Debbie Jaramillo might have done more for Santa Fe than it's ever done for her.
As if to prove it, Santa Fe's first and only woman mayor arrives to a morning-long conversation at the Red Enchilada restaurant on a recent Saturday with a still-glossy State of the City review from 1996: "You can keep it," she says. "I have several copies."
Over the course of the next two hours, though, it becomes apparent that her case for service to the city she loved, were she to make it in a more formal fashion, is made up of more than aspirational mayoral rhetoric. Her term from 1994 to 1998 was peppered with the kind of warnings that had a populist ring to them, but she was an active mayor who pushed an aggressive agenda of fair housing, community services and higher wages.
Tierra Contenta, the Railyard, the Santa Fe Business Incubator, El Museo Cultural, the city's inclusionary zoning rules for affordable housing—all have roots in her administration.
The city's growing divide, whether it's classified by income or ethnicity, was something she warned against. The housing market, which had reached its peak during her term only to crash and rebound a short time later, today too easily excludes the kinds of people who were raised here but can no longer afford to live in Santa Fe.
Those conditions also apply to the newcomers who work in the city's service industry, or as teachers or nurses or government workers; the people who didn't grow up here, but love it nonetheless.
Jaramillo's lone term was marked not only by her vision, but by her personality. She doesn't suffer fools, yet, to some, appeared to go out of her way to find them. She won a plurality of votes in 1994 by appealing to Anglos as well as Hispanics, but her opponents wondered openly if she would rather the white folks find somewhere else to live. The electorate seemed to abide her choice of her brother as city manager because he'd been hired by the previous mayor, Sam Pick. But when she chose her brother-in-law as police chief, it dealt a serious blow to her reelection hopes.
Then, there was her mouth.
Of Peso Chavez, her main opponent in the 1994 contest: "He said, 'I've had white people say they're gonna leave if she gets elected.' I said, 'Oh, bite me. Shut up.'"
Of developers who opposed an affordable-home requirement: "Jesus, you want to build 40 houses and we're only asking for two [to be affordable]? Give me a fucking break."
The years haven't tempered her a whole lot, nor have they softened the feelings of some toward Jaramillo. Her portrait has been missing at City Hall's wall of mayors for years. There's not even a space where it used to be. It's as if Santa Fe would prefer to forget.
This year has been especially hard for her. In May, she lost her husband of 43 years, Mike, to a sudden illness. Her megawatt smile doesn't flash as readily as in those old newspaper photos. Her astounding mane of dark hair is no longer as primped. She's been taking care of her son's twin 8-year-olds and it's getting her through what's been a tough summer. Talking about Mike's death three months earlier brings tears.
But she's still "Debs," as Mike called her, and once she launches into an idea that Santa Fe should try or a program of hers that the city abandoned, the fire returns. She has plenty to say about how Santa Fe has weathered two decades since her term, but she's done with politics.
"I still vote. I don't know why," she says. "I try not to keep up with things."
In fact, Debbie Jaramillo—champion of old Santa Fe, of tradition, of returning the city to the people—doesn't particularly want to live here anymore.
The city she was once so proud to lead has missed too many opportunities to unite itself, she says, or to keep it an affordable place to live and a decent place to make a living and raise generations of future Santafesinos. While unsuccessful, Ron Trujillo's run for mayor had echoes of Jaramillo's campaign. And you can hear her priorities in the wait-a-minute interjections of Renee Villarreal or the what-about-the-Southside reminders of Roman Abeyta and Chris Rivera at City Council meetings.
The city's only female mayor signed her State of the City letter in 1996 with "Adelante unidos"—forward together. But two years later, after a contentious term, voters chose to move on without her.
Now, as Santa Fe wrestles with many of the same questions it asked 25 years ago when it elected a mayor, it has to consider an uncomfortable answer: Debbie Jaramillo might have been right.
Q and A
(She starts talking without being asked a question.)
Debbie Jaramillo: I try not to keep up with things. Mike used to be the one who'd tell me, 'Debs, there's this in the paper.' … The town is really changing. I used to feel like, 'All that hard work and it went nowhere.' That'd be my bottom line.
SFR: You really think so?
DJ: You know, there were some things of mine that are still around. But they weren't expanded on. For instance, housing. That's all we concentrated on, was affordability. And I'm not so sure that's the case anymore. I mean, we got Homewise and maybe the Housing Trust, so we got something going there.
(We pause to order. She has a Coke and the American breakfast, red chile on the side.)
But I think that once I left, there wasn't the champion of the poor anymore, or the ones that needed the help the most. So, slowly but surely, at least from my perspective [of] not having kept up with every single thing, it went back to what it was when I went in. … [We used to tell people,] 'You have a long road ahead and we're going to have to work hard to change where we're at.' And we did. … I had to put up with, for lack of a better term, being a mouth. I had to fight for everything. I had to speak up in ways that people didn't want to hear. Larry Delgado, who became mayor after me, was more of a statesman. He was more calm and such. … I think people believed that everything that we had brought to '98 would continue. But it didn't.
I read something—it may have been one of our articles in the archives—in '98 that said that he ran on a lot of the same issues that you did.
Right. He was there as a councilor. And I used to say that he was running on everything I stood for and did. I don't know how blunt I was back then, but I doubted that it would continue like we had for four years. One good example is the Railyards. … The town came up with a plan. If I remember correctly, I think it changed a lot. … We kept the hotels out. We kept anything that would be tourist-oriented out of there. Except there's too many galleries! [laughs] That wasn't part of the plan. It was supposed to have affordable housing, a performing arts center. What else did they want? I think there's live/work space … but it was all focused on the community. And I don't quite see the whole yard that way.
Do you go to events down there?
I've gone in years past. I used to like to eat at that restaurant that closed.
Yeah. I used to like to eat there even though it was expensive, because what isn't in this town? … But as far as anything else … if there's anything that maybe the kids might enjoy, that's as far as I go. I go to the Violet Crown. I missed the grand opening but Ike [Pino] and his wife told me that they had at least given me kudos for the fact that they were able to get in there. I said, 'Oooh!'
Well, there's a street sort of named after you, right?
Yeah. Alcaldesa. To my understanding, someone wanted to name it Jaramillo Way. And one of the councilors [she won't go on the record with which one] said no and spearheaded the no-I-don't-want-her-name-on-there [effort]. … But I mean, I've been the only woman mayor and until there's another, that means me.
Did Santa Fe become the town that you thought it would or that you were afraid it would?
Yeah, definitely it did. Back in the day, I was considered anti-tourism or anti-tourist because I used to say you can't put all our eggs in one basket. Tourism is fine. We thrive on it. But we also gotta do other things economically, too, so people here can have good jobs.
(Our food arrives. The side of red chile is liberally applied to the American breakfast.)
I mean, service industry jobs were what they were—and still are, probably. I thought we had to concentrate on much more than that. And so, all of a sudden I was anti-tourist because I was for diversity in the economy.
Do you feel like, looking at Santa Fe now versus when you were in office, that the city is as divided, less divided, more divided racially, economically— take your pick?
I think more divided. It was very unpopular in the day, but obviously it was heard by people who cared. But I ran on the ethnic and economic divide of Santa Fe and how important it was to bring it back to the community we all remembered, which was a mixed community. Back then, you had the Southside where all the trailer parks were, you had the east side for the people with money, and then the west side was slowly becoming gentrified. I pointed all these things out and said this is not right, it is not good for the community, we have to start figuring out how to diversify, make it work.
For the last five years, I don't even want to be here. Matter of fact, Mike and I used to talk about it all the time. He would say, 'Yeah, well I built this house and I wanna be here until I die.' And I said, 'All right. I just want you to know, though, that if I can't stand it once you're gone, I'm out of here.' And I feel that way now. I ask myself, 'What is there for me here?' And I don't feel there's anything. And I don't know how many people who've been here for a long time feel that way. … People appreciated that I concentrated on those who lived here, not those who wanted to live here. And I think we're back to those who want to live here.
Do you still vote?
I still vote. I don't know why, but I do.
(She won't go on the record, though, with her mayoral pick.)
What do you think about how they're doing or what they're focusing on? The current mayor talks a lot about "one Santa Fe."
Everybody was for affordable housing and economic development and job diversity. You know, the list was always there. The difference between me and them and the ones that have run since me is that I did something about it. I actually created programs and homes and jobs.
The businesses incubator is me again. The first one. I know it's expanded since then. …
But I think the only reason it's still around is because of the people who were running it, not because the mayors were so into it like I was. … And I think since my time, people have been more pro-business, like before me, than not. Not that I was anti-business. I just wish they always would have contributed more to the community.
You said the same thing about developers when you pushed a measure to force them to include affordable homes in their projects.
We did that Housing Opportunity Program, the HOP. They called it bribery, or there was a word.
Extortion. That's the word. And they wanted to take on the city over it. And I said, 'Jesus, you want to build 40 houses and we're only asking for two [to be affordable]? Give me a fucking break.' I would really give them a hard time. And most of them did [come around]. … That's what we did with Tierra Contenta. … We had the land, it was a joint effort. No one entity can do it alone and still provide for a diverse group of people.
Is it time to try another real estate transfer tax?
It won't happen. Not in today's world here. I don't see it. I mean, they're making money. You've gotta do that when they think that maybe it would serve a good purpose. From what I can tell, everything is all about the real estate business being pretty good right now. So, I don't care what the threshold would be. I don't think they could find one that the real estate community would support. … I wouldn't even try it. And I don't think Webber's the type, either. I could be wrong, but I don't think so.
When was the last time you chatted up a city cop?
A city cop? I'm going to say it was Sgt. Patty. [City Councilor] Signe Lindell was helping me get a patrol for [Mike's] funeral. … He was a very nice officer and he was very helpful. But that is the last time in many years that I ever spoke with a city officer. As for the sheriffs? Those fuckers gave me a ticket the day of Mike's funeral, because I had left without putting on a seatbelt and they caught me. … How were they to know where I was coming from? But that was the last encounter with the sheriffs. And I said, 'Ah, okay. Nothing's changed.' …
I heard that one time you went to something at the Plaza … and you parked in a spot and said, 'I'm just going to be a minute, I have to make a proclamation.' And you came back and you had a ticket and somebody had called the photographer from The New Mexican … and it was in the paper the next day.
Right. I was all over that cop. I said, 'I can't believe you. I'm here on official business. You really have to do this?' 'Well, you parked in a no parking zone.' 'I said, 'Ah, you know what?' And I walked away from it.
But better than that, you'll love this one. I can't remember the year, but when Mother Teresa died it was front page news, but like, on the side. The headline? [It] was 'Mayor Jaramillo Parks in a Loading Zone' … I parked to drop something off. … I told the reporter … I made him believe that I was in a restaurant, so I said I was loading my stomach. … But I said, 'I can't believe you guys. I can't believe that was the headline. Really? Mother Teresa died, for Christ's sake.'
(By 1998, Jaramillo's son Angelo was preparing his mother for what looked like certain defeat if she ran for mayor again. She was at odds with the council, various factions at City Hall and, still, the police department.)
[By the end of my term] the cops were after me. They were stopping my sons for not coming to a complete stop at stop signs. They were harassing the shit out of my sons. They were harassing me. A sheriff once stopped me because I was going 25 miles in a 30 mile speed zone. I said, Jesus Christ. I couldn't do anything right. And somebody, I don't know who, put the IRS and the FBI to look into me. And I said, 'What? I make 15,000 fucking dollars a year. Why don't you go look at Phil Griego, who made millions while he was in office. But all this was coming down big time in '97. Mike says, 'Well, if you wanna do it, try.'
So when it didn't happen, I said, 'I think Angelo was right. It wasn't meant to be.' And what happened to the city was meant to be. It went back to how it was before I got in, though I think a little worse.
What were you wrong about?
Someone asked me years ago if there was anything I regretted. … You know, there isn't. I think what was accomplished during my time was good enough to be carried on as little or a lot as it was. And I think I would say a lot. I'm not giving the administrations the credit, I'm giving the good people who were running these programs the credit.
How do you go against motherhood and apple pie? I believe that's what I stood for. Obviously I had people who didn't like the taste of the apple pie. [laughs] I don't regret it, though. I really don't. To this day, people still come up and say thank you or, how do they put it? 'Thank you, I have a house to live in.' Twenty-what years later? They remember.
The picture of you at City Hall…
It was there … I don't even know if there's a space for it?
They just shuffled the rest of the pictures down.
See? It's like I didn't exist. That's what it reminds me of. Like they didn't want me to exist in the history books. So maybe that's why I just couldn't muster up the strength to do another one. I know I told David [Coss] one time, 'When and if I do bring you something, you better nail that fucker down to where it's going to take a backhoe to get it off the wall.'
Politicians don't talk like you did—or do—anymore. … Or they'll refuse to sit down with us and want questions emailed and all that stuff. [She laughs] Why do you think that is?
Fear. They want to be reelected. They don't trust that the media might repeat whatever they say exactly. So if that's the case, they think it will hurt them and they won't get reelected. See, I will always know that in great part, that's why I didn't get [reelected]. People did tell me, 'You have a sailor's mouth. You're too forward. You're too blunt.' I want to tell them, 'You prefer the ones that tell you what you want to hear and then don't do anything?'
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Read a special online report that features Jaramillo on the recently announced retirement of the Entrada.
The longtime District 4 councilor's run for mayor last year struck many of the populist tones that Jaramillo sounded in 1994. Trujillo played Don Diego de Vargas in the Entrada during the first year of Jaramillo's term.
On her legacy:
"Mayor Jaramillo has had a huge impact in this community. I definitely believe Debbie understood the challenges facing people here in Santa Fe. She was passionate about it. Love or hate, sometimes, the way anybody does things. You have to have that respect, because Debbie did and still does care about this community, cares about the people, cares about what happens in this community."
On the "Hispanics first" criticism of him and Jaramillo:
"Did I say Hispanic? No, I said local. And what is local? What if I said people who are here 24/7, living here, giving to this community, putting towards this community. That's who I talked about. I never said Hispanics, I never said Anglos. People right away, they perceive that. … To me, that's a sad way of looking at it."
Jaramillo appointed the city councilor to fill the remainder of her term when she won the mayoral election in 1994. The two eventually clashed, and Jaramillo notoriously called her a "bimbo."
On her legacy:
"I think she got more done than all of the mayors [since] combined, in her four-year term. Now, how she went about it wasn't always pretty and I didn't always agree with that. But the Railyard had great foresight. It was going to be a very extreme development. I think it's turned out great. Affordable housing—she put it to the top of the list and it stayed up there. You still have to chip away at that problem, it's a constant thing, but yeah, affordable housing was a big issue that Debbie brought to the forefront."
On her political style:
"I think of that time as maybe—you know, it was a little dramatic at times—but it was certainly the most active period of my 22 years of service. She was not a placeholder. And perhaps she knew that she would not get reelected, and she did battle. … I had friends joke that they'd pop their popcorn and then they'd switch their TV between Ellen's show and City Council, because they just didn't know what was going to come out of Debbie's mouth. … But I wouldn't say you could survive doing that with that kind of force for too long. It was a difficult time. Personalities were always clashing."
This town is not for sale
Debbie Jaramillo's rise to power was both surprising and significant in the Southwest and beyond. As her campaign gained momentum, University of New Mexico professors Christine Sierra and Sylvia Rodriguez hatched a plan to document it. They partnered with television crews from KNME (now known as New Mexico PBS) and got Jaramillo to agree to let them cover her closely. The resulting hour-long documentary, This Town is Not For Sale, first aired in 1999.
It's still available online at newmexicopbs.org. Most of the video and notes from the documentary are archived at the University of New Mexico's Center for Southwest Research.
Sierra, now a professor emerita of political science at UNM, remembers Jaramillo's winning campaign as a critical moment, and her stunning upset as an indication that her campaign issues of affordable housing, community space and water scarcity were legitimate public concerns.
"To what extent those have been addressed and addressed successfully, I can't assess. But I can say her election was a critical juncture."
On her agenda: "Besides the public policy issues, I would also underscore that Debbie represented a part of Santa Fe that felt marginalized politically and somewhat economically. So, she was not representing real estate and tourism, but rather long-term Hispanic residents as well as the folks who were more working class and low-income people. As you might recall, our video even followed her walking neighborhoods that were either the trailer parks she talked about, the mobile homes that had sprouted and increased on the outskirts of Santa Fe because people could not afford to live closer in to the city. The economic inequality was becoming more and more apparent, and she spoke to those who were more marginalized in that realm."
On governing: "I think she wanted to broaden the participation of the Santa Fe community in designing their future. But she also brought to the forefront economic inequality as seen through the 'runaway development,' in her words, which meant Santa Fe promoted itself, as she put it, as a playground for the rich, and not really attend to questions of water scarcity, the lack of affordable housing and questioning the extent to which tourist dollars could be used to promote the interests of the city as opposed to private interests. And so she was really important in voicing those concerns … and did try to follow up in her governing years."
On her legacy: "Her election marked the new aggressive exposure of public policy issues that had not been dealt with, and put those in the forefront for city concerns and the city agenda … which had implications for the state and region. … That's where who's in leadership can really determine what gets pushed aside and what gets dealt with and how it gets dealt with. These issues continue to be important not only for Santa Fe, but for Albuquerque, Las Cruces and rural parts of the state."