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In Senate, Keller ‘stood up to overreach of power by governors’

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – During his six years in the New Mexico Senate, Tim Keller earned a reputation as a business-minded progressive who led the charge for reform following high-profile scandals in state agencies.

While he endured ribbing from colleagues for his tendency to jump on hot-button issues, Keller also drew praise for sponsoring bills that restructured the State Investment Council and the scandal-plagued Public Regulation Commission.

Keller, now running in Albuquerque’s mayoral runoff election, also teamed up with Republicans on some bills, including 2011 legislation to tighten New Mexico’s law that gives a preference to in-state contractors.

But he was also a reliable Democratic vote on most controversial legislation that came up in the Senate, voting in favor of a 2009 bill to repeal the state’s death penalty and against a 2011 bill that created the state’s A-F grading system for public schools.

“He was more liberal than I was, but he always listened and was respectful of leadership,” recalled former Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat. “You could tell he had some goals and objectives.”

In all, Keller introduced 206 pieces of legislation during his six-year tenure at the Roundhouse, a figure that includes bills, proposed constitutional amendments and non-binding memorials.

Of that total amount, 30 were either signed into law or otherwise enacted and 14 measures were vetoed.

Legislation axed either by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez or her predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, included separate bills to remove the governor from the State Investment Council, to require an annual analysis of the state’s various tax breaks, and to give the Legislature more authority to obtain confidential information from state agencies.

From 2009 through 2014, Keller said he had more of his bills vetoed than almost any other legislator, if not the most, because much of his proposed legislation called for changes to existing agencies or more disclosure from the executive branch.

“I think it’s because I stood up to overreach of power by governors,” he said.

A run ‘against the system’

Keller first arrived at the Roundhouse in 2009 after knocking off longtime Democratic senator Shannon Robinson the year before in Albuquerque’s Senate District 17.

He was one of three progressive candidates to oust more moderate Democratic incumbents in the 2008 primary election, a development that some predicted would shake up the Senate’s old guard.

“I literally ran against the system,” Keller said of his 2008 Senate bid.

However, conservative Democrats maintained influential posts after the shake-up, and a severe economic downturn led to several years of spending cuts and tax hikes to balance the state’s budget.

Keller got five of his bills passed in his first legislative session – a high number for a freshman lawmaker – and also won approval for a memorial that officially recognized a diverse swath of southeast Albuquerque as the “International District.” It had been derisively referred to as the “war zone,” a moniker that’s still sometimes used.

Sen. Tim Keller was a member of the Senate Rules Committee in this 2014 photo. He left the Senate to become state auditor and now is running to become mayor of Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Keller was re-elected in 2012 and was subsequently elected by fellow Senate Democrats to serve as majority whip. Former Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen described Keller’s quick rise as unusual, and attributed it to his congenial nature, hard work and the fact that he had earned the trust of the Democratic caucus.

“He was reliable in votes that were necessary, but Tim always voted his conscience,” Sanchez told the Journal.

Keller, for his part, described his transition from political newcomer to part of the Senate establishment as part of a maturation process.

“If anything, what I learned to do is push the envelope, but get things accomplished,” Keller said in a recent interview.

‘Obvious retaliation’

While Keller was prolific as a state senator, he largely managed to steer clear of controversy.

Some GOP lawmakers he worked with, such as Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, still have mostly positive things to say about Keller, nearly three years after his departure from the Legislature.

“He and I differed a lot on different policies, but we worked together pretty well,” said Bandy, who teamed up with Keller on several bills, including the 2013 legislation to add minimum qualifications for PRC members.

However, Keller’s opponent in the mayoral runoff, Albuquerque city councilor Dan Lewis, has blasted Keller for being soft on crime during his Senate tenure, including voting for the 2009 death penalty repeal, and for a 2011 bill that would have barred cities and counties from enacting or enforcing local ordinances aimed at restricting where convicted sex offenders can live.

Keller has defended his votes on those bills.

Meanwhile, Keller’s name also surfaced in an out-of-state breach-of-contract lawsuit in which a former employee of a Native American consulting firm for which Keller worked alleged the former state senator, among others, was “improperly paid” to help the company win contracts from Native American clients.

Keller was not a party in the lawsuit and denied ever soliciting work for the firm, the California-based Blue Stone Strategy Group LLC, or any undue influence from the company in his annual public infrastructure funding requests.

Keller left the job after he was elected state auditor in 2014 – he also vacated his Senate seat after winning – and described criticism stemming from the lawsuit as “obvious retaliation” from the state Republican Party for investigating possible misdeeds by Martinez administration officials.

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