Fights over the Alamo persist as George P. Bush seeks higher office

An Alamo Ranger guards the Alamo on the evening of Jan. 7, 2020. (Eddie Gaspar For The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar For The Texas Tribune)

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The Alamo is known for being the site of one of the most pivotal battles in Texas’ war for independence from Mexico. But in recent years, the roughly 300-year-old Spanish fortress has been at the center of a different kind of conflict, as politicians and others battle over a nearly $400 million plan to renovate and preserve the landmark.

This past week, that construction project hit a major milestone when the Long Barrack, the Alamo’s oldest structure that once housed Spanish missionaries, reopened to the public after being closed for nearly two years.

The reopening marked the latest reminder of a yearslong pursuit mired in political infighting among top Republican officeholders and at times bitter back and forths among descendant groups, city officials and the state.

Tensions flared almost immediately after plans began for moving and repairing certain monuments at the historic site, which has deteriorated with age. But there have also been deep divides over how far-reaching those renovations should be, and whether different cultural perspectives tied to the site’s history should be included — or if the restoration should more narrowly focus on the 1836 battle.

At the center of some of those controversies is Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush — son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush — whose agency, the General Land Office, is responsible for overseeing the redevelopment plans.

Bush has faced criticism from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others over his handling of the redevelopment. And his involvement with the Alamo drama could be a sticking point for him as he heads into a contentious primary battle challenging Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a race that includes at least two other Republicans.

Bush, according to his campaign, has overseen “historic preservation work” of the site, which “was in disrepair” when he entered office in 2015.

“As a proud native Texan, Commissioner Bush has been fighting to ensure that the Alamo remains standing for generations to come,” Karina Erickson, spokesperson for Bush’s attorney general campaign, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. She added that under Bush’s leadership, “more has been done to tell the story of the battle of independence and that of the heroic defenders who gave the ultimate measure for liberty and freedom than any time in modern history.”

But some critics, including former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, argue that Bush has made some “glaring screwups” by failing to take positions on some of the more controversial issues surrounding the Alamo redevelopment process. That process involves a partnership between the General Land Office, the city of San Antonio and Alamo Trust, a nonprofit group that manages the site.

“I don’t think he’s a bad guy,” Patterson, who challenged Bush for his old job unsuccessfully in 2018, told the Tribune. “I think he has just tried to triangulate too much as it relates to policy, politics and that intersection.”

Patterson said his successor deserved credit for some of the restoration and archeological research that has happened at the site so far.

“Is [Bush] going to be criticized about the Alamo in the Republican primary? Absolutely,” Patterson said. “Is all of that criticism deserved? No, not exactly.”

The Alamo Cenotaph stands at Alamo Plaza to commemorate the Battle of the Alamo. Seen on Jan. 7, 2020.

The Alamo Cenotaph, seen here in 2020 at Alamo Plaza in San Antonio, commemorates the Battle of the Alamo. Credit: Eddie Gaspar for The Texas Tribune

The Cenotaph

Some of the most heated disputes over the Alamo’s redevelopment have involved the question of whether to relocate the Cenotaph, a 1930s monument on Alamo grounds commemorating those who died during the 1836 battle.

The roughly 60-foot monument, also known as The Spirit of Sacrifice, was set to be taken apart, restored and moved some 500 feet south to the nearby historic Menger Hotel — a move that project planners said would help better mirror the original site. But conservative groups argued that moving the Cenotaph would dilute its significance.

Bush though defended moving the Cenotaph, arguing that it was needed to prevent the monument from “basically falling apart from within,” according to a call the commissioner had with state GOP members and activists, as San Antonio Report reported at the time. That only fueled some critics already angry over Bush’s role in the redevelopment project.

The Cenotaph drama has also played into heated exchanges between the land commissioner and Patrick, the state’s lieutenant governor who heads the Texas Senate.

At one point, Patrick blasted Bush over his management of the Alamo, tweeting that no one had put the Alamo “at more risk” than the land commissioner “with the outrageous ‘reimagining’ plan, lousy management, lack of transparency and moving the cenotaph.” A few months earlier, Patrick had threatened to take oversight of the Alamo away from Bush’s office.

Patterson said Bush’s greatest shortcoming over his handling of the Alamo was his “absence” and lack of stronger leadership on issues like the Cenotaph.

“You cannot be involved in the Alamo without controversy surrounding whatever you’re doing. It’s been that way since the 1700s,” Patterson said. “It’s still that way and you can’t lead if you are afraid of controversy. The Cenotaph was a symptom of that.”

Ultimately, the Texas Historical Commission, a state board with Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed members who oversee historical preservation in the state, ruled to keep the Cenotaph in place. And earlier this year, Bush and Patrick appeared to move past their prior tensions, with both elected officials suggesting the two had had productive talks with the other since the Cenotaph issue had been resolved.

“I thank George P. Bush as land commissioner, who has worked so hard with the Legislature,” Patrick said at an event with Bush and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg in April. Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Still, the broader drama surrounding the Alamo redesign — and Bush’s involvement with it — could play a role in the Republican primary for attorney general, according to Jon Taylor, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio chairing the department of political science and geography.

“It’s going to resonate at least with a certain percentage of Republican primary voters,” Taylor said. “Someone is going to bring it up.”

But Bush’s camp says his work on the Alamo is a point of pride.

“Prior to Commissioner Bush taking office, the Alamo was split under ownership of the City of San Antonio and the state of Texas,” Erickson said. “Under Commissioner Bush’s leadership, we have successfully reunited the Alamo battlefield and returned it to state control, restored the sole remaining structures (Church and Long Barrack) from the battle of the Alamo, closed down the streets to vehicle traffic, and restored reverence and dignity to the sacred ground of the battlefield.”

Visitors walk passed a plaque outside of the Long Barrack on the Alamo historic site on Oct. 26, 2021. The plaque commemorates William Travis' appeal for aid to the Alamo during the Texas Revolution in 1836.

The Long Barrack building at the Alamo historic site on Oct. 26, 2021. The building was constructed in 1724 under Spanish rule. Credit: Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune

The Long Barrack building at the Alamo historic site on Oct. 26, 2021. The building was constructed in 1724 under Spanish rule.

The Long Barrack building at the Alamo historic site on Oct. 26, 2021. Credit: Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune

First: Visitors walk past a plaque outside of the Long Barrack on the Alamo historic site on Oct. 26, 2021. Last: The Long Barrack, which reopened to the public last week after being closed for nearly two years. Credit: Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune

Though the primary is slated for March, the issue has already attracted attention from other Republicans running for attorney general, such as Eva Guzman, a former state Supreme Court justice.

Guzman, in an emailed response for this story through her campaign, called Bush’s handling of the Alamo redesign a “colossal mismanagement of one of Texas’ proudest landmarks” and questioned how the land commissioner can “be trusted to be our state’s top lawyer” amid those so-called shortcomings.

During an interview for the annual Texas Tribune Festival earlier this year, Bush leaned on his experience running a state agency as a way to contrast his experience with a candidate like Guzman.

“The thing about Eva is that she’s never run anything,” he said. “I have 800 full-time employees. She wants to talk about executive leadership — I’m more than happy to have that discussion.”

A spokesperson for Paxton’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Neither did state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican also in the GOP primary race. At least three candidates are running on the Democratic side: former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski; Lee Merritt, a North Texas civil rights attorney; and Rochelle Garza, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

History of the Alamo

After the Texas Historical Commission voted against moving the Cenotaph, stakeholders went back to the drawing board to revamp the redevelopment plan. The San Antonio City Council approved a revised $388 million plan — down from the original $450 million price tag — in April, which includes keeping the Cenotaph as is and repairing it.

It’s unclear how long renovations will take, though stakeholders have suggested the process could last at least five more years. The latest plan includes renovating historic buildings near the Alamo Church to include the visitor center and museum, as well as an exhibit hall and collections building that are already under construction.

That revamped approach came soon after Nirenberg, the mayor, ushered in new leadership of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, which was tasked by the city council to “create a vision and guiding principles for the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza and the surrounding area,” according to the city’s website.

As the feud over the Cenotaph died down, a new one emerged: How will the story of the Alamo be presented at the site and in the new museum — and whose perspectives would be represented?

Traditionally, the Alamo is remembered as the site of a 13-day battle in 1836 where a group of about 200 heroic underdog Texas soldiers defended the fort against Mexican army forces. For many, the historic battle site is a symbol of intense state pride and a representation of the Texan ethos of fighting for independence.

But this past year, debates have ensued over the role slavery played in both the Alamo’s history and the Texas war for independence from Mexico. The citizens advisory committee has debated the topic a number of times in recent months, with members split over how to present ideas and questions related to the issue in some of the new exhibits at the site that are currently in the works.

At least one Native American group that wants a seat at the table has also drawn attention to human remains found at the historical site in recent years, arguing that its members have been left out of the archeological process.

Asked whether mentions of slavery and indigenous people will be included in the new museum, Bush’s campaign said the commissioner “believes the focus of the museum should be, without question, on the battle of 1836.”

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced his candidacy for Texas Attorney General at an event inside Buford's Bar in Austin on June 2, 2021.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced his candidacy for Texas Attorney General at an event inside Buford's Bar in Austin on June 2, 2021. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

“Throughout the entire process of improving the Alamo experience, the Alamo has worked with federally recognized tribes to ensure that all human remains encountered have been treated with the utmost respect and dignity,” Erickson, the spokesperson, said.

The citizens advisory committee met last month to discuss a preliminary outline of the Alamo’s redevelopment. Two of the committee chairs expressed concern at that meeting over the lack of cultural perspectives presented reflecting Native Americans and Black people.

“I may be the only African American in the room,” said Aaronetta Pierce, one of the tri-chairs of the citizens advisory committee, “but in the whole time we’ve been in this discussion today, I have not heard the word African American or African American people or any role that they might play in this process. … It is inconceivable to think that we cannot be included in the beginning, ground-foundational discussion of the story of the battle.”

Bruce Winders, a former Alamo historian and current consultant for the redevelopment project, reassured Pierce that the site would offer a variety of perspectives.

“We do know what the political climate is like, we know what the historical climate is like,” he said. “And we know that there are stories that have to be told. And those stories will be told.”

Moving forward

With new leadership and plans for the Alamo redevelopment in place, others say they are confident that progress will continue despite some of the bumps that have stalled those plans.

“We’re just really starting in on the stories now,” said Sharon Skrobarcek, a member of the citizens advisory committee, adding that a museum planning committee she is involved with is slated to meet sometime this month. “The good, the bad, the ugly — we want to tell it all. We just need to be careful about the conclusions we draw.”

And Lee Spencer-White, president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, said that while her group had previously taken issue with two items — moving the Cenotaph and being involved with the human remains process — she was hopeful about the movement made on both fronts.

“For the first time in four years, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the plan and the people involved in the plan,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nirenberg, the San Antonio mayor, told the Tribune last week he’s “pleased” about the Alamo redevelopment plan, “and that there appears to be continued, full engagement from all of the parties involved,” which he characterized as a “delicate but critical partnership.”

The main objective, the mayor said, “is the preservation and redevelopment of one of the most historic sites in Texas if not the United States.”

“None of this is easy, and it forces us to confront things we like and don’t like about our history in Texas,” he said. “But the commitment to doing that and setting aside some of our predispositions and being committed first to facts and truth is extremely important, as uncomfortable as some of those truths may be.”

Disclosure: Texas Historical Commission and University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.