Elections have been just one of the many events that have been upended by the spread of COVID-19. We interviewed Nick Pesina in late March, before the May election had been pushed back. Pesina is running for the District 4 seat of Tyler City Council.
Pesina wasn’t born in Tyler but “Got here as fast as I could,” he says, after graduating with a law degree from UT Austin in 2012. He is a partner at Roberts and Roberts law firm and volunteers with several nonprofits in Tyler.
We also interviewed Pesina’s opponent, James Wynne. Both are running for public office for the first time.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Interview by Rebecca Smith. Production by Jane Neal and Zoe McGhee.
Any tips personally for passing the time during this social distancing period?
This is the perfect time to spend with your family. Play with your kids. We normally get so little time to do that before they grow up.
I taught my three year old to have our first pillow fight today, so it has its bright moments.
That’s so great! It’s funny you say pillow fight, because I was encouraging people on social media to find fun things to do with their kids indoors. Pillow fights were on the list of fun indoor activities to do with the family.
How is your campaign addressing the coronavirus issue?
We are encouraging people to stay informed. Fear and rumors are so easy to spread. We want to leverage our social media following to spread facts and hope. Our campaign wants to be respectful and be present in the lives of our fellow Tylerites. This pandemic is a real-life example of why local government is so important. Leadership, hope, and above all faith is what lifts us during times like these.
Besides the coronavirus, can you talk about some unique challenges to your district specifically?
Our district is so diverse. It’s kind of a microcosm of Tyler. We have the Azalea district and the brick streets with $2 million homes, but we also have homes in other areas that may be worth $40,000. You’ve got business and industry like Delek Refinery and Highland Dairy in the district, but you also have places like Stanley’s and Don Juan’s, so you’ve got a little bit of downtown, you’ve got new developments on the east side. There’s a bunch of new houses around there where Planet Fitness is that weren’t there when this district was drawn in 2010. So, you’ve got old Tyler families, you’ve got new Tyler families, you’ve got just everything packed into this district. I think one of the challenges is understanding from a candidate’s perspective.
What are some unique ways that you would be addressing these challenges if you were elected?
Well the first thing is making sure that every part of the district is represented. I’ve been walking streets all over the district. I can’t tell you how many times my team and I have heard, “You’re the first candidate that’s ever knocked on our door.” Making sure that you’re meeting the voters where they are, I think is the first thing you gotta do to really understand and represent the entire district.
So one of the things that I saw, I think it was on your Facebook, you were talking about registering people to vote. Obviously COVID may make an impact on turnout. What are some of the other challenges to getting people out to vote?
You’ve gotta make people care. Obviously you’ve got the coronavirus right now, but in our regular lives. We all have the same 24 hours every day, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Nick. What you choose to do with your 24 hours is very important because that’s all we’ve got. You’ve got to make the case for the voters of why local government is important, why they should care about the closest form of government to the people and why you should earn their vote. You’ve gotta make people care about what’s going on, and they do care.
One of the things we ask when we knock on doors is, “What’s some of the things that the city can be doing better?” You hear everything. If we met with people that live close to the medical district, you hear, “There’s parking on our street sometimes to where we can’t even pull into our driveway. They block our driveway.” You hear about code enforcement, like “My neighbor is not keeping their yard,” or “They’ve got a car in the backyard.” You also hear about streets. Potholes are something that’s always going to be on the minds of people, and then you start talking about issues like water, with the City of Tyler being in a federal decree. You hear what people’s concerns are, and I think when you as a candidate show that you’re interested in what their day-to-day lives are, then you’re really starting to touch the issues that are important to people, and that’s what inspires them to vote.
What are some of the ways that you are making people care that set you apart from your opponent?
I think it’s the outreach that we’re doing. We’re knocking on doors that have never been knocked on, and people care. People want to know that you’re interested in their lives and people want to know that no problem is too big and no problem is too small. Those challenges and how we respond to those challenges, I think is what distinguishes our campaign. I’ve got a lot of respect for my opponent, and I think he’s a really nice gentleman, but it’s time to have a fresh perspective on the city council.
I was reading your comments in a Loop piece we did in 2019 about hope for the future of Tyler, and you were talking about the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce and the Tyler Area Partnership for Education having a goal of 60% of our population to have a post-secondary degree in 2025. You talked about increasing opportunities for education here, having been involved with the Tyler ISD Career and Technology Center. But, another issue I’ve heard people are concerned with is called “brain drain,” where we have students who go off to college, and then they don’t come back here, and they don’t reinvest in this community. So I was just wondering since you did focus on education, did you have any ideas for addressing that?
So I don’t think “brain drain” is limited to high school graduates that go off to college. I think it also extends to the fact that until recently, we had four institutions of higher education in Tyler. We’ve got Texas College, Tyler Junior College, UT Tyler and the UT Health Science Center. That’s incredible. With Tyler having now 23,000 full-time college students in the city, that is a very dangerous “brain drain.” Those are the students who are getting a higher education and really, that’s evidence that we’ve got a highly trainable workforce for business and industry that want to come to Tyler.
I was talking to some college students, it was probably last year, a little bit earlier in the campaign. I wanted them to understand why city council was important for them, and I told them, “You’ve probably never had a city councilman come talk to you,” and I said, “I want to make the decision for you to leave Tyler be the hardest decision you’ve ever made.” We’ve got a beautiful city to live in, we’ve got room to grow, we’ve got competitive jobs here. We’ve got really affordable housing in terms of a younger professional wanting to buy a house or rent an apartment or condo downtown or a loft. I want those things to be a part of the equation, a part of the calculation they have to make before they decide to go off to a bigger city, to go off to a bigger job. But, if they intend to leave, and they go get some experience, and they figure out they want to come back home, I want the decision to come back to Tyler to be the easiest decision they’ve ever made, because we’re doing the things we need to do with outdoor space, with walkability, with rideability — if you’re into riding bicycles.
I’m very blessed that I live less than a half a mile from where I work. Tell me a place in Dallas where you can do that and be a recent college graduate or law school graduate, whatever it may be. So I don’t want students from Tyler or high school graduates from Tyler to feel like they have to move to Dallas just to get ahead. One of the little known facts about Tyler is, we’re one of the two cities in the entire state of Texas that’s actually getting younger. Our average age is dropping and I think, obviously, the 23,000 college students have a lot to do with that. Contrary to popular belief, while this may be a great retirement community, this is actually a very young area, and I think that’s going to really start to manifest itself when you start looking at the renovation downtown, all the outdoor spaces that we’re starting to focus on. I really think that Tyler is a great place to live and I think we’re really starting to appeal to college students and graduates about that.
I noticed that you were endorsed by the Tyler Patrolmen Association. They said that you were particularly supportive of law enforcement and at the same time you’re a part of the Hispanic Professionals Association and active in the Hispanic community. Do you see any conflict there between law enforcement and the Hispanic community with recent immigration policies? How are you bridging that gap?
Well first of all, I don’t see conflict, I see opportunity. I think there is a real opportunity here for community policing, and I think that is the solution that we absolutely need because we need to be in a position where people who live in Tyler — regardless of immigration status — need to feel confident enough to where they’re going to be able to report a crime in order to keep us all safe. Any crime that goes unreported out of fear of immigration status makes us all less safe. The number one priority in my platform is keeping our neighborhoods safe, because a safe neighborhood is the building block and foundation for everything.
That said, the endorsement by the Patrolmen Association and the Fraternal Order of the Police — I really, really appreciate that because I think that when we met they really understood where I was coming from. They know that my background and my community work, not only through the Hispanic Advisory Committee and with Tyler PD, but also a lot of the work that I’ve done in the immigrant community, and being the son of an immigrant — all of that is very important to me. I heard one police officer say, “You know Nick, when I put on that uniform, I don’t say, ‘Oh I’m only willing to take a bullet for a US citizen or a legal resident. I’m willing to take a bullet for whoever I’m needing to protect in the city of Tyler.’” I think when you have police officers who have that mentality, and you’ve got community members who want to find that bridge — to work with the police department and really see that community policing and that trust and effect — that’s what’s going to keep us all safer.
Now more than ever, we must emphasize community policing to build trust. Our country is hurting for the victims of police brutality. The police brutality that we have seen throughout our country is going to put stress on police officers who do the right thing. It is also going to create trust issues with people of color in our community. We must come together for because we all have the same goal — public safety. We must keep our communities safe from the law enforcement perspective, but also keep our community safe from the perspective of people of color. Community policing and the restoration of trust will help us heal and come together.
I noticed that you have served with, the Tyler Hispanic Business Alliance but also PATH, Niños de Promesa Pre-K and CASA of East Texas. How has working with those nonprofits impacted your view of issues facing Tyler?
You see how people live. You see children in the foster care system, your neighbors in need at the food pantry at PATH. You see Hispanic business owners really picking themselves up by their own bootstraps. Being able to serve in Tyler is very important because I feel so lucky to be in a city this size, because you actually see the needle move here, whereas in major urban areas, it’s really hard to see the needle move. I think that every opportunity you have to serve your community, you are learning something from someone. You’re either learning from the people who you’re helping serve, or you’re learning from fellow board members, or you’re learning some things about yourself. Maybe even address some preconceived notions that you had.
After my early work with CASA, now I take pro-bono appointments from Judge Wilson in the 321st District Court. I take pro-bono appointments and I represent kids who are in the CPS system. It really makes you appreciate where your starting point was in life. I had a pretty challenging, humble upbringing, but then you see people who had it a lot harder. I had a mom and dad who loved me, and some of these kids are starting without that.
PATH is a tremendous organization. Seeing everything they’re able to do from a housing perspective, from a food pantry perspective, from an income taxes perspective — all of it has really been a great learning experience for me to be in a position running for city council.
In the Tyler Paper you were quoted as saying that you support the half-cent sales tax for city projects. You said, “I think that our business approach has been tremendous but we also need to figure out ways to continue to innovate and build on that.” You mentioned building a convention center, and I was just wondering if there were other ways that you had in mind as well?
The half-cent sales tax has been a tremendous program. What it set out to do back when Mayor Eltife helped come up with that project — our property taxes were so high in Tyler that it was essentially able to cut it in half, and then it went a little further. That program has been around for almost a quarter of a century now, and I really think there are ways to use that program in a more innovative fashion.
For example, we’ve paid for a striping project for the streets. I served on the half-cent sales tax board, and we did have a project that we paid for the last couple of years that was $3 million a year that has gone to this repaving project. Now, I support the repaving project because it essentially extends the life of streets, and that’s a good thing. I think that’s being good, fiscal stewards of the community’s money, the taxpayer dollars.
However, a strong argument can be made that that’s actually maintenance, and that’s not new construction. When you look at the origins and the original ordinates of that half-cent sales tax program, that’s not what it was meant for. That program was meant to build infrastructure, not maintain it. So things like that, I think we have to figure out ways to really maximize the money that we have available to us. I think this COVID-19 is gonna be a huge blow to the local economy, and who knows what’s going to happen with our sales tax moving forward. So there’s going to be even less money available to take care of these projects. We have to figure out ways to leverage the position we’re in to do more with what we have.
Last question: If you had to pick one thing for people to know about you, what would it be?
My desire to serve is what’s fueling this campaign. That’s why I became a Political Science major in college, to a graduate student in Public Administration, to working at the State Legislature for a State senator and then going to law school and working for the Texas Speaker of the House, to the federal treasury department, and then for the city of Greenville, to where I am right now.
The city is growing, and the city is wonderful, and I want to be part of the future of this city. I think all the things we’ve talked about, from the service to the nonprofit boards and being with your fellow Tylerite, has really just opened my eyes so much and it really motivates me to just be at the table and make decisions that are going to impact not just the 100-something thousand people that live in Tyler but the quarter of a million people who come here every day during business hours. This city is the engine for this entire region of the state. I think the stakes are really high, and I think that makes it that much more exciting to work with the people and for the people.
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