GOP for 3

Newly elected Republican city councilor Lee Garcia, a Santa Fe rarity, edges by incumbent in race marked by low voter turnout

This year’s municipal election didn’t bring many surprises to Santa Feans Wednesday morning, when most learned that Mayor Alan Webber had secured a second term for himself. The other races concluded with two predictable wins for incumbents: Signe Lindell outpaced three District 1 opponents while District 2 Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth ran unopposed. Newcomer Amanda Chavez won 75% of the votes in District 4.

The one surprise of the night came from the westernmost district, where few expected an upset. Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, a Southside fixture and close ally of Webber, secured only 47% of the votes against small business owner Lee Garcia.

The results of the close race, separated by only 100 votes, still need to be certified by the secretary of state, but Garcia tells SFR that both Councilors Abeyta and Chris Rivera, District 3′s other representative, called to congratulate him. Abeyta confirms with SFR that he will not seek a recount.

The upset is notable for another reason: Garcia will be a Republican city councilor, which are rare around these parts.

Garcia doesn’t see his election, as the only conservative voice to the City Council, as notable. (The other seven members of the governing body are Democrats, as is the mayor.) Garcia said he wasn’t sure who the last Republican elected to the body might have been: “I didn’t even look into that because it didn’t seem to me to be an issue,” Garcia tells SFR.

“I think that it’s important for anybody, no matter what their political affiliation is...that they’re open minded and think independently,” Garcia adds.

Since he started following local politics in Santa Fe almost four decades ago, County GOP Vice Chairman Harry Montoya can’t point to any Republican councilors on the dais. “I can tell you from the mid ‘80s to now, I can’t think of a single person,” Montoya tells SFR.

Santa Fe’s recent history does include one GOP councilor, David Pfeffer, who served from 2002 to 2006 and was notable for frequent clashes with his liberal colleagues. He was elected as a Democrat, however, and switched parties mid term, then ran for Senate as a Republican.

Other GOP councilors of note include Judith Herrera (1981-1986), who went on to serve as federal judge, and Diego Martinez. Herrera and Martinez served on the council at the same time.

Pfeffer’s history is similar to that of Montoya, who served as a Democrat on the Santa Fe County Commission before he jumped the aisle and sought a congressional post.

Montoya notes the Santa Fe municipal races are nonpartisan and he explains that Garcia’s message spoke to voters more than any political party association. Montoya says the Democratic Party “left me and my conservative values,” which led him to the GOP.

Despite this, Montoya expressed hesitation at the public’s acceptance of Garcia as a conservative in a place like Santa Fe that presents itself as the bleeding-heart of liberal New Mexico. Montoya says he’s afraid that “because [Garcia] is a Republican, they’re going to stereotype him as being something that he’s not.”

Santa Fe County voters are predominantly registered as Democrats, 64% of them; just 15% are registered as Republicans.

Prior to serving as a councilor, Abeyta was on the city’s Planning Commission and worked as Santa Fe county manager. His tenure reached a high point in September when developers broke ground for a teen center on the Southside, a longtime goal of the city and Abeyta, who serves as chief professional officer for Boys and Girls Clubs Santa Fe. The chairman of the city Finance Committee, he’s also been a strong ally of Webber.

His organization recently started a teen center in Santa Fe Place mall to meet the needs of city youth until the permanent community hub opens its doors in May 2023.

Abeyta’s District 3 replacement, who takes office Jan.1 for a four-year term, owns a chain of well-known tire stores on the Southside, a family business his father started in 1974. His father, Guadalupe Garcia, campaigning outside El Camino Real Academy on Tuesday evening, tells SFR that his son’s participation in the race demonstrated that anyone can get involved in local politics.

Garcia secured $22,500 in public campaign financing, almost exactly half of the war chest Abeyta raised for his reelection campaign—an alternative narrative to those who pointed to Webber’s historic campaign finance and cried “bought election.”

Low voter turnout also distinguished the District 3 competition, with only 20% of registered voters, 1,760 people, casting a ballot in the City Council race, according to early, unofficial results. The other Southside region, District 4, saw 27% turnout, while Districts 1 and 2 drew 33% and 27% of registered voters out to the polls, respectively.

This year’s turnout in District 3 saw a small gain compared to the 2018 municipal election, when only 18% of registered voters cast a ballot for city councilor.

Garcia’s densest area of support centered around his most well-known tire shop on Airport Road. Early, unofficial results show that the voter precincts that most heavily favored Garcia surrounded his business location.

Garcia’s open support for Webber’s opponent, Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, might have earned him some votes. The voting precincts that turned out the most support for Vigil Coppler were all found in Districts 3 and 4.

Garcia says that his role as District 3′s newest councilor is to listen to his constituents’ concerns, independent of his political affiliations. How his values will impact decisions on the council, Garcia explains, he hopes to take a “fiscally conservative” approach to “make sure that all services that are run by the city are being rolled out and running efficiently.”

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