ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
Opponents want to debate with Berry
It’s already door-knocking season for Albuquerque’s mayoral candidates.
And, with 60 days to go until the election, the campaign is about to get a lot more visible.
Candidate signs began popping up over the weekend, and mailers and television ads won’t be far behind.
The campaign to run New Mexico’s largest city pits incumbent Richard Berry, Albuquerque’s first Republican mayor in more than 20 years, against two aggressive challengers – former prosecutor and ex-Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli, a Democrat, and retired police Sgt. Paul Heh, a Republican.
It’s been a quiet race so far, matching Berry’s low-key style, and his opponents point out that the mayor hasn’t joined them on stage for a debate yet.
But the week ahead will mark the unofficial start of the campaign. Berry, Dinelli and Heh must formally declare their candidacies on Tuesday, and two days later, their names will be drawn to determine the order in which they will appear on the ballot.
Election Day is Oct. 8, although a second runoff election will be held on Nov. 19 if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.
Each candidate names the city’s economy, especially jobs, as a top campaign issue.
Berry has been stressing to voters that he took office four years ago during a national recession and says economic data show the city has turned the corner.
Dinelli, meanwhile, describes Berry as a “failure” on the economy, and Heh says a “broken police department” and other problems have interfered with economic growth.
Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling Inc., which does surveys for the Journal, said the mayor will certainly face criticism over the sluggish economy of recent years.
“In our campaign style of politics, chief executives – whether they be mayors, governors or presidents – tend to get too much credit for the good and too much blame for the bad,” Sanderoff said in an interview. “It’ll be up to (Berry’s) opponents to paint him as ineffective and not addressing the challenges in the economy.”
Dinelli and Heh will face their own challenges. They aren’t as well-known or well-funded as Berry. A survey last year put the mayor’s approval rating at 68 percent.
“We have a mayor who has a pretty low-key style and business-like approach to things,” Sanderoff said. “He’s not one to get very uppity and excited in a way that would tend to polarize the electorate.”
Berry’s opponents have seized on his personality as a weakness.
“This mayor’s laid-back, easy-going attitude isn’t getting the job done,” Dinelli said in a recent interview.
Dinelli is a former prosecutor and often sounds like one in campaign speeches, announcing an indictment of Berry’s record.
Berry, for his part, said he offers “common-sense leadership,” which has helped forge partnerships with other agencies and business groups.
“There’s a lot of noise coming from my opponents,” Berry said in an interview. “A lot of it is centered around tearing our city down. I’m going to build our city up.”
Heh, like Dinelli, is blunt in assessing Berry.
“It’s just the same old politics and same old things,” he says of the mayor. “We need new ideas. We need fresh ideas.”
Besides the economy and leadership style, public safety is a major issue in the campaign, the candidates say.
The Albuquerque Police Department has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, partly over the number of people shot and killed by officers. In November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into whether APD has a pattern of violating people’s civil rights, specifically through officers’ use of force, and whether the department sufficiently polices its officers.
“The department is still in severe meltdown,” Dinelli said in a recent interview, and “businesses do not want to relocate here as long as Albuquerque is viewed as a violent city.”
Heh, who spent 25 years at APD, said he’d have the department fixed within 90 days.
“I know who the knuckleheads are,” he said. “The whole upper chain of command needs to go.”
Berry responds that the city has “put 60 reforms into place” to improve APD and that FBI crime statistics for the city are at 20-year lows.
“It’s unfortunate that my opponents would use the Albuquerque Police Department as a political pawn,” he said. “We have one of the finest departments in the country.”
Crime in Albuquerque has steadily trended downward since 1997, with decreases nearly every year since then, matching national trends generally.
High approval ratings
At 555,000 people within its city limits, Albuquerque is the 32nd largest city in the country, according to Census Bureau estimates for last year.
The city’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, meaning party affiliation won’t appear beside candidates’ names on the ballot and there’s no primary election to winnow the field of candidates.
Sanderoff said Berry probably benefits from the nonpartisan election setup, as he’s a Republican in an increasingly Democratic-leaning city.
Regardless, Berry appears to have remained popular with voters.
A Journal poll from October, for example, found 68 percent of likely voters in Albuquerque generally approved of Berry’s job performance and only 15 percent disapproved.
Berry, then, appears to be popular and better known than his opponents, Sanderoff said. On the other hand, he’s in a city that’s behaving more and more like an urban, Democratic area, Sanderoff said.
As for debates, Berry said he expects to participate in some this month and that there will be televised debates, too, before Election Day.
The first mayoral forum in 2009 was July 22.
Dinelli said he’s starting to feel the excitement of election season catching on among the public.
“I’m anxious to talk about the issues,” he said. “People are now starting to pay attention.”
Heh said he connects with people because he’s not a politician. Berry served in the Legislature before winning the 2009 mayoral election, and Dinelli was a city councilor from 1985-89.
“I’ve been blue collar all my life,” Heh said.
Berry said he enjoys campaigning and meeting voters.
“I get to talk to my boss at the front door,” he said.