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Running for Mayor: Incumbent Berry brings low-key style to job

Mayor Richard Berry addresses a crowd of staff and supporters as he opens his reelection headquarters Saturday morning.  Here he takes a moment to talk to even year old Stella Aguilar who was there with her dad Ben Aguilar, far right, who were there showing their support. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Mayor Richard Berry addresses a crowd of staff and supporters as he opens his reelection headquarters Saturday morning. Here he takes a moment to talk to even year old Stella Aguilar who was there with her dad Ben Aguilar, far right, who were there showing their support. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Three years ago, Mayor Richard Berry confronted a city budget squeezed by the national recession.

He found an unusual way to keep it balanced in the face of a $60 million shortfall – cut employee pay, almost across the board, even when union contracts called for raises. The proposal won City Council approval and averted talk of tax increases, layoffs and reduced services.

It was a big, bipartisan win for the Berry administration, just six months into his term, though it angered employees and their union leaders.

But also that summer, far from City Hall itself, another story was unfolding – a spike in the number of people shot and killed by Albuquerque police. By the end of 2010, the city had seen 14 police shootings, more than in the previous two years combined.

The U.S. Department of Justice would later announce an investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department, and Berry would hire a research group to recommend ways to reform the city’s use-of-force policies.

The mayor’s supporters view his response to both developments – the budget and police shootings – as evidence of his pragmatic, data-driven leadership.

His critics, however, wanted him to remove the police chief, and they argued that the pay cuts were destroying morale and causing early retirements. They see his handling of those controversies as evidence of weakness and say he lacks the bold leadership expected of a chief executive.

Berry, now running for re-election to a second term, says that’s simply not true.

“We’re anything but laid back,” Berry said in a recent interview. “We’re just not angry and shrill.”

Jewel Hall, a retired teacher and activist who helped petition for the DOJ investigation, sees it differently. She’s president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Albuquerque.

“I think he’s just sort of in denial,” she said of Berry’s handling of APD. She said that in a face-to-face meeting with him, “I just found him to be evasive and sort of condescending,”

Berry has found consistent support among the business community during his tenure, while being almost constantly at odds with city employee unions.

Voters will have their say soon enough. Early-voting locations opened Wednesday, and Election Day is Oct. 8.

Business background

Berry is Albuquerque’s first Republican mayor in two decades. His opponents are Pete Dinelli, a Democrat and former deputy city attorney, and Paul Heh, a Republican and retired police sergeant. If no candidate gets 50 percent in the Oct. 8 election, a runoff will follow in November with the top two vote-getters.

A Journal Poll this month put Berry’s support at 63 percent among likely voters, and a Journal survey last year put his approval rating at 68 percent.

Berry, 50, comes from a business background. He and his wife, Maria, ran a construction business.

They worked together, even while dating. Berry recalls the two traveling out of town to paint a Napa Auto Parts store in triple-digit heat. They enjoyed plenty of business success, built a home in the Four Hills area and turned to public service. In 2006, Berry won an open seat in the state House of Representatives.

Three years later, he captured the Mayor’s Office by defeating incumbent Martin Chávez, a Democrat, in a three-way race.

Berry brought a rather low-key style to the office. Showy press conferences became rare.

He continued to volunteer as a basketball coach, a former colleague said, though he didn’t tell reporters.

“I’d say he’s uncomfortable with the trappings and ceremony that sometimes the office has become,” said David Campbell, a Democrat and former city attorney who served as Berry’s first chief administrative officer. “For example, when he came into office, he didn’t go get a new vehicle. He got one from the motor pool. That’s sort of emblematic of a citizen’s outlook on the office, as opposed to some sort of royal attitude towards the office of mayor.”

Campbell left the Mayor’s Office in 2011 to work as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department.

City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, said Berry “doesn’t get caught up in the celebrity of being the mayor. He goes to work every day and tries to fix the obstacles that keep our city from being great.”

Nevertheless, Berry has had his share of clashes with others at City Hall, particularly union leaders and council Democrats.

Berry has enjoyed a partisan advantage on the City Council, and he’s used it to great benefit. Berry and the council’s 5-4 Republican majority stuck together on budget matters, on a new immigration policy and on a less-stringent energy code, among other issues.

Immigration had been a defining issue for Berry in the 2009 campaign, when he pledged to end what he called Albuquerque’s “sanctuary city” policy for illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

After taking office, Berry settled on a new policy of checking the immigration status of everyone arrested by Albuquerque police, regardless of nationality. It narrowly survived a City Council challenge, on a 5-4 party-line vote, with Republicans backing Berry.

While controversial at the time, there’s been little public criticism of the policy in recent years.

The mayor boosted his party majority to a 6-3 advantage late last year, when Democrat Debbie O’Malley left to join the County Commission. Berry appointed a Republican, Roxanna Meyers, to the seat, even though a Democratic councilor, Isaac Benton, already lived in the area because of Census redistricting.

That meant a newly created council district on the southern West Side still didn’t have anyone actually living in it. The open West Side seat will be filled in the Oct. 8 election, and Benton and Meyers are now facing off for the right to stay on the council and represent that area.

“I think (City Hall) has become very partisan, unfortunately,” said City Councilor Ken Sanchez, a Democrat. Berry “has made much less of an effort recently in working across party lines, and he’s got six votes.”

Nevertheless, Berry has also taken on some social issues that might be considered more familiar ground for Democrats. In 2011, he launched the “Heading Home” program, which has helped find housing for about 250 of the city’s most-vulnerable, chronically homeless people.

The mayor also pushed to form a “Running Starts for Careers” program that helps high-school students learn a trade.

Union lawsuits

The city’s union leadership has been at odds with Berry over employee salaries and other matters. The city has faced lawsuits from its major union groups, though the administration has generally won the court fights.

Deb Rainaldi, a 911 operator and president of the white-collar union, said she and her colleagues endured a pay cut three years ago and haven’t received a raise since. Berry “doesn’t show us that we’re worth anything,” she said.

The Berry administration points out that it has offered raises, though most union groups haven’t accepted them or put them to a vote by membership.

Rainaldi said the mayor’s “representatives are very combative.”

A sticking point has been “union time,” a practice in which union leaders are allowed to draw city pay while handling labor issues, sometimes on a full-time basis. The Berry administration has opposed union time, unless employees use donated leave or union dues to cover it.

Most city unions are operating under expired contracts because they’ve failed to reach agreement with the administration on new ones.

Berry said his position on union time is reasonable. Union dues, not taxpayers, ought to pay for employees doing union work, he said. If the city is paying a bus driver, for example, that person ought to be driving a bus, not working on union issues, his administration contends.

Union leaders argue that union time is useful for both sides, because it gives union officers time to resolve labor disputes before they end up in litigation.

Berry said he has offered at least some kind of raise every year since cutting pay the first year. This year’s budget includes the first across-the-board raise offered by his administration, of 1 percent. Earlier raises he proposed were for employees making under $50,000 a year.

“We had to get city government back in line with what we could afford, just like families around the country had to do in a recession,” Berry said of the belt tightening in recent years.

The mayor has faced other challenges, too. In 2011, voters soundly rejected his proposal to issue $50 million in bonds to be split on two projects outlined in his “ABQ: The Plan” initiative. Half was to go toward a sports complex aimed, partly, at drawing tourists and the other half toward rebuilding the Paseo and I-25 interchange.

It failed at the polls, but Berry followed it up with another ballot measure to dedicate all of the money to Paseo, which passed. A ground-breaking ceremony for the project was held this month.

Berry has maintained strong relationships with business leaders. His administration, for example, overhauled and simplified Albuquerque’s system of impact fees on new development, among other efforts that drew support from business groups.

“I’ve worked with a lot of elected officials over the years, and the most successful ones have been able to see the big picture and execute to it,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “Mayor Berry does this about as well as it can be done.”

Police shootings

The Police Department on Berry’s watch has faced incredible scrutiny.

After a series of police shootings and other incidents, the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation into allegations that APD officers use “excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force.”

Pressure to do something about the number of police shootings began to build in 2010, Berry’s first full year in office. Berry’s initial response was characteristic. He didn’t immediately force out the police chief or shake up the top brass.

Instead, he hired the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank, to review APD’s use-of-force policies, then announced a series of changes based on the study in 2011. Critics said that wasn’t enough.

The announcement of a full DOJ investigation came about a year later, in late 2012.

Through it all, Berry stood by the police chief, Ray Schultz, even while the families of men shot by officers pushed for the chief’s removal. Schultz didn’t announce his retirement until March of this year, shortly after Lewis, the council president, said it was time for him to step aside.

The retirement announcement also came just hours before a state District Court jury awarded more than $10 million in damages to the family of a man shot by police. The department now has an interim chief, Allen Banks, who would become the first African American to lead APD, if hired permanently.

On the campaign trail, Berry doesn’t just defend the Police Department. He calls it one of the finest in the country. He points to crime rates as evidence.

“I think you can look to the Albuquerque Police Department and this administration for delivering the three lowest FBI crime rates in the last 20 years during my first term,” Berry said.

Crime in Albuquerque has steadily trended downward since 1997, with decreases nearly every year since then, matching national trends generally. There has been an increase the last two years, but the crime rate remains lower than when he took office.

The mayor said he won’t interfere with the DOJ investigation. He’s told federal officials to deal directly with APD but to notify him if they aren’t getting what they need.

“We didn’t want this review running through the Mayor’s Office,” Berry said.

‘Rural lifestyle’

It was the mountains – and a scholarship – that brought Berry to Albuquerque.

He grew up in a series of small farm towns in Nebraska and says he’s heavily influenced even today by the “rural lifestyle” and “can do’ attitude” of his youth.

A visit to the Philmont Scout Ranch helped change his future. Berry, an Eagle Scout, fell in love with New Mexico, he said, during a visit in the late 1970s. Berry was a sophomore in high school. He said he gained self-confidence in New Mexico’s backcountry.

“When you go to Philmont, you come out differently than you went in,” Berry said.

He was later offered a scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where he competed in the decathalon and attended business school. He fell in love again, this time with Maria Medina, a native New Mexican.

Berry hasn’t lived anywhere else since.

Now he wants four more years as chief executive of the country’s 32nd largest city. If re-elected, Berry said it would be his final term, even though city offices aren’t bound by term limits.

“I have the ability to do a great job,” he said. “I have the work ethic to back that up. … Being mayor is one of the best jobs in America.”

He said he’s impressed by the sheer number of people who care about the community and are leading efforts to improve it.

Mayors “are the front lines of American government,” he said. “I see my boss at the hardware store. I see my boss at the grocery store. I see my boss when I go out for a walk in the evenings.”

Being mayor, Berry said, is simply “a great job.”

Richard J. Berry

POLITICAL PARTY: Republican AGE: 50 EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in finance and administration, UNM Anderson School of Management, 1985 OCCUPATION: General contractor and now mayor FAMILY: Wife, Maria (Medina); one son

POLITICAL/GOVERNMENT EXPERIENCE: Mayor of the city of Albuquerque, 2009-present; two terms as state representative from District 20, first elected in 2006.

MAJOR PROFESSIONAL ACCOMPLISHMENT:

Working with my wife, Maria, to grow our family business into an award-winning regional enterprise and creating hundreds of jobs in the process.

MAJOR PERSONAL ACCOMPLISHMENT:

Marrying my college sweetheart and raising a fine young man who makes me proud to be his dad. ton and Meyers are now facing off for the right to stay on the council and represent that area.

Q & A

1. WHAT WOULD BE YOUR APPROACH TO BOOSTING THE ECONOMY IN ALBUQUERQUE?

Diversifying our local economy through private sector growth while protecting and working to grow our tremendous public sector such as Sandia National Labs, AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) and Kirtland AFB. Continue to create a pro-business environment.

2. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS THE OPTIMUM NUMBER OF OFFICERS FOR APD AND WHAT, IF ANYTHING, WOULD YOU DO TO IMPROVE RECRUITMENT?

With the three lowest FBI crime rates in 20 years during my first term while doubling property crime arrests, APD is doing great work. Our aggressive recruitment of qualified officers will keep us on pace.

3. DO YOU THINK CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT OF THE ALBUQUERQUE POLICE DEPARTMENT NEEDS TO BE OVERHAULED? IF SO, HOW? IF NOT, WHY?

Yes. I have sent numerous recommendations to the City Council to ensure the POC is active, meaningful and serves both APD and the community well. Some have been adopted — others are pending council implementation.

4. WHAT STEPS SHOULD THE CITY TAKE, EITHER DIRECTLY THROUGH CITY GOVERNMENT OR THROUGH THE ALBUQUERQUE BERNALILLO COUNTY WATER UTILITY AUTHORITY, TO ENSURE ALBUQUERQUE’S WATER FUTURE?

Stewardship of this most valuable natural resource is paramount, including aggressive cleanup of the Kirtland fuel spill, conservation measures and a collaborative effort geared towards future needs and supply opportunities.

5. DO YOU SUPPORT THE PRACTICE OF “UNION TIME,” IN WHICH UNION LEADERS ARE ALLOWED TO DRAW CITY PAY WHILE WORKING ON LABOR-MANAGEMENT RELATIONS?

No. “Union time” simply means that taxpayers are required to pay the bill for union activities. I believe unions should be welcome to perform their duties, but the costs should be paid through union dues.

6. WHAT DIFFERENTIATES YOU FROM YOUR OPPONENTS?

Experience and a proven track record of steady and responsible leadership and accomplishments. My opponents are tearing down our city with their campaigns while I believe our best days are ahead of us.

7. NAME ONE ISSUE NOT MENTIONED IN A PREVIOUS QUESTION THAT YOU WOULD PLAN TO TACKLE AS MAYOR OR CITY COUNCILOR.

I will continue to bring fiscal responsibility to City Hall while providing great value to the public through good stewardship of taxpayer resources. Budgets will be balanced and our fiscal house will be in order.

8. HAVE YOU OR YOUR BUSINESS, IF YOU ARE A BUSINESS OWNER, EVER BEEN THE SUBJECT OF ANY STATE OR FEDERAL TAX LIENS?

No.

9. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN INVOLVED IN A PERSONAL OR BUSINESS BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDING?

No.

10. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ARRESTED FOR, CHARGED WITH, OR CONVICTED OF DRUNKEN DRIVING, ANY MISDEMEANOR OR ANY FELONY IN NEW MEXICO OR ANY OTHER STATE?

No. Just one or two traffic tickets over the years.

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