Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of profiles the Journal will publish over the next week on Albuquerque’s mayoral candidates.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson saw the opening, and he seized it.
Michelle Lujan Grisham had stepped down from the commission a few weeks earlier to focus on her congressional run, and Gov. Susana Martinez had just appointed Simon Kubiak to fill the vacancy. Republicans had their first majority on the commission in 40 years, and Johnson, a Republican, wasn’t going to squander the opportunity.
So in September 2012 he got to work on resurrecting initiatives that had been voted down by the Democratic-controlled commission.
He revived a proposal to authorize 15 more deputies for the sheriff’s office, and the measure was adopted on a 4-1 vote.
A year earlier, Johnson had fought to publish the names and salaries of all county employees on the county website. He lost that battle, with the commission majority deciding to post the names of only high-level employees on the salary database and others being identified by job title.
After Kubiak was appointed, Johnson introduced an ordinance to publish the names and salaries of all county employees on the website. That ordinance was adopted less than two months later.
“As public servants and as public officials our employer is the public, and so they have a right to know what we make,” he said.
Johnson, 50, who is hoping to be Albuquerque’s next mayor, considers the work he has done to make the county more transparent among the top accomplishments of his nearly seven years on the county commission. On the campaign trail, he has also been touting his success in expanding the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, contrasting it with the struggles the Albuquerque Police Department has had in filling its vacancies.
Johnson is one of eight mayoral candidates on the ballot.
Also running are:
• Republicans Dan Lewis, a city councilor; and Ricardo Chaves, founder of Parking Company of America.
• Democrats Tim Keller, the state auditor and a former state senator; Gus Pedrotty, a recent University of New Mexico graduate; and Brian Colón, an attorney and former state Democratic Party chairman.
• 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.
‘Not an idealogue’
Johnson says he’s the best candidate for the job, because he already does everything a mayor does. “I’ve got the local government experience,” he said.
Among those supporting Johnson is Sherman McCorkle, a vocal champion of businesses and member of many local boards, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
“I appreciate his approach to government,” McCorkle says. “He is not an ideologue. He doesn’t engage in ugly talk about other elected officials, which is so prominent in America today. The things about him I do like: He’s a pragmatist; he is truly a solution seeker; he gets along well with people; he listens.”
If Johnson prevails in the mayor’s race, the governor will appoint a replacement to serve out the remaining 13 months on his commission term.
Born, raised, married in ABQ
Johnson was born and raised in Albuquerque.
His father, Charles, worked at Sandia National Laboratories in a variety of roles, including the media division, where he created educational films. His mother, Nancy, was a music and English teacher who later founded Vista Media Productions. Johnson was editing video at the age of 10 and now runs the company his mother started.
He attended the University of New Mexico and spent his last year there as an intern at KOB-TV. He continued to shoot and edit video for the news station for a brief stint after graduating.
While working at KOB, Johnson met the woman he would marry. Kurstin Schneider was interviewing for an internship at KOB. But she also worked at a real estate office next door to his mother’s company. The couple will mark their 19th anniversary in December.
“Best window shopping I ever did,” he joked.
First ran for office in 2005
Johnson says he owes his career in politics to a battle with a neighbor and the city.
He and his wife started their married life in a house they bought in the Northeast Heights. He had a dog. She had two dogs and a cat. One of their new neighbors detested noise.
Those ingredients didn’t mix well, and the Johnsons found themselves in court a lot in the ensuing four years.
“We won every court battle, but no matter how many times we won, they kept coming back,” he says. “My wife literally put up a white flag, and we sold the house … We found out afterwards that they had friends down at the city.”
Johnson said he didn’t think it was right that the city wasn’t listening to his side because of his neighbor’s connection.
“I could either yell at the TV and be mad at everyone I saw, or I could try to get involved, get into office and see how I could make things better,” he says.
He ran for an Albuquerque City Council seat in 2005. Running for political office meant having to come clean with his parents about a DWI arrest. He said he had handled the matter on his own and had never told them.
The year was 1994, and Johnson was 27 at the time. He was nabbed at a checkpoint on San Mateo.
The DWI case was dismissed eight months later, but Johnson said the experience was enough to teach him that he never wanted to be in that situation again.
“I think a lot of people make mistakes in their life – that was certainly one of them,” Johnson said. “I’m not as interested in the initial mistake as I am (in) what they do afterwards.”
As a commissioner, Johnson sponsored the county’s DWI seizure ordinance, which, he says, gives family members of convicted drunken drivers a reason to not become enablers and lend them their vehicles.
Fought for businesses
He lost his bid for the City Council in 2005 but prevailed in the race for the District 5 County Commission seat in 2010, winning re-election in 2014.
During his tenure on the commission, he has fought unsuccessfully against gross receipts tax increases but succeeded in pushing multiple industrial revenue bonds through, essentially tax breaks for businesses in exchange for their creating jobs in Bernalillo County.
Among projects granted IRBs during Johnson’s tenure on the commission has been One Central, a mixed-use development at 1st and Central. Partners in that development include Dale Armstrong, owner of TLC plumbing, and Tony Pisto. Pisto donated $5,000 to Johnson’s mayoral campaign in February, and Armstrong donated $5,193 to Johnson’s campaign in March.
Johnson acknowledges that he “probably” has accepted campaign contributions from developers who have had business before the commission in the past but says he doesn’t anticipate their going before the commission again during the time he has left on the board, and if they do, he would recuse himself.
He says he avoids contributions from county vendors.
Some unpopular stands
Johnson hasn’t been afraid to take unpopular stances.
During mayoral forums, he has spoken out against Albuquerque’s minimum wage, against the proposed sick leave initiative that will appear on the Oct. 3 ballot and against the measure adopted by the commission earlier this year that prevents county resources from being used to ascertain whether individuals are in this country legally.
Indeed, when the U.S. Justice Department threatened to withhold public safety grants from so-called sanctuary cities last month, Johnson introduced a resolution that would have rescinded Bernalillo County’s immigrant-friendly community resolution. His measure would also have required the county to give the Department of Justice access to county-operated detention facilities.
Dozens of people blasted Johnson at the meeting for introducing the measure.
“Shame on you. Shame on you for grabbing headlines to see if you can get elected,” former Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño said.
The proposal was rejected, with Johnson being the only commissioner to vote in favor.
He has also raised concerns about the city charter, which, he says, grants citizens the ability to “create really far extremist, one-sided legislation that does not and is not subject to any kind of legislative review at the council level.”
And he has argued that the Albuquerque Police Department is under siege and that the settlement agreement APD reached with the U.S. Department of Justice was a mistake.
“I’m not afraid of information or even criticism,” he says. “What I don’t want is to hand over the operation to somebody else.”