Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
He’s a rising star in New Mexico’s political arena, having won two terms in the state Senate and a race for state auditor in the past nine years.
And now Tim Keller has set his sights on Albuquerque’s mayoral post, a job for which he’s widely considered the frontrunner.
“I’ve got a 2- and a 4-year-old; my wife and I, we’re raising our kids here. For us, we’re very concerned about our hometown,” Keller told voters during a recent forum. “Albuquerque is really at a crossroads.”
He says Mayor Richard Berry’s administration has wasted too much time blaming others for what has gone wrong in Albuquerque with crime, education and jobs.
“I’m running for mayor because I want to own a real solution to each one of these problems,” the 39-year-old Democrat said.
For Keller, that means hiring a new police chief and 400 additional officers, retooling incentives aimed at out-of-state corporations so that local businesses can qualify, and restructuring the city’s Parks and Recreation Department so that it’s providing arts, science and sports programs for kids after school and over the summer.
Keller is one of eight mayoral candidates on the ballot.
Also running are:
• Democrats Brian Colón, an attorney and former state Democratic Party chairman; and Gus Pedrotty, a recent University of New Mexico graduate.
• Republicans Dan Lewis, a city councilor; Wayne Johnson, a county commissioner; and Ricardo Chaves, founder of Parking Company of America.
• Independents Michelle Garcia Holmes, a former chief of staff for the state attorney general and a retired Albuquerque police detective; and Susan Wheeler-Deichsel, co-founder of the civic group Urban ABQ.
Election Day is Oct. 3. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff election in November.
The new mayor takes office Dec. 1.
Among those supporting Keller is Fred Mondragon, who was economic development secretary under former Gov. Bill Richardson and director of economic development for Albuquerque under former Mayor Martin Chávez.
“From the standpoint of preparation for the job, I think he has it above the other candidates,” Mondragon said, pointing to Keller’s education and his experience running a business, serving as state senator and then as state auditor. He said Keller has spent the past few years running a large state agency and identifying fraud, waste and abuse.
“There are good candidates running, but (Keller) demonstrates leadership skills, experience and education that I think will serve Albuquerque very well,” Mondragon said.
Keller has secured dozens of endorsements from elected officials, community groups and labor unions – including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 18 and the International Association of Firefighters Local 244.
And while he’s the only publicly financed candidate running for mayor, he has taken heat for the tens of thousands of dollars contributed by unions and others to a measure finance committee that formed to help get him elected. Keller points out that he has no control over what a measure finance committee does and he said he will not feel any obligation to those contributors.
Growing up in ABQ
Keller, an Eagle Scout, is the youngest of three sons born to a banker and a teacher. Although he lived behind Del Norte High School, he attended Catholic school from kindergarten through his senior year, graduating from St. Pius X High School.
Keller was on the baseball team and was quarterback of the football team.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance and art history from the University of Notre Dame, following a long-standing family tradition. But he was the first in his family to attend an Ivy League school, obtaining a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School. He graduated from Harvard with honors in 2005.
He credits the personal attention he received in Catholic school with helping him thrive academically despite his dyslexia.
He and his wife, Liz Kisten Keller, a Rhodes Scholar who works at Sandia National Laboratories, have a 4-year-old daughter, Maya, and a 2-year-old son, Jack.
Between graduating from Notre Dame and enrolling at Harvard, Keller said, he went into investment banking for about a year and a half. When the dot-com bubble burst, he began looking for another opportunity and found it in Cambodia.
“I found out about this company, and these guys had a business plan. They didn’t want to leave America to go start it … and I was like, ‘I’ll go,'” Keller said.
The company employed land mine victims and members of other economically disadvantaged groups – people who had no economic alternative.
“It was amazing,” he said. “… I started out in a rice paddy in a thatched hut trying to teach people how to use a computer and then sell that service to sustain their jobs. It was a social enterprise before the term was really coined.”
Keller was the first president of Digital Divide Data, and during the 3½years he worked in that position, the company grew to 100 employees, had $1 million in revenue and began paying for itself, he said.
“In terms of actually helping people one-on-one, (it was) the most meaningful and impactful experience I’ve ever had,” he said.
And while Keller loved the job, he realized that what he always wanted to do was get involved in local government.
“I think as much as we don’t like politicians and we feel that frustration, to me it is still the only place in American society – with the exception of maybe the head of a huge foundation or company – where you can actually help a lot of people and you can actually make a difference,” Keller said.
State senator, auditor
After graduating from Harvard, Keller worked for various companies as a business economist.
In 2008, he launched his first political campaign, challenging incumbent Shannon Robinson for the state Senate seat that includes Albuquerque’s International District. Keller defeated Robinson in the primary to claim the seat and won re-election four years later.
As a state senator, he succeeded in getting several measures signed into law, including a bill that changed the governance structure of the then-embattled State Investment Council and another one that ensured that the in-state preference on public jobs went to businesses that are truly local.
He said the change in the preference law has kept “tens of millions of dollars if not hundreds of millions of dollars” in this state and created jobs here.
As for the changes to the State Investment Council, Keller said, “There is no doubt in my mind we are way better-off than before because no single politician can control that council.”
Keller said he also worked hard on changing the “War Zone” nickname officially to the “International District.”
He served as majority whip during his last two years in the Senate.
Keller ran for state auditor in 2014 and won. During his nearly three years in the position, Keller has issued reports on everything from the billions of dollars sitting idle in state and other local government accounts to how much state agencies have paid to out-of-state businesses. He has also taken on powerful officials, including Demesia Padilla, who resigned as taxation and revenue secretary after being accused of pressuring department employees to give special treatment to a taxpayer she previously worked for.
As the scandal with Padilla was unfolding, the Governor’s Office blasted Keller, accusing him of being a partisan publicity hound – an accusation he has faced on multiple occasions.
At one point, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said the governor, as a former prosecutor, understood the difference between fact-finding and publicity-seeking and that she hoped Keller “will spend more time chasing down facts and less time chasing around television cameras.”
“Anyone that I go after as an auditor, that’s their response,” Keller said. “Frankly, it’s because they can’t dispute the merits of what we’re talking about.”
Among the criticisms Keller has faced on the campaign trail is that he will use the mayor’s job as a steppingstone to another office.
“I know my opponents want to make this about some sort of bigger vision,” he said. “I can tell you, state auditor is a great job. If I wanted to go to D.C. or if I wanted to be governor, I would never leave state auditor, because it’s a statewide office, and I think we’ve had a lot of success at it, and I’ve got a great team there. Ambition would have kept me in the state Auditor’s Office, not running for mayor.”
Keller pledged that if he is elected mayor, he will serve the full four-year term.
“I think I’ve got a unique combination of skills that make me the right person for this,” Keller said. “… There isn’t another candidate who has run a government agency. That will enable me to do the kinds of changes that we need at City Hall.”