The first debate in the Albuquerque mayoral race offered a tale of two cities, with Mayor Richard Berry praising the city’s growing economy and upstanding police force while candidates Pete Dinelli and Paul Heh charged Albuquerque’s economy remains in the dumps while crime is escalating.
The hourlong debate in advance of the Oct. 8 city election was televised Sunday on KOAT-TV and co-sponsored by the Journal.
A majority of the debate focused on issues of economic development in Albuquerque.
Berry, a Republican seeking a second term, said the Albuquerque economy is “on the right track” from where it stood when he took office in 2009. Berry pointed to a gain of about 7,000 jobs in the city over the past 12 months, a “rebounding” construction industry and residential housing values that he described as “the highest levels in years.”
“We’re definitely turning the corner,” Berry said. “We went from worst to first in New Mexico for job creation, and the last report shows now Albuquerque is adding, I think, 75 percent of all the jobs in the state of New Mexico, so we’re on the right track.”
Dinelli and Heh, however, charged the economic gains are nowhere to be found, creating a slump they said is causing some residents to leave town to find work elsewhere.
Dinelli, a Democrat and former deputy city attorney, repeatedly pointed to an independent report that ranked Albuquerque near the bottom of the 100 cities it evaluated for economic growth since the recession.
“The fact is we’re bleeding jobs, and the mayor’s plan for economic development just isn’t working,” Dinelli said.
To change course, Dinelli said the city should invest about $1.5 billion in an economic development plan that would include stimulus-like projects for city infrastructure and neighborhoods and an effort to recruit new industries to the city. Such additions could include new health care businesses and an expanded transportation sector, he said.
“I think we need to start thinking big, and start thinking outside the box and basically trying to attract industry to the Albuquerque area,” Dinelli said.
Heh, a Republican and a retired Albuquerque Police Department sergeant, described the city economy as “in a wreck.” To improve it, Heh said he would begin to grow Albuquerque’s economy through tourism. That effort starts with hosting major events that might attract visitors to spend money in Albuquerque and put residents back to work. An example, Heh said, would be to host a long-distance cycling race that highlights the city’s “Wild West” history.
“Our shops will be full, our hotels will be full and our people will be working,” Heh said.
Berry brushed off the criticism of Albuquerque’s economic development as out of line with the economic data.
“I would suggest that everybody go out and take a look at the facts,” he said. “Albuquerque is definitely on the rebound. … Albuquerque is poised to add somewhere between 25,000 and 27,000 jobs. The plan Mr. Dinelli puts forward promises 5,000 to 10,000 jobs less than that.”
Berry and his challengers also stood as polar opposites on the issue of public safety.
Dinelli and Heh repeatedly described the Albuquerque Police Department as being in a “meltdown,” which the candidates said has resulted in increased crime rates, delayed police response times and an ongoing review of the department’s use of force policy initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Berry countered that crime rates reported by the FBI suggest crime is down, response times for life-threatening situations are the same or faster than when he took office and that officer-involved shootings are down since his administration implemented “reforms.”
Dinelli said if elected he would re-organize the police department and put additional officers on the streets.
“You have the lowest morale we’ve ever had,” Dinelli said. “A once-proud department from about four years ago has now become a department that’s being investigated … for the excessive number of police officer-involved shootings. This is not the way you lead a city. This is not the way you manage a police department.”
Heh said as mayor he would hire nearly 300 new police officers and locally hire a new chief to “lead the officers in regaining the trust and respect of the community.”
Heh said the city can begin to recruit new officers by waiving its requirement that officers have a college degree. “You do not need college to be a police officer. … We teach you what you need to know to be a police officer,” he said.
Berry described himself as more “optimistic” about the city’s public safety. He said he stood behind the department and the work it’s doing that he said has resulted in the lowest crime rate reported by the FBI in 20 years.
“I’m proud of my police department, and I’m proud of my officers and I work with them every day.” Berry said. “… We want the best of the best, and we’re not going to lower standards like was done before.”
A Journal Poll taken in early September found Berry has support from 63 percent of likely city voters. Dinelli had 18 percent and Heh had 2 percent of the likely vote. About 17 percent of voters were undecided.
City elections are nonpartisan, which means political party labels are not included on the ballot. Albuquerque requires a run-off election between the top two vote-getters if a candidate fails to win at least 50 percent of the vote.