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Humble beginnings taught Colón the value of service

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of profiles the Journal will publish over the next few weeks on Albuquerque’s mayoral candidates. 

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

He grew up in Section 8 housing, eating government-issued cheese and watching his parents struggle as muscular dystrophy slowly robbed his father of his life.

Brian Colón, a former state Democratic Party chairman vying to be Albuquerque’s next mayor, didn’t have it easy growing up. But rather than throw up his hands, Colón followed the example set by his parents: He worked hard, seizing every opportunity that came his way. His fortitude paid off.

He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He went on to graduate from law school and has been a practicing attorney for 16 years. His son, Rafael, is attending George Washington University on a presidential scholarship.

And the upscale house Colón lives in with his wife, Aleli, is, figuratively speaking, a world away from the government-subsidized housing where he grew up in Valencia County.

While hard work played a major role in his success, Colón, 47, says he would have fallen through the cracks if not for the community support, nonprofits and government programs that filled the gaps. He says that’s why he’s running for mayor.

“I am the first in my family to break the cycle of poverty,” Colón tells voters on the campaign trail. “And I owe a debt of gratitude for that to this community, to Albuquerque, and so for me this is about repaying a debt that I’ll never be able to repay completely. But like I tell my son, I’m going to die trying.”

Colón is one of eight mayoral candidates on the ballot. Also running are:

• Democrats Tim Keller, the state auditor and a former state senator; and Gus Pedrotty, a recent University of New Mexico graduate.

• Republicans Wayne Johnson, a Bernalillo County commissioner; Dan Lewis, a city councilor; and Ricardo Chaves, founder of Parking Company of America.

• Independents Susan Wheeler-Deichsel, co-founder of the civic group Urban ABQ; and Michelle Garcia Holmes, a former chief of staff for the state attorney general and a retired Albuquerque police detective.

Election Day is Oct. 3. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a runoff election in November.

The new mayor takes office Dec. 1.

Crime-fighting plan

Crime has emerged as the top issue in the mayoral race, and Colón has said he would launch a national search for a new police chief. He said Albuquerque’s police department should be staffed with 1,200 officers; it now has about 850.

“I think we have to make a deeper commitment to hold people accountable when they make bad choices, but we also have to make sure we have a system in place in Albuquerque that addresses the underlying issues of poverty, drug addiction and mental health and behavioral health,” Colón said. “Those are the underpinnings of this incredibly rampant crime in Albuquerque.”

And, he said, the city needs to attract businesses, but it can’t do that until it starts paying attention to the small stuff, like addressing broken windows, cleaning up graffiti immediately, picking up trash, and identifying a path to get people at street corners off the streets.

“Those kinds of things matter whether you’re already a local business person who’s considering growing your business or whether you’re somebody who I’m flying into Albuquerque to help convince them that this is where they ought to take their next phase,” Colón said.

Quality of education also impacts economic development, and he said he would appoint a chief education officer to serve as a liaison on city-related education issues.

Support from AG

Colón has many backers with deep pockets, but arguably his highest profile supporter is state Attorney General Hector Balderas, who went to law school with him.

“He will outwork everyone, but he’ll also lead by example,” said Balderas, a Democrat.

The two have known each other and been friends for close to two decades.

“I’ve seen it consistently throughout his career where he’ll sign up to be a board member on a foundation or try to raise money for an issue involving children,” Balderas said. “He always exceeds expectation, and I think he just works harder.”

Balderas, who lives in Albuquerque, said the city has taken a step back, and it’s time for a leader like Colón: “In a time where the city needs to leverage economic, educational and public safety initiatives, I think we can’t afford to get this next decision wrong.”

Caucus problems

Colón – who was born in New York but came to New Mexico as an infant – has never held public office. But he served as chairman of the state Democratic Party from 2007 to 2009. Less than a year into his tenure as chairman, he presided over the New Mexico Democratic caucus, which, by most accounts, was a train wreck.

The heated race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drew more than 153,000 Democrats to the primary polls.

Many voters endured hourslong waits. Some reportedly gave up and went home. Some places ran out of ballots, and there were reports of people voting on scraps of paper. The glitches resulted in more than 17,000 provisional ballots being cast, requiring the Democratic Party to sift through each one.

Of the 22 states that held Democratic nominating contests on Feb. 5, 2008, New Mexico was the only one that didn’t have results by the next day. Final results weren’t posted until nine days after the Super Tuesday vote. The debacle thrust New Mexico and its Democratic Party into the national spotlight. Democrats were fuming, many of them calling the caucus an embarrassment to the party and to the state.

“As (the caucus) got closer, I realized that I didn’t have the monetary resources to shore up what I suspected was going to be an overwhelming task but had no capacity to stop that train,” he said. “I immediately took responsibility because I was chair of the party, and I don’t regret that a bit.”

Colón said trying to run the caucus with a 100 percent volunteer labor force was a mistake. But he said he learned from the ordeal and is a better leader because of it.

“I’ve been in that kitchen when it’s so hot everything is melting down,” Colón said. “And as a result, I’m also very realistic when it comes to needing to evaluate potential challenges on a path.”

He went on to win the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2010 to become Diane Denish’s running mate. They lost to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her running mate, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. But that race also wasn’t without controversy.

In a campaign commercial, Colón said, “We know that Susana Martinez is from Texas … Susana es una Tejana.”

Colón said he has apologized for going down that road.

“It’s the one and only time I’ve stooped to any kind of silliness like that, and I regret it,” he said.

Skillful fundraiser

Colón raised more money than his opponents in his quest for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, and he’s on track to do the same thing in his current mayoral bid, already having received more than $700,000 in contributions.

But he has also used his fundraising prowess over the years to raise money for nonprofits, everything from Popejoy Hall’s Schooltime Series and Friends of the Children of El Salvador to the YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Habitat for Humanity.

“I’ve raised hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars in Albuquerque for nonprofits that I believe in, and I’ve never been paid a dime to do it,” he said.

Colón said his success comes from being able to help people see what they can accomplish if they pull in the same direction, and he said he’d use that same skill set as mayor.

Colón also volunteers as a mentor and has served on a number of nonprofit boards, including the Albuquerque Community Foundation.

Work ethic

Colón was featured in a Journal article in 1987. It was the summer before his senior year at Los Lunas High School, and Colón was heading to Boys Nation in D.C. The article delved into Colón’s work ethic.

He had been working at his parents’ Bosque Farms Flea Market since he was 10, had been elected student body president and class president and was an active member of about 20 student organizations, having been elected to hold office in 10 of them.

After Colón graduated from high school, his parents and two younger siblings moved to Florida. Rafael Colón’s health had been deteriorating, and doctors recommended the move.

“My parents had a rough road,” Brian Colón said. “My father had muscular dystrophy. As long as I can remember, I remember him … really struggling to make it.”

Colón stayed behind and enrolled at New Mexico State University. His father died shortly thereafter.

Colón said his parents taught him to work hard and to make a difference in the lives of others. To this day, he said, he’s asked how he can maintain his hectic schedule.

“Not only am I the hardest working candidate out there, I’ll be the hardest working mayor,” he said, promising to attend every city council meeting. “I’m tireless. I’m passionate about this opportunity, and no one is going to outwork me to get it.”

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