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Behind Berry’s landslide victory

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Low turnout, lots of money and a likeable personality.

Oh, and he’s a good campaigner, too.

Professors, politicos and others credited all of the above for helping push Mayor Richard Berry to a whopping re-election victory in last week’s election, when he won 68 percent of the vote. He led his closest competitor, Pete Dinelli, by 39 percentage points.

Berry, a Republican, even drew some light praise from Democrats in the aftermath of his win.

“I have a lot of Democratic friends that voted for him,” former Mayor Jim Baca, a Democrat, said in an interview. “Even I think he’s a pretty decent guy, though I don’t think he’s doing much.”

He added: “People are tired of angry politicians.”

Berry, for his part, said something similar.

“I’d like to believe people saw a mayor who accomplished a lot during his first term, even in difficult economic times,” he said. “And in this age of hyper-partisanship, I think people are hungry for a public servant who believes like they do that we can get a lot more done working together than tearing each other down.”

Another factor, analysts say: Berry’s opponents, Dinelli and Paul Heh, couldn’t make their criticism of Berry – particularly over the state of the Police Department and the sluggish economy – stick with voters.

Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico professor who studies elections and political behavior, said Dinelli wasn’t the kind of charismatic candidate who inspired people to head to the polls in opposition to an incumbent.

“Republicans really turned out for Berry,” she said, “but Dinelli couldn’t get Democrats to turn out for him.”

Republicans are roughly 31 percent of Albuquerque’s registered voters, yet they made up 43 percent of the people who turned out to vote.

Regardless, Berry’s appeal seems to cross party lines. A survey conducted for the Journal in September showed Berry had more support among Democrats than Dinelli did.

Jay McCleskey, Berry campaign strategist, suggests that wasn’t by accident.

“We made a concerted effort to reach out to voters who had not supported Republican candidates in the 2012 election, particularly Hispanics and women,” he said. “Mayor Berry had a very compelling message that resonated across the board.”

The campaign also made it a priority, he said, to increase the GOP share of the electorate through early and absentee voting.

Turnout overall was light. About 70,900 people voted in this year’s election, at least 12,000 fewer than in 2009.

Put another way: Turnout fell below 20 percent of registered voters this year, compared to 26 percent four years ago.

“Mayor Berry was not a polarizing force or a political lightning rod,” pollster Brian Sanderoff said. “Therefore many people saw no reason to vote in order to turn him out of office.”

One of the key lines of attack against Berry this summer and fall centered on the Police Department, which has faced criticism for a spike in the number of people shot and killed by officers. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Albuquerque police officers have a pattern or practice of using excessive force.

Heh, a retired police sergeant, and Dinelli, a former chief public safety officer of the city, repeatedly pointed to APD as a sign of Berry’s weakness as mayor.

But the issue didn’t seem to catch on with voters, said Timothy Krebs, a UNM professor who studies urban politics.

“It was just not the kind of thing that resonated in this election cycle,” Krebs said. “I don’t know if it was the issue itself … or if it was a messenger issue, with the other candidates not being able to convincingly deliver the criticism about the mayor’s role in the Police Department.”

Sanderoff, who’s president of Research & Polling Inc., which does surveys for the Journal, said his September poll showed only 26 percent of voters disapproved of APD’s job performance.

“Thus, it did not harm the mayor politically,” he said.

Money was also a factor.

Berry raised about $875,000. Dinelli opted into the city’s public financing system, which limited his spending to about $362,000.

“That’s a big difference,” said Sam Bregman, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Pete Dinelli chose to do what I think was the right thing and go the public-financing route, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to compete” when outspent by so much.

Heh’s lack of spending may also have been a factor in Berry’s margin of victory. If Heh had qualified for public financing, for example, he and Dinelli would have had a combined $720,000, putting them closer to the mayor’s resources, Krebs said.

Generally, higher spending by challengers is linked with higher turnout among voters, he said.

Sanderoff suggested Berry put his resources to good use.

Berry campaign ads defined Dinelli “before Dinelli had an opportunity to define himself.”

“He was portrayed as a risky and unethical candidate by Berry’s media. These portrayals made it difficult for the Dinelli campaign to get off the ground.”

Dinelli had far less to spend, and the union groups most at odds with Berry – the ones representing city firefighters and police officers – didn’t spend enough to close gap. The police and fire unions contributed about $45,000 to a political committee that campaigned against the mayor.

In any case, Berry’s campaign team seemed effective.

Sanderoff said that the candidate who generates the most enthusiasm and has the best organization typically wins the early and absentee vote. Berry won the absentee vote by a 5-to-1 margin and early voting by 3-to-1.

He won Election Day votes overwhelmingly, too.

Of course, much of the credit goes to the candidate himself.

Berry “didn’t really falter in any big way,” Krebs said. “He ran a very focused re-election campaign. It especially struck me in the debates that he was largely unflappable.”

Frank Ruvolo, chairman of the county Republican Party, mentioned Berry’s style of governing.

“I think he’s low-key in a way that people understand he’s trying to do the best for the city,” he said.

Even Bregman was willing to give Berry some credit.

“Mayor Berry seems like a nice guy,” Bregman said. “Obviously, I disagree with much of what he does as mayor and the way he’s run the city the last four years. I think voters perceived him as a nice guy and didn’t feel a change was in order. It was not for lack of effort from Pete Dinelli.”

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