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Home / Articles / News / Features /  MAYORAL MANIA!
Cover 1-22-14
Anson Stevens-Bollen

MAYORAL MANIA!

Three-way Showdown for Top Job

January 22, 2014, 12:00 am
Not long ago, a popular incumbent mayor nearly lost a second term to an insurgent city councilor.

In 2002, then-Santa Fe Mayor Larry Delgado—a political moderate who treated his role in the city’s top office as more ceremonial than hands-on—faced stiff opposition in Patti Bushee, a councilor who had amassed her own popularity in the ‘90s and challenged Delgado from the progressive side. Delgado won re-election against Bushee by 3 percentage points.

Since then, Santa Fe’s population has grown more than 30 percent. The biggest influx of new residents is on the city’s south side, where families are twice as likely to live below the poverty line than residents in the north.

As Santa Fe and its challenges become more complex, city politics, in turn, are playing out on a larger stage.

Today, Bushee, who’s now been a councilor for 20 consecutive years, is once again seeking the city’s top job in the March 4 municipal election. But this time, she’s running on the strength of her institutional memory and experience at City Hall—a strength that could also serve as vulnerability among voters seeking something fresh and new. Bushee faces tough opposition from Javier Gonzales, a big name Democrat who is presenting himself as the hip, progressive go-getter ready to move Santa Fe to the next level.

Gonzales, who belongs to a well-known family with strong ties to governance, promises he’ll bring to the mayor’s office the needed regional approach—a familiarity with the county as a former commissioner, state government as the Democractic Party chair and education as a regent at two public universities—to tackle the issues Santa Fe will face in the next four years.

Yet his past as an elected official is marked with contradictions and a tendency to follow the will of the political winds of the moment.

And then there’s mayoral candidate Bill Dimas, a current city councilor who is attempting to stay above the fray. So far, Dimas has refused to attend public forums on the premise that they’re run by “special interest” groups. Instead, he’s printed his phone number on his campaign material, inviting the public to call him personally. He’s also dotted the city with huge campaign signs and sent out direct mail to tell voters about his plans.

But Dimas’ vision of the future is arguably the Santa Fe of yesterday, a throwback to a time when city government didn’t get distracted on big picture issues like same-sex marriage but instead kept the focus on fixing the potholes.

If each candidate has his or her flaws, the plus side is that more people will get a chance to vet them than ever before. Recent city annexations now put Santa Fe’s total population at 82,000, and the implications for March’s municipal election couldn’t be greater. More than 4,000 registered voters were added to the city’s rolls this month, which now total 57,694. The deadline for registering to vote is Feb. 4, while early voting begins on Jan. 28.

And this year marks the first time that all mayoral candidates are running publicly-financed campaigns, an experiment Santa Fe voters approved in 2008 to make the candidate playing field more equal. (For details on the first round of reports on how each is spending the public money, visit SFReporter.com on Friday) The mayor earns a salary of about $29,400, although the election will also feature a proposal to increase the salary and give the mayor more power beginning in 2018.

SFR takes a deeper look at the three candidates seeking the keys to Santa Fe’s top office:


Institution of Patti Bushee

On the campaign trail, Patti Bushee brings up her 20 years of experience at City Hall as her biggest asset in the race. It’s her major campaign theme.

Her accomplishments, which she’s listed on several sheets of paper inside a black folder that she brings with her to mayoral candidate forums, are extensive. On addressing the region’s dwindling water supply, Bushee touts her role in establishing a community water budget and the Santa Fe River Commission. On quality of life, she cites her efforts in helping establish outdoor trails, dog parks and a law that mandates all new city roads to include bike lanes.

“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Bushee, whose most recognizable features are her deep, blue eyes and closely-cropped brown hair, says in her stump speech.

Indeed, her contributions to the city cannot go ignored.

“I use the river trail—it’s great,” says Cris Moore, who served on City Council with Bushee during her first eight years there.

But along the way, some have criticized Bushee for being hard to work with. It’s a point that Gonzales and his supporters raise in public forums and on the campaign trail.

“When we agreed, I found her to be an effective advocate,” says Moore, who’s supporting Gonzales in the mayoral race. “When we disagreed, I found her difficult to have a conversation with.”

Steven Farber, an attorney who also served on the council alongside Bushee, disagrees with that assessment.

“I think that her record of getting things done speaks for itself—it is simply a reality that a person does not accomplish all the legislative achievements and programmatic changes that Patti was involved with ... without being flexible and capable of building and working with consensus. She has been doing this for 20 years,” he writes to SFR, noting that she’s his candidate for mayor.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine a City Hall without Bushee, whose name, by the way, is pronounced Boo-Shay, rather than Bushey. She’s represented the northwest side of town through three very different mayoral administrations.

Bushee, 54, grew up in Maine and came to Santa Fe in the early ‘80s. From there, she got involved in the community and advocated for issues like human rights, water and the environment—she spent some of her early years in New Mexico living in a cabin in the Santa Fe National Forest.

Still, she was relatively unknown in politics in 1994, when newly-elected Mayor Debbie Jaramillo appointed her to fill the City Council seat Jaramillo had vacated. Bushee’s beginning on the council came as a wave of populism hit the city. Jaramillo, an underdog candidate, won the mayor’s seat on a platform aimed at appeasing a shrinking Hispanic working class that felt left behind during the city’s unprecedented boom in tourism.

During a year with many political milestones for Santa Fe, Bushee brought one of her own—becoming the first openly gay city office holder.

Though avowedly liberal, Bushee, who runs a small landscaping business, developed a fiscally conservative tendency early on. Her 1996 campaign literature boasted about how she “makes sure that public money is spent wisely for the benefit of Santa Feans.”

“Some of the candidates have large families, and what I have is People for Patti.”
—Patti Bushee

In the current mayor’s race, Bushee makes an issue out of calling for an “independent” city auditor who doesn’t answer to the city manager. She’s also said she will consider imposing a new tax to pay for public safety.

At her campaign kickoff earlier this month, she boasted her ability to cite “a variety of examples I can give you of where government gets in the way.”

One included an anecdote about how she stopped the city from charging a $500 fee to an international stonemason group that held a conference in Santa Fe and wanted to work on a public art project. “I tell you this story just to tell you the kinds of things that I confront and have confronted daily in my job as a councilor,” she told the crowd. “And that will change when I am mayor.”

Even though she’s played a big part there for two decades, Bushee styles her campaign as a call to reform the way business is done at City Hall—namely what she criticizes as backroom dealmaking and the sometimes sloppy spending of the public coffers.

But in recent years, she has sometimes adopted the position as the City Council’s lone wolf. She’s taken notable votes against Mayor David Coss’ city budget plan, a housing plan in the Northwest Quadrant of town and the city’s purchase of land on Siler Road. In the summer of 2012, Bushee vocally opposed a deal for the city to buy undeveloped office space at the Market Station building in the Railyard, which she characterized as a bailout to a failed business.

“We have had several purchases that have been made behind closed doors,” she said of city government at a recent mayoral forum.

But Bushee hasn’t been immune to similar criticism levied against her. The same summer, city government greenlighted an investigation into allegations from Steve Duran, a principal of the development company that owns Market Station, claiming she owed him money for plumbing work. And last fall, her former mayoral campaign manager filed a complaint to the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board alleging that Bushee violated the city’s public finance code.

Both probes were eventually dismissed. Bushee’s recent role of lone wolf also hasn’t always paid off when it comes to pushing her own initiatives. Her proposal to ban high-capacity gun ammunition magazines, for example, failed lopsidedly during a June City Council meeting that featured nearly 50 gun rights advocates speaking against the idea. One of the bill’s own co-sponsors, City Councilor Ron Trujillo, ended up dropping his support from the measure that night.

So far, the only publicly-released poll in the mayor’s race found Bushee with a lead of 24 percent among likely voters against Gonzales’ and Dimas’ 11 percent each. Though that poll, released last fall through liberal group ProgressNow New Mexico, was conducted in late October when many more candidates were still in the race, it featured one telling point for Bushee—she simultaneously had the highest positives and the highest negatives among likely voters.

“One side or the other, you’re going to make people happy or not happy,” she told SFR last fall.

Ambition of Javier Gonzales

Slick in his mannerisms, confident in his public speaking, Javier Gonzales isn’t shy about flashing a boyish grin on the campaign trail. There, he stresses his commitments to maintain the city’s living wage, invest in early childhood education and support the “green economy.”

He speaks about creating opportunities for Santa Fe’s young population by forming a “youth services corps” for teenagers. He floats the idea of establishing a public bank to help small businesses make big investments. His overall thinking is boiled down into one campaign slogan:

“Santa Fe Forward.”

It’s all a part of an attempt by Gonzales, 47, to portray himself as the progressive choice for the mayor’s office, effectively continuing the legacy of popular outgoing Mayor David Coss. His campaign team, full of some of the same operatives who helped elect and reelect Coss to the mayor’s office over the past eight years, is the most organized of the pack.

So far, Gonzales has rounded up endorsements from traditional liberal supporters like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO’s Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council and the Sierra Club. His elaborate campaign events feature appearances from celebrity residents like actress Ali MacGraw, former covert CIA spy Valerie Plame and Southwest environmental author William deBuys.

And in many cases, Gonzales is redefining himself for a new generation. He is simultaneously an advocate on simmering national issues like marijuana legalization and a toe-tipper on heated local issues like whether Santa Fe should own a public power grid. He is both a young, recently out-of-the-closet livewire and a middle-aged divorced father concerned about the well-being of his two young daughters.

“I’m not running for mayor of Santa Fe to fix anything. I want to continue this great journey.”

—Javier Gonzales

At 27, Gonzales was elected to his first public office on the Santa Fe County Commission. There, he curbed some development plans such as a proposal from Vista Ltd. for 20 acres near the intersection of NM-599 and I-25.

Gonzales says that among his proudest accomplishments was helping secure $30 million for a countywide open space program “that literally saved thousands of acres of development,”—a credit which Coss cites in his endorsement of Gonzales’ campaign.

Behind the scenes, though, he ran into allegations that he wasn’t living up to his public facade. During his first term, Gonzales was linked to family members who were attempting to develop land for mobile homes in La Cienega, a rural community located roughly five miles southwest of city limits. At the time, a county planner accused Gonzales of using his political power to expedite development of the area by helping his relatives skirt the normal processes and jump straight to the land use director for approval [cover story, April 1, 1998: “Subdivided Loyalties”].

Campaign events for Javier Gonzales often feature famous guests such as author William deBuys, at left.
JOEY PETERS

 

Gonzales denies any wrongdoing. “The county had conflict of interest forms that I filled out,” he tells SFR. “I was certainly attentive to any perceived conflict.”

More infamously, Gonzales took a walk in 1997 during a controversial commission vote to expand Santa Fe Ski Basin’s parking lot, which was itself favored by developers but strongly opposed by environmentalists. Though he later explained that a family emergency caused his absence from the vote, some perceived the move as an attempt not to alienate future deep-pocketed support for a run for higher office down the line.

Indeed, Gonzales’ family connection to old style Santa Fe politics—his father was elected mayor of Santa Fe in 1968—sometimes comes up on the campaign trail.

“There’s some people in town who they’re not sure they can support Javier because he comes from an old Santa Fe political family and somehow that means when he’s elected he’s going to behave poorly,” Carla Lopez, a former city employee who’s supporting Gonzales for mayor, told a crowd at a recent campaign event. “Well, Javier has a record, he has a track record over a very long time, and… never [do you] see or hear those kinds of behaviors from Javier.”

He also presided as commissioner during a tough financial time for the county. In his first four years as commissioner, the county budget more than doubled from $31.3 million in 1994 to $67 million in 1998. Part of the trouble was the high cost of building a large new jail that commissioners, including Gonzales, unanimously approved two years earlier. The jail was built with a capacity for 500 beds, far more than the 280-bed threshold in similar jails. A private contractor eventually began running the jail, but over the years many beds remained empty.

In 2000, Gonzales voted for a plan to bring more revenue by allowing Cornell Companies, a private incarceration company, to use the jail to house immigrant prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Gonzales at first argued that the plan would bring needed jobs and money to the county. But after the vote, an Albuquerque Journal editorial questioned his personal friendship with Cornell’s former top executive, which Gonzales contended would not influence his decision on the project.

“At the time, I was wanting to look for ways to increase revenue for the county. Job opportunities for local Santa Feans was certainly a component,” Gonzales says today. “But I recognized there were bigger things.”

Heavy resistance over the plan from immigrant rights advocates and Catholic Church clergy grew and, eventually, Gonzales had a change of heart and publicly rescinded his vote.

“It’s wrong to support any efforts where profit can be made on the misery of individuals who find themselves in tough situations,” he says.

Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who a decade later urged Gonzales to run for party chairman, says Gonzales’ ability to listen to different constituencies in tough situations like this is one of his biggest strengths.

“I always appreciated his style, which was not bombastic,” Denish tells SFR. “I think he understands the good and the bad that go with politics.”

By the end of his time on the county commission, Gonzales’ political career continued to grow. He became president of the National Association of Counties in 2001, a role in which he testified in front of US Congress the following year to support an affordable housing bill. Through the next decade, Gonzales served in stints as a regent at New Mexico Highlands University and later at New Mexico State University, his alma mater.

He worked for a time in the private sector in Washington DC and consulted with Santa Fe Studios before taking a job as an executive at a commercial real-estate company with a downtown office.

In 2009, he ran for and won the seat for chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, where he served for four years through one really bad election and one really good election for local and national Democrats.

His jump into this year’s mayoral contest represents a return to electoral politics, and if the past is any indication, Gonzales is a man of political ambition. As much as Gonzales promises a win in the mayor’s office is a shift “forward” for Santa Fe, the same can be said to the career of the man behind the slogan.

Nostalgia of Bill Dimas

A foreshadowing of Bill Dimas’ campaign philosophy came in late November, when former Santa Fe mayor Sam Pick eloquently explained to a civically-minded crowd at a neighborhood law conference his idea of how the city should be run.

“You’ve got to understand what local government is,” Pick, who served as mayor in the 1980s and early 1990s when the city’s tourism industry exploded, said in a tone both jovial and bitter. “It’s a civic commitment. It’s not political. It’s keeping the streets clean, it’s keeping the libraries open, it’s paying for the police and the fire and the planners and parks. That’s what it is.”

Dimas, a former police officer, three-term magistrate judge and current city councilor, reflects a similar, albeit toned-down rhetoric in his quest for mayor—a philosophy that harkens back to a smaller, more innocent Santa Fe of days past.

Nostalgia like this filled the air during Dimas’ recent campaign kickoff in a small office at the corner of Cerrillos Road and Don Diego Avenue.

“When we were growing up as teenagers and they had their band, we’d go to all their dances,” says Joann Schutz, a retired resident who’s known Dimas since the mid-1960s. Dimas’ was a member of bands including The Sprints and The New Things, which played early rock and roll standards like “The Twist” and “La Bamba.”

Dimas, 68, sums up his campaign with the motto “unity, honesty and integrity.” But his message is not without critical undertones; Dimas’ mayoral announcement included warnings that Santa Fe “is in danger of losing its ways, distracted by fringe issues and bending to special interests.”

“We’re talking about peripheral issues that City Hall doesn’t really have jurisdiction over,” Dimas tells SFR.

Like? “Like the gay issue—that’s not our concern,” Schutz says. “I have nothing against that, but I just think, well, we need to focus on roads, helping people heading to work, not doing stuff that isn’t at the city level.”

Last April, Dimas abstained from a City Council vote to recognize same-sex marriage on the grounds that the city didn’t have jurisdiction to get involved in the issue, which at the time was being weighed by the US Supreme Court. He later told a reporter that he didn’t personally mind same-sex marriage “if it’s legal” and that he has several gay friends and a gay stepson, but that the issue “did nothing but polarize our community.”

Indeed, former mayor Pick, who hasn’t made a public endorsement for mayor this year, suggested a similar stance about the city’s action when he claimed “they want to tell me who to marry.”

Whatever Dimas’ personal beliefs on samesex couples may be, his candidacy provides an opening for socially conservative voters in search of a hetero alternative to two gay candidates. In explaining the difference between Dimas and his opponents, Jerry Swartz, who serves on the Dimas campaign’s executive committee, says both Bushee and Gonzales are “just taking from the same voter base.”

“And just they’re, of course they’re both gay and stuff, you know,” Swartz says, “And of course, [Dimas is] not discriminatory to anybody, so he’s not against anybody. He’s open to everybody.”

Dimas is likely to draw from a base of those with strong family ties to Santa Fe and those who personally know him. At his recent campaign kickoff, the atmosphere resembled more of a family barbeque than a campaign event. And instead of rallying the attendees under a rousing speech, Dimas approached each one-on-one. The majority of them were friends.

“Santa Fe is in danger of losing its ways, distracted by fringe issues and bending to special interests.”
—Bill Dimas

Like the other two candidates, Dimas’ campaign material illustrates his support for green energy jobs, renewable energy practices and water conservation measures.

But his major topic is crime, which he maintains is mostly the symptom of a drug epidemic. The issue is personal, he says, citing the recent death of his daughter to a drug overdose.

But even his answers to that issue sometimes follow a nostalgic solution. To solve Santa Fe’s drug problem, Dimas brings up the 1970s, when the police department and the schools “worked together” on drug and alcohol prevention plans.

And his efforts on City Council to address the problem haven’t always worked to the level of his vision. Last fall, Dimas proposed a measure to bring back a narcotics unit in the Santa Fe Police Department. Police Chief Ray Rael, however, publicly warned that such a move would be costly and jeopardize SFPD’s roles in a regional task force. Dimas amended his measure to “explore the options” of establishing a hotline for residents to report illegal drug activity and lobby the state Legislature to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers.

That resolution passed in late October.

But specific issues like these don’t come up often on the campaign trail. During his door knocking, Dimas says he often tells constituents who he is, why he’s running for mayor and that he hopes they consider voting for him. “Most people are congenial,” he says. “A few ask questions about where you stand on an issue, but not that many.”

 

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