Cover Stories

A Game of Four

Meet the candidates running in November’s most contested City Council race

City Council District 1 includes the site of one of Santa Fe’s most prominent culture clashes and economic polarities.

Not only is the district home to the Plaza, both a tourist-centric locale and a spot with deep traditional significance to the city’s residence, but its borders also include the city’s largest shelter for the homeless and the dense Cerrillos Road corridor. In addition to the downtown area and historic neighborhoods, the district includes all the territory north of the Santa Fe River and east of Cerrillos, plus neighborhoods along the west side of the city off West Alameda and Agua Fría streets down to Siler Road.

As Santa Fe chooses its next round of leaders, the box where the obelisk once stood and the crowded sidewalks near Pete’s Place send up distinct distress signals.

On the Plaza, what’s left of the Soldiers’ Monument after protesters toppled it in 2020 may be decorated with flowers, but the make-shift wooden covering represents an ugly wound that has not healed. Instead, it has become a symbol of city leadership’s failure to act.

Meanwhile, the visibility of people living on the streets and the hardships of a shortage of affordable housing persist despite public spending to assuage them. Yet, District 1 also includes the city’s highest-valued real estate. The median home price for the “Northeast City” region rose 14.6% in the second quarter of 2023 from a year earlier—increasing from $1.2 million to $1.375 million compared to $604,500 as the citywide median.

Outgoing Councilor Renee Villarreal served two terms, winning a four-way race in 2016 and running unopposed in 2020, but announced early she would not seek re-election in the Nov. 7 contest.

Like Villarreal, all four candidates facing off for the open seat grew up in Santa Fe—restaurant owner Alma Castro, metal recycler Brian Patrick Gutierrez, former operations specialist Katherine Rivera and lawyer Geno Zamora.

They must grapple with how to address the changing city and how to distinguish themselves in the most crowded local race this season.

With just two candidates each vying for the seats in District 2, 3 and 4, only voters in District 1 will have the option to rank candidates. If none of the candidates earns a plurality of first-ranked votes, ballots for candidates with the lowest number of votes are redistributed to the next choice.

SFR met with each candidate ahead of the election to discuss their various experience, motivation and goals. See page 13 for map of the district and key voting information.

Alma Castro

Café owner and labor organizer uses intersectionality to find common ground

Alma Castro agrees to meet with SFR at Tres Colores Restaurant across the street from City Hall on Sept. 8, the day candidates turned in the first round of campaign finance reports to the city clerk. At the same time, a few miles down Cerrillos Road, diners are starting to pack in for a typical lunch rush at her family’s restaurant, Café Castro. The mariachi musician, labor organizer and business owner returned to Santa Fe in 2020 to take over when her parents were ready to retire. Her homecoming inspired her not just to run for City Council, but to do so using public campaign financing.

“The campaign is based on having big money out of politics, so every conversation I have, it gets to really be about people’s issues,” Castro, 35, tells SFR. “It’s much more one-on-one asking what can I do for you as a constituent, and I love that.”

The Agua Fria resident says visits with would-be constituents help her learn about community members who live in parts of the district different than her own, and others reaffirm hyper-present community issues like affordable housing and the growing population of the unhoused within the city.

“I hear about [housing or the unhoused] at almost every door in some fashion,” she says. “Mostly, I think my platform around wraparound services and multi-use housing really resonates with folks because we need housing and because we are in a crisis that not only involves people being unhoused because there’s not access to physical housing, but also their needs aren’t being met around addiction, mental health and just support in general.”

After graduating from Santa Fe High School in 2005, Castro earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College before she moved to Chicago, where she taught and volunteered at public schools in addition to being a labor organizer. She says she helped the Chicago Workers Collaborative organize around temp work, and is already using those skills in her own café's business model, which allows for employee ownership.

“My family has always sort of figured ways to stay in the city, and it’s never been easy to keep up with the cost of living as a working class family,” she says. “I want to give more people an opportunity to have inroads that way. Not every business is going to make millions, but the fact that we can just stay here and continue to raise our families in the city we know and love is all I’m asking for.”

The District 1 contest marks Castro’s first attempt at public office, but she’s already dipped a toe into politics at City Hall when she served on the Arts Commission, but publicly resigned because she disagreed with the city’s handling of obelisk and its sidelining of the commission.

She tells SFR that she’d like to see the obelisk replaced with a ground-level mosaic, with the idea to then locate a monument for veterans of all backgrounds at a different location. She spoke against a plan from Villarreal and others to rebuild the obelisk with the cracks filled in earlier this year and says the City Council “needs buy-in” for whatever comes next.

“I don’t think we should just leave it alone,” she says.

Shortly after Castro entered the race, outgoing incumbent Renee Villarreal endorsed Castro, and Castro has hired the same campaign manager Villarreal used, Cecile Lipworth. Lipworth tells SFR she promotes having women in office to ensure good representation.

“I think our City Council could really benefit from someone like Alma,” she says. “She’s young, and she’s dynamic. She really understands community and what it means to be in the community and be the voice of a community.”

On a recent afternoon, Castro and several campaign volunteers meet at Earl’s Laundromat on Agua Fría Street before they spread into the surrounding neighborhood. As a member of the first generation born in the US to El Savadoran parents and a Spanish speaker, Castro navigates campaigning in two languages.

Along the way, Castro passes her uncle’s house, where a sign for her campaign has fallen over. She adjusts it before moving on. On her campaign flyers, signs and in conversation, she’s also sure to include the name the Tewa people gave to the Santa Fe area prior to European colonization— O’Ga P’Ogeh Owingeh, or “white shell water place.”

“There was a name before Santa Fe, and there was a name before O’Ga P’Ogeh Owingeh, and we are such a connected community. This land is ours, all of ours, and we should know its history,” Castro says. “I’m very proudly a mixed person. And I don’t identify with any community in particular; I identify with the fact Santa Fe is my home.”

Brian Patrick Gutierrez

Former planning commissioner and business owner makes another run

It’s a mostly cloudy Wednesday evening as SFR arrives at Frenchy’s Field Park off Agua Fria Street. As Brian Patrick Gutierrez stands in the parking lot waiting, he points to a pair of potholes beneath his feet.

“Imagine a little car like yours driving through that,” Gutierrez says, nodding to this reporter’s Honda Fit. He then turns his attention to nearby graffiti on a wall. “Stuff like this just isn’t acceptable.”

Prior to arriving at the park, 52-year-old Guiterrez was with his wife and two of his children in search of a spot for a campaign sign just a couple blocks down the street at the corner of Agua Fria and Velarde streets. The sign didn’t sit well anywhere he tried, so he carried it back to his truck, he says. So it goes as he tries to build his name recognition for a second run at the seat.

The lifelong Santa Fe resident spent his early years in the banking industry before moving to towing and car sales. At one time, he owned a towing business, but today he owns and operates a scrap metal recycling buy back center on the city’s Southside.

“Not far from here is where I’ve lived most of my life— the street where we were putting up the sign is where I started,” Gutierrez says.

In the 2021 election, he failed to unseat Councilor Signe Lindell, but he tells SFR despite defeat, he’s proud of the results of that campaign. He qualified for public campaign financing in that race and again for this time around. He managed to snag 20% of the vote in that race, the second most votes in the four-candidate faceoff where Lindell received more than 60% of the vote.

“When you look at the totals, I went from just being relatively unknown to getting out and hitting those doors,” Gutierrez says. “It was a learning experience, and it was a great experience. I knew that I was climbing a huge mountain.”

Gutierrez says he wants to build on his experience serving on the 2013 Charter Review Commission and eight years on the Planning Commission, the last one as chair. He says City Council is the next step in the succession to help create a better future for the city.

“Roads with potholes, weeds, graffiti, open drug use and the unhoused are all issues that we as a city need to take care of no matter who wins, because if not, it’s just going to get continually worse,” Gutierrez says. “You’ve seen or read what’s happened in San Francisco, and we’re nowhere near that, but we want to curtail what we can.”

Those ideas “aren’t far off” from what he’s hearing from voters during his campaign, which has an active focus on engaging the city’s Hispanic communities. He’s working with Cesar Bernal, who serves as bilingual coordinator and helps Gutierrez “with whatever is needed” to deliver the message to Spanish speakers. He says he supports Gutierrez’s bid for City Council in the same way the candidate has helped him.

“One of the things I appreciate most about Brian as a person and a friend are the values he holds, how close he is to his family,” Bernal tells SFR. “He’s always been a person with the spirit to help everybody.”

Gutierrez says even as a freshman councilor, he would act independently. He’s already putting this philosophy into practice. At a candidate forum hosted by the Santa Fe Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Sept. 21, he was the sole District 1 contender to propose rebuilding the obelisk in its original form at its original location.

“It’s frustrating that people can go and vandalize a monument as opposed to sitting down and trying to talk through the issue. I understand that there are inscriptions that aren’t kind, but as time changes, so do mindsets,” he said during the forum.

Gutierrez also serves as a member of the St. Michael’s High School Parents’ Association and has held other volunteer posts.

“I am not going into this as a politician,” he says “I’m going into this as a public servant. And I know the difference.”

Katherine Rivera

She returned home to Santa Fe after a career in business and wants to restore the city’s image

Katherine Rivera never saw herself running for City Council, she tells SFR at a table in the middle of the DeVargas Center. Now, as a political unknown, she’s knocking on doors and meeting people in her first-ever campaign.

A Santa Fe native and self-described “product of the Catholic school system” as a St. Francis and St. Michael’s graduate, Rivera, 61, spent 35 years working in the corporate world and traveled globally before returning to District 1 in 2008, where she lives on the same street she grew up on near Rosario Chapel. A regular volunteer for litter cleanup efforts, she says she’s running because she hasn’t liked all the changes she’s seen happening over the years since her return.

“In my opinion, the city is eroding from all areas: quality of life areas, we’ve got the housing crisis, we’ve got open drug-use issues, and things that have happened permeate throughout the city, not just District 1,” Rivera says.

As she’s talked with voters on the campaign trail, she says many have vocalized concerns about how the city government handles its money, including its “inability to do audits.” At the end of July, the city submitted the FY21 audit two years late. Officials aim to conclude FY22 and FY23 audits this year, but time is running out.

Though she says her project management experience will help in the council’s oversight roles, Rivera’s own campaign financing puts her in fourth place among the candidates. She initially sought to qualify for public campaign financing, but fell approximately 20 $5 contributions short of qualifying. Now, per her recent campaign finance report, she’s collected $1,025 in contributions and serves as her own campaign treasurer.

Rivera hopes to use her business background to bring a different perspective to governing and problem solving.

“The corporate world is all about accountability. It’s all about deliverables. It’s all about completing things. It’s all about starting the project, finishing the project. Meeting the deadlines,” she says. “I get the sense that’s not the way the government rolls, and I’m hoping that some of that inquisitiveness and expectation for deliverables will drive that. I think I can ask the right questions and maybe, through some influence, encourage some change of behavior or attitude in the direction the city is going.”

Rivera says Santa Fe is losing its image. Her bid to preserve culture includes rebuilding the Soldiers’ Monument, but “the question that will be open is where,” she said during a candidate forum.

“I would like to see it rebuilt, even with the cracks in it,” Rivera added, referencing a pottery repair technique also envisioned by some city councilors who ultimately withdrew their proposal this past spring. “It could represent a healing process to that.”

She tells SFR the city cannot continue to be a leader in arts and culture or history if councilors can’t solve other aspects of the city like rising housing costs and rising crime as well. Her campaign website notes auto break-ins in driveways and trailheads and auto thefts as examples she’s heard from voters.

Rivera supports creating a dedicated stream of revenue for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund rather than taking money out of the general fund for that purpose, and says she’s in support of a high-end housing tax measure also before voters.

Through her campaign, she hopes to snag the seat to bring the “average citizen” to City Council.

“I am a small team, independently run. I’m not backed by a big machine. I know the view from outside about ‘What is she doing there?’ I get it, but I want to be at the table for the conversation,” she says. “I want to be able to speak up for the average citizens of Santa Fe like myself who’ve seen the changes, experienced the changes in our neighborhood and feel like they’re not getting through to City Hall.”

Geno Zamora

Former city attorney leans on relationships, former experience to bring people together

Without a doubt, Geno Zamora, 54, has attended more City Council meetings than anyone else running for the District 1 seat. But he’s never been elected to office.

As city attorney for nearly four years under former Mayor David Coss, then during a return to the job temporarily for the early part of Mayor Alan Webber’s administration, Zamora witnessed and participated in many, many hours of council deliberations and interpreted the city code on topics ranging from escarpment maps to marriage equality. Early in his career as an attorney, he served as chief counsel for Gov. Bill Richardson and assistant attorney general under Tom Udall, even running for the statewide job of attorney general in 2006.

He tells SFR this experience, plus a private legal practice that includes representing school districts, has helped him build strong connections with staff and a good understanding of how to do the job of city councilor.

“I know the employees. I know the departments, and I know their work, so this gives me a lot of insight on how to work together as council members to get work done and to understand there are going to be times we disagree.” Zamora says.

He’s already literally banking on his relationships, which are a key part in his current lead in private fundraising, managing to raise over $53,000 in time for the first campaign finance report deadline. Zamora says he’s leaning on friends locally from Santa Fe and within the larger state, but also from Boston, Tucson and Washington DC. One of those friends was former Richardson, who died on Sept. 5.

“I do get a little misty about that contribution,” Zamora tells SFR. “Gov. Richardson contributed to my campaign very early on, and it just means a lot to have his support. But now it makes me emotional.”

The former city attorney, who moved from District 2 into a home off Tano Road about two and a half years ago, has received support from a handful of major local political players, including Councilor Signe Lindell, who holds the other District 1 seat, and two of Webber’s predecessors: Former Mayor Debbie Jaramillo and Coss. (Webber has also donated to the campaign, though Zamora tells SFR he did not seek Webber’s endorsement. Meanwhile, Zamora hired Sandra Wechsler as his campaign manager for his City Council bid—the same manager Webber hired for his 2021 re-election campaign. )

Jaramillo tells SFR she’s known Zamora “since he was a toddler” because her family and his were close.

“Geno, as far as I can tell, is the only candidate I’ve heard with real issues that I’ve supported since 30 years ago,” she says. “It’s kind of sad to say that 30 years later we still have to address these same issues, but hey, he’s doing it, and I know he will follow through with everything he believes in.”

Coss’ endorsement comes despite Zamora’s legal advice during his administration that landed the city in trouble over how it spent part of a 2008 bond. Even though he’s called that the “lowlight” of his time at City Hall, Zamora says the seeds have been planted for his City Council run since his stint as city attorney, when he got “hooked on helping the people in the community.”

He says his year of serving as the general counsel for the state Economic Development Department has him looking at strategies such as asking for state money to help recruit and retain new businesses and to grow old ones in conjunction with creation of higher wage jobs.

When it comes to the obelisk, Zamora says “a decision needs to be made.” His vision includes moving a restored obelisk to the Santa Fe National Cemetery and erecting a gazebo on the center of the Plaza.

He says there’s a way councilors can work together to achieve the goals of each district and move all of Santa Fe forward, but it can’t happen without unity.

“I’m the fifth of five children. I’m a mediator. I like bringing people together,” he tells SFR. “The city looks to its governing body, the council and mayor for guidance, and if we’re dividing our community, the community is divided.”

Don’t Forget These Election Dates

Oct. 10: Early voting begins at the County Clerk’s Office.

Oct. 21: Expanded polling locations open for early voting, including the Santa Fe Community College, the Southside Library, the Santa Fe County Fair Building and more.

Oct. 24: Last day to request an absentee ballot by mail.

Nov. 7: Election Day

More on the ballot

District 2: Michael Garcia aims for another term against Planning Commissioner Phil Lucero.

District 3: Former cop Louis Carlos and Planning Commissioner Pilar Faulkner are vying for a seat to which Chris Rivera did not seek reelection.

District 4: Jamie Cassutt eyes a second term, while opponent Joel Nava fights for the seat.

Citywide: Voters will decide whether or not to impose a 3% excise tax on the portion of a home sale exceeding $1 million to support the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. In addition to this, Santa Feans may lower the number of required signatures for referenda and initiatives from 33.3% to 15% and/or decide to give future charter commissions more resources.

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