For Santa Fe, the unofficial start of fall last week also marked the beginning of another season this year—the city election.
Sept. 3 was the first time aspirants for elected city office could pick up their official candidate packets. Nearly 20 people stopped by City Hall—almost half of them jockeying for the city’s top office. As of press time, four city councilors, a former county manager, a neighborhood activist, a onetime chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and a Motel 6 night auditor make up the eight candidates for mayor.
That number makes this the most crowded mayoral race in nearly 20 years. And for a traditionally liberal city like Santa Fe, voters may be hard-pressed come March to determine the differences among the many mayoral contenders.
“I think that there needs to be a sorting out process between the candidates with substantive and broad-based support, and the marginal candidates,” says Steven Farber, a Santa Fe attorney and former city councilor.
Though it’s too early to declare frontrunners for mayor, a close look at previous elections offers some insight. Current mayoral candidate and longtime city Councilor Patti Bushee previously ran for the office in 2002, when she came in a close second in a crowd of four candidates with nearly 38 percent of the vote (incumbent Mayor Larry Delgado won that year with 40 percent of the vote).
“I got in last and I raised the least amount of money and we came in second, which was incredible,” she says. “I don’t know if I wanted it as much as I do now, because I really feel like I’ve done a lot and I’ve invested in the city, and the city has invested in me.”
Bushee has also been elected to city council five times, which means she already has likely built-in voter support. She says she’ll focus on government transparency, watchdogging wasteful spending and managing resources like water, among other issues.
Javier Gonzales, a former county commissioner and former chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico who works now as a real-estate executive, also appears to have a growing base of powerful supporters. Carol Oppenheimer, a labor lawyer who has been a face in Santa Fe politics for a long time, co-chairs Gonzales’ campaign. Oppenheimer worked on outgoing Mayor David Coss’ campaigns and played a key role in establishing the city’s living wage, which currently ranks second-highest in the nation.
She also pushed for the failed Community Workforce Agreement, which would have mandated that contractors working on large-scale city projects work closely with labor unions. Gonzales, however, says he doesn’t think Santa Fe is properly prepared for a CWA at this point.
At least three other candidates for mayor—city councilors Rebecca Wurzburger, Bill Dimas and Chris Rivera—also have potential built-in voter support from previous public service. Wurburger has spent nearly 12 years on city council and garnered more than 70 percent of the vote in District 2 during her last election. Her official campaign announcement was a well-attended affair on the terrace of the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. She says her top priority is moving the economy forward, and cites her work with organizations like MIX Santa Fe, which manages monthly networking events for young professionals across the city.
“Educated young people, as you know, don’t stay [here],” Wurzburger says.
Both Dimas and Rivera are new to the council, though Dimas served a short stint there in the ’80s and won three countywide elections as magistrate judge.
Rivera, who’s running on a platform of “back to the basics,” says he’s relishing the role of an underdog. He says his priority is to make sure basic city services like parks, recycling and public safety are running efficiently.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on issues we really don’t have a lot of control over,” he says, citing recent debates over same-sex marriage and gun control, both of which he opposed, as examples. “That’s difficult when you have sidewalks in disrepair [and] the fire department [giving] up positions to balance a budget.”
Former Santa Fe County Manager Roman Abeyta, District 2 resident Margaret Josina Campos and hotel auditor Michael D’Anna also aim to get on the ballot. Prospective candidates have until Nov. 7 to return petitions with signatures from registered voters.
Job Number One
One of the first jobs a new Santa Fe mayor will need to work on is developing a city budget, which promises to be a difficult task in the wake of a tax bill passed by the state Legislature this year. The bill, which was supported by the Democratic Party leadership, lowers the state’s corporate tax rate from 7.6 percent to 5.9 percent over the next five years.
But that revenue will be made up through city coffers, which will no longer receive so-called “hold harmless” payments to make up for a repealed food tax. Corrales and Las Cruces have already moved to raise gross receipts taxes because of the measure, which is expected to cost Santa Fe $750,000 in the first year and $10 million annually by the year 2030.
Liberal-leaning organizations like New Mexico Voices For Children criticized the bill as a tax break for corporations. But Gonzales, in his official role as Democratic Party chair, lauded the measure as “comprehensive tax reform” in an op-ed published earlier this year.
“As chair of the party, job No. 1 is to advocate [for] and to basically defend Democrats that are in office,” he says.
Gonzales adds that other measures in the bill, like a change to the state’s film incentive and new rules for taxing big box stores will help cities like Santa Fe, though he concedes that municipalities were left out in the bill’s negotiating process.
But other mayoral candidates say the bill was a mistake.
“It puts us in a tough spot to have to make additional cuts when the economy hasn’t quite gotten there yet,” Rivera says.
Bushee adds that she’ll be talking with local lawmakers to see how to make up the revenue and is even considering filing a lawsuit as a last resort.
“If I was in the Legislature, I would have voted against it,” she says of the bill.