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Can mayoral candidates avoid runoff?

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque mayoral candidates from left, Richard Berry, Paul Heh and Pete Dinelli during a televised debate in September. The city's election is Tuesday. Journal File

Albuquerque mayoral candidates from left, Richard Berry, Paul Heh and Pete Dinelli during a televised debate in September. The city’s election is Tuesday. (Journal File)

Mayor Richard Berry defeated an incumbent four years ago to become Albuquerque’s first Republican mayor in two decades.

He could find out as early as Tuesday whether voters want him to stick around for a second term.

Berry, a former state representative and general contractor, is running against former Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli, a Democrat, and retired police Sgt. Paul Heh, a Republican.

Voters will head to the polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. A City Charter amendment approved this year requires the winner to get at least 50 percent of the vote to claim the office outright. Otherwise, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff election six weeks later.

Early voting has been heavy, with more than 26,000 people casting their ballots at locations that opened in September and closed Friday. That’s more than twice the 10,800 people who voted early four years ago.

It’s unclear whether that will translate into higher turnout overall, as people may be simply shifting their behavior to take advantage of early voting rather than waiting until Election Day. More than 83,000 people voted in 2009, turnout of about 26 percent of registered voters at the time.

Throughout the campaign this year, Berry has painted an optimistic picture of Albuquerque as a city that’s turning the corner after the Great Recession. He’s pitched himself as a steady, non-partisan leader.

His opponents offer a much more critical view of where the city stands now, compared to four years ago. They describe the police force as a department in meltdown and a city that’s struggling to share in the economic recovery enjoyed elsewhere.

“We’ve got two challengers who are painting a very different picture of where Albuquerque stands today, compared to the mayor,” pollster Brian Sanderoff said in an interview. “What it comes down to is whether voters think we’ve been making progress or whether the progress has been insufficient and warrants a change in leadership.”

A survey conducted in early September by Research & Polling Inc., Sanderoff’s firm, put the mayor’s support at 63 percent among likely voters while Dinelli had 18 percent and Heh had 2 percent. But Sanderoff pointed out that the survey was completed before Dinelli launched his advertising campaign.

“That would have been the high water mark for Berry,” Sanderoff said Friday.

It would be a historic win of sorts if Berry or another candidate captures 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday and avoids a runoff election. No mayor has won with more than 50 percent in the first round of voting in at least 30 years.

Berry won with 44 percent in 2009, and then-Mayor Martin Chávez won with 47 percent in his 2005 re-election bid. Those percentages were enough to avoid a runoff at the time.

A candidate had to receive at least 40 percent to win outright on Election Day before a petition drive earlier this year succeeded in raising the threshold to 50 percent. Union activists and others at odds with Berry pushed for the change.

In any case, Chávez won the mayor’s office with 31 percent of the vote in 2001, and Jim Baca won with 29 percent in 1997. There were no runoffs in place at the time because of court challenges.

The mayoral races from 1981 to 1993 all involved runoffs with the top two candidates, ensuring someone would get at least 50 percent. But that means no one cleared the 40 percent mark in the first round of voting those years.

Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico professor who studies urban politics, pointed out that boosting the runoff requirement to 50 percent was expected to make it harder for a Republican to win when Democratic candidates split the vote.

“It reinforces the idea that quality candidates is what produces victories,” not just party affiliation, Krebs said in an interview.

Like his predecessor Chávez, Berry appears to be drawing support from both Democrats and Republicans, creating a coalition of sorts, Krebs said.

In debates with his opponents, Krebs noted, Berry often mentioned his initiatives to combat homelessness and improve recycling – policies likely to appeal to moderate and left-leaning voters.

“He is campaigning well,” Krebs said. “He’s a strong candidate.”

Dinelli, for his part, has assailed Berry’s non-partisan image by suggesting it’s more talk than reality. Dinelli makes frequent mention of Berry having hired prominent Republicans into his administration and of Berry’s opposition to an increase in the minimum wage, which is popular with Democrats and won voter approval.

Among the first words out of Dinelli’s mouth in debates are often “I’m a Democrat.”

“It reflects the fact that he’s trying to mobilize people on partisan grounds, and it reflects this desire to get local Democrats behind a single candidate to force a runoff,” Krebs said.

Berry, of course, has the opposite motivation – to present himself as a non-partisan candidate who can appeal to people in both major parties. His supporters like to point out, for example, that Berry’s first chief administrative officer, David Campbell, is a Democrat.

About 46 percent of the registered voters in Albuquerque are Democrats, and 31 percent are Republicans. The remainder are independents or affiliated with a minor party.


 Election Day

  • Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
  • A photo ID is required to vote in city elections.
  • About 50 voting centers will be open. Voters aren’t assigned to any location in particular and can cast a ballot where it’s convenient. A list of centers is available at ABQjournal.com/elections and will be printed in Tuesday’s Journal.
  • Voters who haven’t already mailed in their absentee ballots can return them to the city clerk’s office or city Records Center, 604 Menaul NW. Absentee ballots cannot be returned to Election Day voting centers.
  • Visit ABQjournal.com/elections to find profiles of the mayoral candidates, their responses to questionnaires and other news coverage.
  • Sample ballots, voting locations and other information is available at cabq.gov by clicking on the “vote” link.
  • The election is nonpartisan, meaning there will not be party labels on the ballot. A candidate must get at least 50 percent of the vote to win or the top two compete in a runoff Nov. 19.

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