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Gloves off in mayoral debate

Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis came out swinging during Congregation Albert’s mayoral debate on Sunday, accusing his opponent of operating a sweat shop in Cambodia, referring to his crime fighting proposal as a “hug a thug” plan that coddles criminals, and calling his vote to block cities from having a say on where sex offenders can live “dangerous and disgusting.”

But State Auditor Tim Keller fought back just as hard, accusing Lewis of latching onto President Donald Trump’s divisive playbook, calling his criticism of his work in Cambodia ignorant, and pointing out that the police and firefighters unions were backing him and not Lewis.

It was a tense 60 minute match in front of hundreds of people, and it was later broadcast by KANW 89.1 public radio.

Keller, a Democrat, and Lewis, a Republican, are going head to head in a Nov. 14 mayoral runoff. Early voting begins Oct. 25.

The punches started flying about 15 minutes into the debate, with Lewis taking aim at Keller’s work as president of Digital Divide Data in Cambodia. The company, which Keller got off the ground, employed land mine victims and members of other economically disadvantaged groups.

Dan Lewis

Tim Keller

“I’ve created jobs in our city. I didn’t create jobs in Cambodia, sweatshop jobs in Cambodia like Tim did,” Lewis charged. “It took away union jobs from America. It’s a company that his brother started; he didn’t start it. The only job that Tim Keller has created is his own job paid for by public taxpayers. We need somebody in the city who actually understands how jobs are created and has created private jobs in the city.”

“I got to help hundreds of land mine victims in Cambodia learn how to use the computer and learn how to do coding,” Keller responded. “… For any one of those hundreds of folks literally with no limbs and no hope, to call that a sweatshop … is an absolute injustice, and it shows a lot of ignorance also about what actually happened in Cambodia, the genocide there. So I’m proud of that. It changed my life. It made me a progressive. It made me someone who believes in social justice, and it made me want to come back home and make a difference.”

The candidates also clashed over sanctuary cities, with Keller saying Albuquerque should embrace it and do everything it can to protect every resident. He criticized the city’s current policy of giving Immigration and Customs Enforcement space at the city’s transport center to check the immigration status of people who have been arrested and about to be booked into the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.

“What’s scary about that, what’s dangerous about that is we’re talking about violent offenders that are in our MDC right now, and we’re talking about no limitations whatsoever is what Tim’s talking about,” Lewis said. He said he prefers a “common sense policy that protects the constitutional rights of people, that welcomes people in this city and also complies with the law of the land.”

Keller fired back several minutes later.

“There was an equation made between immigrants and violent criminals,” Keller said. “That is absolutely wrong; that is coded language; that is national talking points from the president.”

Lewis’ most pointed attacks against his opponent came in response to a question about Albuquerque’s rising crime rate, an issue that voters have identified as their top concern in this election. Lewis invoked the “Bad Timmy” ads, which accused Keller of choosing to protect sex offenders over children.

The ads referred to a bill Keller voted for as a state senator in 2011 that would have taken away the rights of local governments to restrict where sex offenders can live. The 2011 bill failed, but a subsequent bill approved by the legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in 2013 contains a similar prohibition, which remains in effect today. Several victim advocates rallied behind Keller after the ads hit the television and radio airwaves.

A heckler interrupted Lewis when he described Keller’s proposal to fight crime as a “hug a thug plan.” The heckler shouted at Lewis for his use of the word “thug.”

“Tim’s crime plan puts the criminals of the city before the law abiding citizens of this city,” Lewis said after the heckler had been escorted out. “He’s got a record of voting on something that’s absolutely dangerous and disgusting. Limiting the ability for the city of Albuquerque to keep sex offenders from living close to …” The end of his sentence was drowned out by rowdy audience members, many of whom appeared taken aback that Lewis had brought up the matter.

“Tim voted on that bill. He regrets it,” Lewis argued. “… I appreciate it that he’s trying to run away from his record. This is a record that coddles and puts criminals in this city before law abiding citizens. I will not do that.”

Keller countered that he’s proud of that vote and said he will never run away from his record.

“The reason why I voted for that is because it was about consistent policy statewide,” he said. “And that’s also why law enforcement supported it. And that’s why now it’s the current law, and even Gov. Martinez supported that law. I’m proud to say that that law has nothing to do with anything that Dan just talked about.”

Keller said the bill was about good governance.

“There is a reason why the police officers in this town are supporting my crime plan,” he said. “There is a reason why firefighters are supporting our crime plan. There is a reason why the West Side chamber of commerce is supporting our crime plan. There is a reason why Our Revolution is supporting our crime plan. Because it is the right plan for our city and because they believe that I have the right experience set of getting things done, of accountability and of actually having experience managing a department and managing people and turning things around. That’s what we need in our police department. Not just talking points about national issues or about hiring more cops.”

The final clash came during the candidates’ closing remarks, with Lewis latching onto the ethics complaint that has been filed against Keller for in-kind contributions to his campaign. He also referenced the political action committee that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Keller’s bid. Lewis noted that he isn’t financing his campaign with public dollars.

“Tim is taking public dollars, and then he’s got a private slush fund with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he’s taken cash in-kind donations to pay off his political consultants,” Lewis said. “This auditor needs to be audited. We don’t need somebody who starts in office … already under ethics charges dealing with ethical issues. We want an honest mayor who is willing to get in and get started and to be able to make the changes …”

Keller countered that he made a difficult choice back in February.

“I said that I was not going to participate in the big money political system that is a cancer on our entire country and on our democracy. And I’ve tried every step of the way to do that differently,” he said. “I want to thank the 6,000 people in Albuquerque who gave us $5 to actually give us a chance to get to City Hall a different way, in a way that isn’t beholden to contractors and special interest. And so for me, that is the only choice that I can own.”

Keller said the in-kind contributions his campaign accepted were allowed, and he called the ethics complaint “a partisan cheap shot.”

During the Oct. 3 election, Keller received 39 percent of the vote. Lewis came in second, with nearly 23 percent.