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Track and (Candidate) Field

Santa Fe’s public campaign financing system’s confusing deadlines and low payoff keep prospective City Council candidates on a different course

When Santa Fe voters in 2008 approved a way for tax dollars to pay for city election campaigns, backers said public campaign financing would keep money out of politics. But the system has created confusion because two sets of deadlines now govern would-be candidates for the Nov. 7 election depending on how they plan to pay for their campaigns. A handful of contemporary candidates also say the system does not pay enough.

The New Mexico Local Election Act of 2018 kicked off a wave of change in Santa Fe. The law established a statewide local election date every November in odd-numbered years for nonpartisan candidates and local government ballot questions. Cities could also opt for the county clerk to conduct and pay for all elections.

When Santa Fe opted in for the 2019 election, the city voter rolls, balloting and voting would be handled by the county clerk and state election laws would apply, but the city clerk would continue to manage the public financing program.

In the runup to this year’s election, the clerks created two sets of deadlines for City Council candidates: one for those seeking public campaign financing and another for those who planned to conduct fundraising. Candidates seeking public funding for their campaigns had until July 24 to turn in the paperwork. Council candidates who qualify for public campaign funds receive $15,000 with the opportunity for up to $22,000, depending on how much opponents raise. Candidates using private funding, however, have no spending caps and a nomination petition signature deadline over a month later—Aug. 29.

Santa Fe County Katharine Clark tells SFR the state statute has always required a filing deadline 70 days prior to the election for private candidates. City Clerk Kristine Bustos-Mihelcic tells SFR candidates have complained about the deadlines.

Clark says in order to consider revision to the deadlines, both city and state laws would have to change.

“It’s the first I’m hearing that there is confusion,” Clark says. “It’s always been done this way.”

Four candidates for Santa Fe City Council positions qualified for public campaign cash, but several others say they didn’t try to qualify for the program because it pays too little.

In some races, the amount of money for public candidates is far less than candidates have raised through donations, while in some recent elections it’s right on par. For example, District 1 Councilor Signe I. Lindell raised more than $80,000 during the 2021 election to fight off three candidates who challenged her re-election. The same year, incumbent District 3 Roman Abeyta spent $25,000 of private money and his challenger Lee Garcia won using public campaign financing.

Planning Commissioner Phil Lucero tells SFR he chose to fundraise for his District 2 race and plans to rely on friends and family for donations.

“It’s possible” to run with the current public cash amount, he says, “how effective you are going to be is a whole other question.”

Albuquerque also opted in to the Local Election Act and moved its elections from October to November and under the Bernalillo County clerk’s jurisdiction. Like Santa Fe, its candidates have the option for either public or private money in campaigns. Albuquerque awards a minimum of $40,000 to candidates who qualify for public financing for its council districts, which have a total population exceeding 62,000 each, though registered voters in districts can range from 30,000 to 44,000. (For comparison, Santa Fe’s districts have populations of approximately 22,000.)

Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson says the city amended its charter to create matching qualifying periods, and notes the city has made changes to the system when it gets feedback. For example, voters passed an amendment to the Albuquerque charter in 2019 that included several increases in funding amounts for public candidates. Santa Fe hasn’t upped its base payouts since 2009, a topic Bustos-Mihelcic says she plans to address after this election cycle.

The ballot for the races won’t be set until after the Aug. 29 deadline for candidates to present nominating petitions. So far, here’s what we know:

DISTRICT 1

The city’s oldest district, covering the north side and downtown above the Santa Fe River and east of Cerrillos Road, has a highly-contested race this election season. Current District 1 Councilor Renee Villarreal announced in May she would not seek reelection. Four hopefuls want to take her place, with an even split in private and public campaign financing.

On the public side, Cafe Castro owner Alma Castro and former Planning Commissioner Brian Gutierrez qualified for funding. Katherine Rivera, a retired project manager, also initially planned to run a campaign on city tax dollars, but fell short of requirements and transitioned to private funding. Geno Zamora, a former Santa Fe city attorney, is also fundraising, he tells SFR, because $15,000 is not enough money for a “modern campaign.”

DISTRICT 2

The east side includes the South Capitol neighborhood, the majority of St. Michael’s Drive and neighborhoods along the eastern half of Rodeo Road to the southern edge of the city limits. Current District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia is using public funding for a second time, while Planning Commissioner Phil Lucero took the private route. The race has exemplified tension with regard to public campaign finance: Garcia complained that the difference in deadlines was unfair, and Lucero says he turned in nomination petitions on the same day as Garcia’s deadline in response to that concern.

DISTRICT 3

Down on the Southside, including neighborhoods west of Cerrillos Road and Lopez Lane and south of Agua Fría Street and Tierra Contenta, another full lineup is brewing. While three of four candidates in the district tried for public money, only former city cop Louis Carlos qualified. Of the remaining two, Eric Morelli collected signatures and cash, but fell short of requirements and transitioned into private funding. Community organizer Miguel Acosta did not file documents in time for public funding, but has since transitioned to private fundraising. Planning Commissioner Pilar Faulkner joined the race in mid-July and plans to seek donations.

DISTRICT 4

In the city’s central district, which includes the Bellemah neighborhood and Midtown Campus, as well as some areas west of Cerrillos Road and along Richards Avenue south of Rodeo and north of I-25, incumbent Councilor Jamie Cassutt won her seat using public campaign financing in the 2019 election. This time around, she’s raising money and has said she made the choice out of concern public money wouldn’t cover her anticipated expenses for mailings and other campaign costs. Bustos-Mihelcic reports challenger Joel Nava anticipated applying for public campaign financing, but did not return paperwork or qualifying contributions by the deadline.

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