Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
As Albuquerque’s only publicly financed mayoral candidate, Tim Keller regularly tells voters that he’s “walking the walk” so that he’s beholden to the community and not to donors and special interests should he be elected mayor.
“How we get to City Hall matters,” Keller said at one mayoral forum earlier this summer. “I stand for keeping big money out of politics.”
But Keller’s pronouncement isn’t stopping his supporters from contributing tens of thousands of dollars to a committee set up to back his mayoral bid.
In fact, ABQ Forward Together had already raised $106,000 to help Keller as of last Thursday, with nearly $85,000 of that raised in the preceding four weeks.
Unions have contributed at least $45,000 to the committee. Among the other top contributors are the Albuquerque-based Curtis & Lucero Law Firm, which gave $10,000, and OLÉ, one of the proponents of the Healthy Workforce Ordinance, which contributed $5,000 to the committee.
ABQ Forward Together is a measure finance committee, which is similar to a political action committee. It raises money to support or oppose a candidate or other ballot measure.
“We formed the MFC because we believe Albuquerque will do best under Tim Keller’s leadership,” Neri Holguin, the committee’s chairwoman, told the Journal in a statement. “We are working independently and separately from the campaign.”
Holguin served as Keller’s campaign manager during at least one of his campaigns for state Senate, although Keller says he hasn’t worked with her for about six years.
To be sure, what ABQ Forward Together is doing is legal under the rules governing city elections, so long as the candidate and his campaign are not coordinating with the measure finance committee.
“We have no coordination of any kind,” Keller told the Journal on Monday. “Whatever they say or do or don’t do is literally, totally out of my control, whether they’re effective or not.”
Asked whether he would feel beholden to the unions and other big contributors to the committee that is supporting his mayoral run, Keller said he wouldn’t.
“Dozens and dozens of groups have endorsed me, and that’s a great thing,” Keller said. “Obviously, they can’t give us money. They can choose to do whatever they want to do, but if folks want to support our vision for the city, they know what they’re getting.”
Keller said he thinks there’s a difference between a union giving to a committee like ABQ Forward Together and candidates getting “hundreds of thousands of dollars from city contractors.”
But not everyone sees the distinction.
“Keller’s grab of public funds and the huge donation totals in the committee run by his former campaign manager only feeds the skepticism and suspicions of the sucker taxpayers who now know there are no bounds for hypocritical politicians,” said Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers, who is active in Republican Party circles.
Public financing comes with strings
Keller, a Democrat, is currently state auditor. He is one of eight mayoral candidates on the ballot for the Oct. 3 election. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, then the two who have the highest vote counts will advance to a runoff election in November.
Although several mayoral candidates tried to qualify for public financing, Keller was the only one to succeed. To qualify, candidates were required to submit $5 contributions from 3,802 registered city voters. Keller collected about 6,000 $5 donations during the qualifying period.
His reward was nearly $343,000 in taxpayer dollars to run his campaign, or $1 for every registered city voter, minus the “seed money” he raised.
And if he ends up in a runoff election, he will receive roughly $125,000 more, or 33 cents per registered voter, to finance his campaign for the runoff.
But the public financing comes with strings, specifically a prohibition against accepting contributions or loans from any other source.
Level playing field
Some of Keller’s supporters who are involved in ABQ Forward Together, the measure finance committee backing Keller, say they’re doing so to even the playing field.
If you combine the nearly $343,000 Keller’s receiving in public money with the $106,000 the group has raised so far to spend independently, that creates an amount of about $449,000 available to be used in support of Keller.
But they point to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that other mayoral candidates have raised so far.
Mayoral candidate Brian Colón, an attorney and the former state Democratic Party chairman, for example, has already raised more than $700,000 for his run, and he has more than $535,000 in the bank, according to the latest batch of campaign finance reports filed last Friday.
By contrast, Keller has $227,000 left in his campaign account, and he isn’t allowed to raise money.
Republican Dan Lewis has raised $416,000, and Republican Wayne Johnson has raised $245,000.
Lewis, a city councilor, has $169,000 in the bank, while Johnson, a county commissioner, has more than $200,000 on hand.
Ricardo Chaves, another Republican, has lent his own campaign more than $500,000 and still has $373,000 in the bank.
And all of those mayoral candidates can continue raising more money.
“If the public financing rules were competitive, if they actually offered a level playing field, then people probably wouldn’t be clamoring to try and support the system from the outside,” Keller said.
The City Council proposed an amendment to the City Charter last year to boost the amount that publicly financed candidates receive, from the current $1 to $1.75 per registered city voter for the regular municipal election, and from 33 cents to 60 cents for publicly financed candidates who end up in a runoff election. But the proposal stalled.
If it had been enacted, Keller could have ended up with about $665,000 in city money, or about $285,000 more than he has received.
Keller has Benton’s support
Among those backing Keller and supporting ABQ Forward Together is City Council President Isaac Benton. He sent an email last week inviting people to a fundraiser for the measure finance committee supporting Keller.
“By doing the right thing and taking public financing, Tim is at a disadvantage – already,” Benton said in the email. “His opponents are raising unlimited funds and there will be special interests like sprawl developers and others who will work to defeat him.”
“Ironically,” Benton added, “it is in defense of public election financing that I support the independent (MFC) that is working to make sure he’s got a fair shot in October.”
The fundraiser, which was hosted by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club and others, was held Sunday at Bow and Arrow Brewery.
Benton acknowledged that the situation isn’t ideal.
“If you look at how the fundraising is going, it’s pretty meager to run a mayor’s race with $350,000,” he said, noting that the courts had struck down a provision in the City Charter that had called for matching funds to be given to publicly financed candidates when they were being outspent by privately financed candidates.
Benton said there was a good turnout at Sunday’s fundraiser. He said many of the people who showed up were expecting to see Keller, but he hadn’t been invited. Benton said the measure finance committee is being very careful to maintain that separation between itself and Keller and the campaign.
“We’re being very strict about that,” he said.
But Rogers argues that the intent of the city’s public finance system – which includes diminishing the public perception of corruption, strengthening public confidence and avoiding actual undue influence of large campaign donors and the appearance of undue influence – isn’t being honored.
“While insisting he wants big money out of politics and public financing, Mr. Keller makes a mockery of public financing,” Rogers said.
Keller said it’s important for voters to realize that measure finance committees are part of the city’s election landscape.
“All I can own is the choice that I made,” he said.