I shut myself down where I couldn’t be there for my mother and my father when they really needed me. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t there.
Justin: How’s the reception been from colleagues and professionals and friends and family? I mean, has it been pretty supportive? I think it’s funny. In our industry, there is a lot of support and there is a lot of cheering for people to fail. That’s a sad, true undercurrent about some people in our profession. Have you run into that?
Poncho: You know what? This has reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of people. Even people that cheer you to fail, there’s very few of them, I think. I think they have more license to be vocal because social media allows that kind of stuff, but the truth is even in that, I’ve learned something and I learned something about myself and how to be more tolerant. Hell, I don’t know what they’re going through, I don’t know what their reality is. A lot of times, a lot of that is projection and some sort of unhappiness with them, and I can’t blame them. Maybe they have a real ax to grind with me, I don’t know.
I had a run-in with a lawyer about a year and a half ago and I felt really bad about it. I really went off on this lawyer during the deposition and we had depositions in this case week ago, and I could just tell that I’m rubbing him the wrong way because I just did then. We started to get into it again and I started losing my temper and losing my cool. We took a break for lunch and I called him at his office because we were doing it via Zoom. I said, “Listen, man, I apologize going way back when because I was wrong then and I’m wrong now.” I was gratified by his responses, like, “You know what, I forgive you and thank you.” Man, I felt 10 feet tall after that.
I think a lot of that is that way, but to your point, most people that are friends of ours that you and I know in the business and beyond, man, have been extremely supportive. I got calls and messages from people all over the country that understand. Even if they didn’t, a lot of people who didn’t, there was something about the story that spoke to them, maybe to their humanity or they could see my humanity or my vulnerability which I’m good with that. Whatever it was, it resonated. I was grateful then and I’m grateful now.
Justin: Your courage to accept it and really tackle it head-on and own your own narrative has been really inspiring to me. So many people let other people write their story and you’ve just refused to allow that to happen. I think it’s really been wonderful. I want to talk to you a little bit about a little more lighthearted issue, your music. Huh?
Poncho: Thank you, Justin.
Justin: You’re welcome. What do you have? I’m sure you have some piece of advice for somebody who maybe is listening and going, “Shit, this stuff maybe has gotten a little bit out of hand for me.” People probably don’t want law enforcement talking to them about getting help as their first step. What would you recommend for somebody who maybe realizes they have a little bit of an issue and they want to try to head it off at the past?
Poncho: I would recommend them to look for– In just about every community, especially right now because of pandemic, you can get on aa.org. You can get on and get on a meeting, look for the groups in your community, reach out to me. Anybody who wants help, I’ll talk to anybody. Not because I’m not anywhere near being a sponsor, I’m somebody who’s being sponsored, if you will, but I can help somebody get to where they need to get, if that makes sense. The biggest thing that the group, that AA, that therapy has shown me is an alcoholic by himself is really bad company, but together in groups, we’re better.
I get so much out of listening to somebody else’s story as much as I do sharing mine. Anybody out there that can just listen to this or that’s read that, it’s sharing and then listening because you’ll be able to identify. I think once you do that, you’ll be able to see that, “You know what, I’m not that far off from this. For better or worse, I can identify with it and I can see a way out.” I could see some of these people in the group that had been in sobriety for a lot longer than I have, and I was good envious of that. I wanted that, and I want it today. I’ve wanted it for the last 301 days today, I believe.
Poncho: Thanks. I hope I want it tomorrow. I don’t fear too far into the next day, but there’s a point in the evening where I can look and say, “You know what, the day’s almost done and I can see tomorrow, and I hope I get there.” I’m good with that, man. For anybody who wants that or wants to feel that way, I can tell them, “You’re never out of the fight. I thought I was, and here I am.”
Justin: I’m glad you’re out of that and into this fight. Do you think you’ll get involved with TLAP? There’s groups of lawyers and there’s a state support group, T-LAP, that helps lawyers that have these types of issues. Do you think you might get involved and try to help others?
Poncho: They asked me, yes. I’ve just been picking my spots because I don’t want to overwhelm myself with– Part of recovery is practicing which will take it easy with a lot of stuff. [laughs]
Justin: Take it easy. [laughs]
Poncho: I need to take it easy. I do that. I think in that, I’m all in when it comes to trying to help because it helps me. The program is somewhat selfish too. Part of that selfishness is you have to cut away things from your life that they weren’t working for you, and that’s selfish. Put yourself or take yourself out of situations that weren’t working for you, like not going back to the legislature.
I had this conversation with friends across the district about the politics of it. Could I run again and maybe won? Yes, but imagine how miserable the slog that would have been having to– I tell my story, not because I feel like I have to keep apologizing to people, but it’s just my reality. I don’t have to defend where I’ve been and where I’m at now. It is what it is. I can’t live my life apologizing over and over again for what I’ve done. I was sorry then, but you got to move on, you have to forgive yourself, and you have to forgive.
Justin: Are you enjoying practicing law more or less now?
Poncho: Tremendously, man. You know this, in our profession, how many of our colleagues really burn out. Maybe it’s not alcoholism and addiction, but it’s something else, man. It makes them sick. You see it. I don’t know if it was a combination of the legislature, but I wasn’t happy doing this. Lo and behold, once I was abstinent and then a little bit more on the road to sobriety, I started enjoying it more. I started taking a lot of pleasure in some of the things that I was good at in terms of my practice and I’m more involved. I feel like I do less but more. It’s weird, man. It’s really good.
For me, I needed the world to slow down a bit, and it did. It’s a shame why it slowed down. I know people are suffering and it weighs on me, but I try to silver line a lot of the things that have happened. We were talking before we got on about how good this Zoom thing is because it allows us to spend more time at home. You got a baby, isn’t that great to be able to do that?
Justin: Yes, it’s great.
Poncho: That’s not old enough to interrupt you, crawl upon you and-
Justin: No, he just stares at me and farts. That’s his good day.
Poncho: -that’s a brilliant way to have your day and the world slowing down as such allows us to do that. I’m enjoying it. When we get done here, I’m going to the studio for the next three or four hours. Then I go home and I got to check homework and we’re done.
Justin: Let’s talk about something real quick. Hold on.
Justin: That’s a clip provided by Poncho. Is that you singing?
Poncho: That’s me, man.
Justin: What’s the name of that song?
Poncho: The song is called What You Won’t Take. I used to say all these songs were about sex and drugs, and this one is about sex and drugs.
Justin: That was the question. What’s the inspiration of the album? Is there a theme to it?
Poncho: You know what? There is. A lot of songs I wrote, almost all of them enthralls of my addiction. I was looking at myself really hard and this is the way that I could– You talked about when I could talk or say these things about myself. I was saying it in these lyrics a lot about I was looking at me. It was really the only way that I could speak to me. The album has this– There’s a tinge of sadness in it too because some of the songs I wrote around the time my sister died and my friend died.
The name of the record is called 57 Minutes named after the highway that connects us coincidentally enough to San Antonio. It’s a road that runs north and south and it runs all the way almost to Panama and it runs to Canada. It’s the road in and out. The title track, it’s probably one of the last times I wrote, but I also wrote it as I was starting to get better and really look at myself. The songs have- and the album has that theme as an undercurrent.
Justin: Did you write all the songs?
Poncho: All of them. Actually, I co-wrote one of them with [unintelligible 00:59:58], my heterosexual life mate.
Justin: Is he going to have credit?
Poncho: Yes, he gets a songwriting credit on that.
Justin: What do you play on the album?
Poncho: I play guitars on every track or I may play some percussion on it, not drums but some noise on it today. I do all the singing on it and I probably play some piano on a couple of tracks too that we’re about to finish.
Justin: Do you still have that wild piano?
Poncho: Yes, the upright baby grand?
Poncho: I just got it tuned, by the way. It’s in really good shape.
Justin: How many songs are going to be on the album?
Poncho: Nine. It’s nine songs.
Justin: All right. Poncho, what’s next, man? Day-to-day.
Poncho: You know what? Like I said, I’m going to studio today. God willing, I get tomorrow, I’m going to work on this old beat-up car I got. [laughs]
Justin: What is it?
Poncho: It’s a ’72 Triumph. I’m fixing it up. You know what? I got too many damn cars, Justin. It’s one of these things that I start, I don’t want to sell them and then I want to sell them so maybe I should sell them. I’m going to keep doing this, man. I’m going to keep working on myself. I’m going to keep hanging around with my family as long as they’ll have me, checking in on my friends, taking a look at my cases and my clients and trying to do the best I can for them, and I’m going to finish this record. I already started writing songs for another one. I want to finish this and I’m almost finished with it, but I couldn’t help myself.
As soon as this is done, I want to start working on another one because I really enjoyed the process and I learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about music. I’m self-taught. I feel like Ferris Bueller never had a lesson. [laughs]
Justin: When we used to hang out on that case, sometimes, I’d see you the next day after a depos and you’re like, “Oh, yes, I went and played open mic,” but you would never tell us when you were playing.
Poncho: Well, I still sucked pretty bad. [laughs]
Justin: Well, I haven’t heard the new album yet.
Poncho: Well, as I said, it’s still going to be a matter of opinion, right?
Justin: Do you remember when we bought eight pieces of pie?
Poncho: I do, man. That’s-
Justin: Do you remember why?
Poncho: -I don’t know. I’d like to say that we bought it because pie is good.
Justin: We had a waitress who said, “Hey, guys, it’s the end of my shift and there’s a competition for pie,” and she was like, “Nobody wants to buy a pie at 7:00 in the morning, but I got to ask.” We said, “How many different pies?” She said eight and so we bought a piece of each and we brought it to the defense lawyer in the depos who we had, for whatever reason, started bringing sugary treats. We put down eight pieces of pie and she started screaming at us saying we’re the reason she had put on weight.
Poncho: She didn’t like us very much.
Justin: She wasn’t the nicest person I’ve ever met.
Poncho: I can’t remember. What were we in El Paso doing? Which depos? I know it’s on the bus case, but what depos were we doing?
Justin: That is where that company’s maintenance department was located. Their head of maintenance was out there and then we tracked down their former head of maintenance and I took him for dinner at Ardovino’s, a place you had recommended.
Poncho: That place, do you remember what I would drink when we’d go there?
Poncho: I would drink gallons of Malibu rum with gallons of pineapple. [laughs]
Justin: I do not remember that. I do remember you falling off a stool at Camino Real.
Poncho: That was a preplanned move.
Justin: I don’t think so, but you were happy about it.
Poncho: Do you remember that’s the hotel that’s got the Tiffany Dome. There’s a bullet hole in there. Did you know that?
Poncho: That hotel is awesome, man.
Justin: I think we both stayed there that night and decided we’re never staying here again, but we’d go back to the bar.
Poncho: The bar is awesome as bars go. I don’t really hang out in bars anymore but-
Justin: Well, that’s a good choice for you at this point to not hang out in them. I want to ask you this, I always do a wish list for the show. Who do you think I should get on my podcast? My number one’s always coach Pop which I’m sure he’ll never do it but-
Poncho: –why does he not do this podcast?
Justin: I don’t know. He didn’t do interviews, period.
Poncho: Well, it’s not really an interview, it’s just a conversation with you, that’s all.
Justin: I don’t even see a forum by which I can explain that to him though.
Poncho: You know what? Can you get Tim Duncan on? That would be awesome, dude.
Justin: I might, but he’s not real chatty. [laughs]
Poncho: You know who would be a really good guest is the author, Sandra Cisneros, man. She’s awesome. [crosstalk]
Justin: I agree. I’ve tried to reach out. It’s hard to find contact info, but I have reached out. She’s got a publicist.
Poncho: How about this guy, he’s a New York Times‘ best selling author. His name is Shea Serrano, man. How about that guy?
Justin: I’ve reached out to him.
Poncho: I’m batting a thousand here.
Justin: I know. Sheryl Sculley is coming on Wednesday to talk about her book Greedy Bastards, about the union contract fights. She was a city manager here for 15 years.
Poncho: What’s the name of the title?
Justin: Greedy Bastards and then how a city fought unions to avoid bankruptcy or something that.
Poncho: I like the title, it’s [unintelligible 01:05:24].
Justin: It comes from the police union chief saying that she was trying to paint them to be greedy bastards. I’ve got an advanced copy, I’m halfway through. It’s a pretty unique history of San Antonio local politics.
Poncho: It’s a contact sport. [laughs]
Justin: Yes, apparently. When she got here, it really was and apparently, when she got here, they were very much in the old days of doing things. Coach Pop is on my list. Shea’s written down right here. Patty Mills too because Patty has been really involved in the city. He didn’t just move here, buy a place in the Dominion and disappear. He lives in Southtown and he’s involved with charities.
Poncho: No shit. I love that town. There’s a really good Sephardic Jewish bakery in Southtown. I don’t know if it’s still open, man, but I used to get my bread there all the time.
Justin: I don’t know of a bakery down there, there might be. It’s flipped so much recently. Do you get up here much?
Poncho: I haven’t. I’m going to be up there, I got an eye appointment on Monday. I got to go see a doc about that. I love San Antonio, man. It’s such a great town. When me and wife first opened up the shop and I moved the kids up there, it was just me, Rossy and the girls before Ponchito was born. The kids went to St. Anthony School. They really took us in. We were really part of the community. I really miss it. It’s when we were closest as a family because we were this unit, if you will. I have very fond memories of San Antonio and I’ve got lot of great friends in San Antonio like you and I have a lot of good memories of it.
Justin: Well, I got plenty of office space if you ever need something up here.
Poncho: Well, I may. We saw the Eagles in concert in San Antonio, it’s been about a year ago maybe, and Joe Walsh said, “I love San Antonio. I spent two weeks here one night.”
Justin: Was that the show where Joe Walsh and the rest of the Eagles played together and played some Joe Walsh stuff?
Justin: That was a great show.
Poncho: It was. One, it encapsulates a lot of how my life was the last four years, but-
Justin: I believe it.
Poncho: -like how all of Joe Walsh’s life was.
Justin: You’ve got some Ponchoisms. I was telling Lindsay today that one time, you told me that your wife was from Mexico, not deaf. That was one of the Ponchoisms because apparently, you said I was talking loud to her because of her accent.
Poncho: [laughs] That’s right.
Justin: Then one time, I was asking you– Because you were right on the Rio Grande and I asked you about having a path down so you could fish or whatever, and you said, “If I make a path down, then people have a path up.” [unintelligible 01:08:11] “How did he come up with this crap?” [laughs] Ponchoisms. Okay, Poncho, that’s going to do it, man. Thank you so much for doing this. Of course, we’ll be in touch, but I hope you continue to share what you’re going through because I think it’s going to be really helpful for a lot of people. Even if it doesn’t change their life, they know that they are not experiencing whatever they’re experiencing alone.
Poncho: Never are, man, and nobody has to go through this alone, and I mean that. Thank you for having me on. Justin, it’s really good seeing you. I value our friendship and I love you, man. Be well.
Justin: Love you too, brother. All right, man. We’ll talk to you soon.
Poncho: Okay, man.
Justin: All right, bye-bye.
Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast, check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour, or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
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