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Editor’s Note: Albuquerque native Tim Keller has overcome challenges on his way to major accomplishments in his 40 years, including a landslide victory in the mayor’s race. Just three weeks into his term, he sat down for an interview on his life, his hopes and the challenges ahead.
Tim Keller was with his kids at a Target store shortly after being elected Albuquerque’s new mayor.
“The staff lined up and they were clapping as I was pushing my cart,” he said in an interview the week before Christmas. “It was like the Supermarket Sweep. It was so powerful.”
“It’s not like they were all big fans, they were just so happy to see a new sort of vision. Maybe a different path for Albuquerque. I don’t know that it necessarily has to do with me.”
A progressive Democrat with a reputation for working across the political aisle and with business, Keller racked up a landslide win last month to become Albuquerque’s 10th mayor. He campaigned while holding the position of State Auditor and was previously elected twice to the New Mexico Senate representing the city’s International District.
That’s an impressive record for a guy without a résumé – or at least one that’s written on paper.
“Sorry, but we don’t have a CV for the mayor, so we pasted a bio below,” his office said in an email before the interview. “Hope that helps.”
The lack of a formal curriculum vitae – some people hand out CVs that run dozens of pages – in a way captures the self-effacing, personable style of the new mayor, who just turned 40. Same with his recounting of the Target story without a trace of arrogance, but a touch of amazement.
Perhaps that’s because not everything has come easily to Tim Keller.
He has struggled with dyslexia all his life. There wasn’t much in the way of programming for the learning disability when he was a child, so his parents enrolled him at Annunciation elementary school so he could have small class sizes and extra attention.
“I’m grateful they did that,” he said. “I still read at about a third grade level, so that saved me in many ways.”
He also learned to cope.
“I haven’t read a book in 10 years, but I’m a voracious listener – about four (audio) books a month.”
“In school, I got really good at first paragraph, last paragraph, look at the exhibits and then try to answer the questions. But I also developed a pretty good photographic memory, so that helps in all sorts of ways. You learn compensating skills.”
At grad school at Harvard, where he earned an MBA with honors, “I was old enough and education had caught up enough that I got help. So, I re-learned how to read and do math in my head with clay blocks when I was 27. It was awesome.
“So I’m a little better now, especially in short bursts.”
The pull of politics
Keller got the political bug early in life.
“I remember watching C-Span as a kid,” he said.
Growing up around Del Norte High School at Montgomery and San Mateo, Keller’s dad was a Realtor, property manager and loan officer who ended up running Union Savings Bank. His mom was a public school teacher who later became a stay-at-home mom.
The family is Irish Catholic and his father also attended Notre Dame and was in the Army, “so we had a well disciplined household.”
Keller was an Eagle Scout but in response to a question says, “No, I was not a perfect kid.”
“There were a few fights in high school. And I ran into my sixth grade teacher from Annunciation while campaigning, and she reminded me that I got 38 detentions in her class,” mostly for arguing with teachers or “mischievous pranks.”
Keller graduated from Saint Pius X High School, where he was active in student government and participated in a program called Model UN. In his sophomore year, “I got to go to sit in the Roundhouse and see how the legislative process worked.”
He went on from SPX to Notre Dame.
He graduated and later spent three years working in Cambodia for Digital Divide Data, which employs and trains disadvantaged persons and land mine victims in the southeast Asian country.
He then attended Harvard Business School.
But politics took a back seat to pragmatism.
“I needed to get a job to pay grad school debt,” he said.
Keller went to work for Booz Allen in Houston doing strategic planning and marketing for businesses. He still considered Albuquerque home and commuted to Houston.
But the pull of politics was strong.
“Instead of taking off for wherever on vacation, I would go to Santa Fe and just shadow legislators. I kept trying to get a job there but could never get one. So I would bring people popcorn and stuff and watch the process.”
He saw that in the Senate “you could actually pass bills. I got to see stuff happen that was big. Like the lottery scholarship.”
“So for two years I did that. It was like my own self-created little externship.”
Keller had moved back to Albuquerque and bought a house in what was then called the War Zone – a name he successfully fought to change to International District.
The Senate seat was held by Democrat Shannon Robinson, a colorful character who found himself on the edge of scandals from time to time.
“I bought my house – infill housing in the district was really cheap – and got involved in the neighborhood. “There were like six people running against Shannon, and I was helping them. I remember we all went to dinner the week before Thanksgiving, and I thought it was like a fun little meeting to organize door knocking, and they were like, ‘You have no life and you don’t have a job or a family and you’re really interested in this stuff, so why don’t you run and we’ll help you.'”
“And I was like, ‘OK, I can actually do that.’ ”
He went on to win that election and has been in office ever since.
An interfaith marriage
Keller has a life now – one that resembles a Hallmark Channel movie script.
Married to Liz Kistin Keller, a former Obama fellow who spent time in Africa, they have two children, Jack. 2, and Maya, 4, and now live in the Country Club area.
Tim and Liz had known of each other for a couple of years before someone – he had earlier met her mother, a nurse, while knocking on doors during a campaign in the International District – set them up to go for a beer at Gecko’s.
“Liz was home on vacation and said, I’ll go meet this guy everybody keeps bothering me about.”
“We really hit it off. I got her to move back to Albuquerque by proposing.”
How did the family celebrate the holidays?
“We have an interfaith marriage, so we just finished Hanukkah and put the menorah inside the advent wreath. So it’s like a bonfire, and the kids love it. We cut a Christmas tree in the Jemez – a 40-year tradition for the Keller family – so we blend to celebrate with different sides of the family. My side will go to church, and Santa will have arrived. Kids open presents youngest to oldest – then we play football.”
Sartan black and gold
High school football was a big part of Keller’s life.
“See this green mark,” he asks as he proudly displays his black SPX helmet in his office. “That’s from West Las Vegas. ”
Keller started at quarterback his sophomore and junior years before “a transfer came in from California who was better, so I was backup as a senior.”
Defense? Second string free safety. “I was never really very fast.
But he clearly enjoys swapping high school football stories.
“Having to memorize the plays in that role? I still dream about it. I still dream about both playing and trying to learn the offense.
“And I can still hear that little sound your mouthpiece makes when it dangles from your face mask.”
As for a drill known as “Bull in the Ring” – frowned upon now because of potential head injury – Keller said he felt like he was back as the bull in the ring during the mayoral debates “because everybody would attack me. Bam. Hit from this side. Bam. Hit from that side.”
Keller played for the legendary coach San Juan Mendoza, who just retired, and says his experience wearing the Sartan black and gold is “one of the top five things I’ve done in my life.”
‘The music of empowerment’
Back to that informal bio.
It says Keller is a fan of heavy metal music and a food devotee – which he says should not be confused with being a gourmet.
“I love food. I love trying new food of any kind. If I see a commercial for new food, I try it. I can tell you of every restaurant, fast food and otherwise, over the last 10 years.”
His favorite heavy metal group is the Brazilian band Sepultura, which was influenced by groups such as Metallica and Slayer. The band has been described as both “death metal” and “thrash metal,” and a review published in the Phoenix New Times described its style as “machine gun tempo mayhem” and said members “love to attack organized religion and repressive government.”
Keller said the name Sepultura stands for “funeral pyre.”
“They are awesome,” he said. “It’s the music of empowerment.”
Asked to name his top accomplishment in the Senate, he says, “you asked for one but I’ll give you three.”
“Renaming the International District was not a small thing for that community. The community really didn’t like the name ‘War Zone.’
“I ran on changing it and the community came up with the name International District – which took me seven town halls.
“Getting changes in the in-state business preference – which you guys and the Journal did great work on – created local jobs and actually mattered. It also allowed me to cut my chops with bringing disparate groups together. So I had to get labor to agree with business to agree with open government folks.”
The third accomplishment was successfully pushing for changes in the makeup of the State Investment Council after the pay-to-play scandals in the Richardson Administration – schemes that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
“That was just about standing up to entrenched power,” he said.
Keller has plenty of challenges ahead.
Among them: He has pledged to increase the ranks of APD by 400 officers – a tough task given police manpower shortages nationwide, and the fact that the city is looking at a budget deficit. Will he be able to use his office to help guide a sick leave ordinance that addresses problems without killing jobs?
A strong advocate of transparency in government, he said we must find a way to have transparency in the procurement process, but do so without creating so much red tape that government uses sole source provisions and other loopholes.
“In those cases where they do that, there is almost no transparency,” he said. “So we turned the corner on transparency, but now the system is finding workarounds to transparency and accountability provisions.”
“The red tape problem is real, so you’ve got to solve both those problems.”
And he has a broader goal for the city that goes to the way we define ourselves.
“Structurally, the city has decentralized itself over time. There are pros and cons, but we have the Water Authority, we have AMAFCA, we have MRCOG, the City Council has its own Planning Department. And basically we have nine cities, one for each council district. Even in this building, we have 21 departments.
“So what we are going to try to do is get back to one Albuquerque. It’s not about who’s in the county and who’s in the city or what council district you’re in. It’s not parks and rec doing one after-school program and cultural affairs doing another.”
“It’s become a problem in our collective identity as a community. It’s not good. In any metro area, it’s one city.”
‘A dead end street’
Keller is well aware that no Albuquerque mayor ever finished his final term on a political high note – although Martin Chavez served three terms and R.J. Berry had high favorability ratings and was re-elected to a second term by a wide margin before a crime wave and the controversial ART project cratered his numbers. Berry had announced before his first campaign that he would serve no more than two terms and did not seek re-election.
The mayor’s job is “a dead end street” with lots of difficult things to deal with, Keller said.
“When I decided to run, I realized it might be the last job I ever get politically, so I’m ready for that. I think the key is to go through that and leave it all on the field in the sense you try to do everything you wanted to do. And then if it doesn’t work out, you gave it your best.”