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Candidates debate economy

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Sharing the stage for the first time, Albuquerque’s three mayoral candidates offered sharply different assessments on Wednesday of where the local economy stands and how they would shape its future.

Incumbent Richard Berry told the business owners gathered for the forum that he took office in 2009 amid the depths of a national recession. He cut spending while protecting services, he said, then worked to make Albuquerque a more friendly business environment.

Now, “the economy is turning the corner,” he said.

Candidate Pete Dinelli, a former chief public safety officer at City Hall, said there’s been a “zero percent” job growth rate over the last four years and the city needs an “aggressive” plan to change that. His ideas include an expansion of the airport.

“The fact is, we can do better as a community,” Dinelli said.

Retired police Sgt. Paul Heh painted the bleakest picture of the city. Albuquerque, he said, is “awash” in heroin and Oxycontin, and muggings and rapes happen Downtown at night.

“I don’t care what anybody says. I worked the streets for 25 years,” Heh said. “I know what the crime rate is. … Who’s going to move here with these problems?”

The candidates spent about an hour Wednesday night answering questions from the northern New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. The forum was held at the Sheraton Uptown, and the candidates had two minutes each to respond to questions. Kay Carrico, a member of NAWBO, served as moderator.

Berry and Dinelli wore suits and ties, while Heh was dressed more casually. Heh was the most aggressive of the three, raising his voice to almost a shout as he answered some questions.

He pitched himself to the crowd of about 90 people as a blue-collar guy who didn’t have the backing of a major political party. Berry and Heh are Republicans, Dinelli a Democrat.

“What sets me apart from the other candidates is I’ve never been a politician,” Heh said.

Dinelli, who’s been a prosecutor, deputy city attorney and city councilor, said he came from a working-class family. His mother kept the family together while waiting tables for decades, he said.

“To know a man, you have to know his background,” Dinelli said as he introduced himself.

Berry said he and his family would be honored if he’s elected to a second term, which would be his last. Berry is a former state House member who worked in the construction industry with his wife, Maria.

“This is fun, talking about ideas,” he said, prompting laughter from the audience.

The candidates clashed on a variety of economic topics.

Berry said the state’s approval of changes in the tax code – including creation of a “single sales factor” – will help the local economy, especially through good manufacturing jobs.

“I’d like to see more manufacturing in the city of Albuquerque,” Berry said. “… We have all the parts and pieces to do that. We didn’t before the last legislative session, quite frankly.”

Dinelli responded soon after. He said the state legislation Berry touted will cost the city government tens of millions of dollars in revenue through the elimination of “hold harmless” payments from the state.

The tax changes were “passed on the backs of the local communities,” Dinelli said.

Heh didn’t directly address the legislation during his remarks.

The candidates also touched on equal pay for women who do the same work as men.

Heh said it isn’t right for women to make less than men, but it’s also not the role of the mayor to dictate how much people in the private sector make.

Berry said he is rolling out a policy with help from the City Council that will call on city vendors to show there’s equal pay in their companies.

Dinelli said that, as a mayor, he would “act like a leader and be an advocate for women’s rights, not just in pay but in other areas.”

Election Day is Oct. 8. Early voting starts next month.

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