All three candidates for mayor participated in Santa Fe’s first test of publicly funded campaigns for the top job, but the one who emerged the victor was also the only candidate with big-money backing from political action committees.
That’s sure to raise questions about an experiment intended to get the money out of politics. But apparently voters weren’t too worried.
Javier Gonzales, 47, became the mayor-elect by a wide margin, earning about 43 percent of the votes in Tuesday night’s municipal election. City councilors Patti Bushee and Bill Dimas duked it out as runners-up, both getting about 28 percent according to final results that arrived after SFR went to press. Ballots were cast by an estimated 17,000 of 60,200 eligible voters, which puts the election turnout was about 28 percent.
Gonzales supporters shouted in jubilation over the announcement of his apparent win. Although he sent out a celebratory Tweet claiming “It is in the bag” around 8:20 pm, Gonzales didn’t give his victory speech at a party at Hotel Santa Fe until more than an hour later.
“Here’s the good news, we feel like we’re going to win this,” he told a rowdy crowd, adding later,“It’s looking pretty darn good. And it’s looking good because of what we see in this room, a cross-section of Santa Feans who came together to join a grassroots campaign to move Santa Fe forward.”
Cordelia Garcia, a Gonzales supporter who lives near the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, celebrated earlier in the day.
“I really feel that people will have someone in City Hall that truly cares for them,” she tells SFR after voting. “He has a big heart, and yet he’s really sharp.”
Gonzales’ win came despite—or because of, depending on differing points of view—the immense outside spending in his support over the past two months. As of press time, PACs and other organizations that supported Gonzales for mayor reported spending nearly $58,000 on campaign-related materials and labor. (Another spending report that will reflect last minute purchases is due in two weeks.)
PAC participation prompted heavy criticism from Gonzales’ opponents and good government groups like Common Cause New Mexico. Many of his supporters, however, shrugged it off.
“Are they coming down on him because he is a popular person?” said Charlie Gonzales, who backed Javier and isn’t related, on Tuesday as he stumped in the wind outside of Chaparral Elementary School. “He didn’t do anything illegal. That’s just part of the game.”
The efficacy of the city’s public campaign finance code, which limits mayoral candidates to spending $60,000 in public money on their campaigns, came into question before candidates even qualified.
In September, a PAC called Progressive Santa Fe formed to support Gonzales. Critics said it would undermine the public finance code, but organizers said the group was only being formed as a buffer to counterattack potential right-wing special interest money from coming into the election.
But later that week, news broke that Progressive Santa Fe had already hired a Washington DC-based political research firm to do opposition research on the mayoral candidates. By January, another PAC, Santa Fe Working Families, had formed. It ended up raising $30,000 from the Washington DC headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, most of which went toward pro-Gonzales glossy mailers and a January opinion poll that showed Gonzales gaining momentum in the race. The city chapter of that union also later formally endorsed the candidate.
The New Mexico office of Working America, a national nonprofit pro-labor organization that’s affiliated with the AFL-CIO, also got involved toward the end of the mayor’s race by sending canvassers from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to knock on doors for Gonzales.
Throughout the whole process, Gonzales, who’s had professional relationships with some of the operatives behind the PACs through his work as state Democratic Party chairman, denounced the outside money.
“I have asked publicly in every media venue that I have possibly could [for the PACs] to stand down,” Gonzales told SFR last week.
But at a recent public event with former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Gonzales defended the PACs while at the same time disavowing them.
“I think the PACs [and] the people that have been involved have been demonized,” he told a large crowd. “But you know they are people who want to see the city move forward, in making sure that we’re strong environmental stewards, that we’re taking care of people so that they can have their wages grown.”
But others were disgusted enough with the tactics to call the public campaign finance code a failure.
“It’s like having your cake and eating it too,” says Richard Cooper, a Sierra del Norte neighborhood resident who supported Bushee during the election. “We ought to have totally private financing or totally public financing and not this bastardization.”
Jim Harrington, the state chair of Common Cause New Mexico, says the city’s public finance code could be revisited as a result of the PAC spending. In a statement, Harrington says it’s “impossible to say for sure whether the lavish PAC spending on [Gonzales’] behalf was actually critical to his victory,” but that “there is at least a strong possibility that this spending surge did indeed make a difference.”
On the campaign trail, Bushee attacked Gonzales for his past support of a bill in the state Legislature that lowered New Mexico’s corporate tax rate in exchange for cutting state funding that the city relies on.
Record-setting early voting was also likely a big factor in the election. City Clerk Yolanda Vigil reported 3,230 people had either voted absentee by mail or early in person at her office, a jump from past election years.
Gonzales’ election makes history in a number of other ways, including that he’ll be the second mayor in his immediate family. His dad, George Gonzales, served in the post from 1968 to 1972. Gonzales is also poised to be Santa Fe’s first openly gay mayor.
Both Dimas and Bushee are permitted by law to continue their terms on the City Council. Bushee conceded, saying she's looking forward to working with Gonzales and the new councilors. She adds that the election results "indicate there's no clear mandate from any direction."
"What I'm thrilled about is the kind of campaign we were able to run," she says. "I thought it was an honorable effort. We had an amazing cross section of this community come together."