People have noticed. If there’s one thing that has stood out about this year’s mayoral race in Santa Fe, it’s been its civility.
During the many mayoral forums that have been held so far, nary a negative word has been spoken by any candidate about another. In fact, candidates have been saying nice things. People have been darn right polite.
“So far, that’s been the order of the day,” Alan Webber, one of five candidates seeking to become Santa Fe’s next mayor, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think the process we’ve adopted encourages fisticuffs.”
Webber was referring to the ranked-choice method of voting adopted by voters in a charter amendment nearly 10 years ago. It was not implemented until this year because software capable of conducting a ranked-choice election wasn’t available for certification by the Secretary of State’s office until a few months ago.
Santa Fe’s March 6 municipal election will be the first in New Mexico decided by ranked-choice, sometimes called “instant runoff.” About a dozen other American cities, including Minneapolis and San Francisco, have also adopted ranked-choice voting – the same method used to determine Oscar winners.
Often abbreviated as RCV, its proponents say one of its benefits is that it discourages negative campaigning, which may be what’s happening in Santa Fe now.
The idea is that candidates don’t want to turn off supporters of their opponents, because second- or even third-choice votes can help a candidate win the required majority tally in a multi-candidate race.
RCV applies in elections where there are more than two candidates. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate ends up with more than 50 percent of the votes after all first-choice votes are counted, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes for that candidate are then distributed to the other candidates accordingly.
If still no candidate surpasses the 50 percent threshold after tallying all the votes in the second round, the process is repeated. It goes on until someone gets more than 50 percent of the votes counted.
Even with RCV in play, the five candidates for Santa Fe mayor – City Councilors Peter Ives, Joseph Maestas, and Ron Trujillo; school board member Kate Noble; and Webber – agree that one reason things have stayed so civil so far is because they’re all are pretty nice people and like each other.
“I’m running against four people I consider friends,” said Ives, the consummate gentleman who took the time to compliment his colleagues on their civility at the end of one early campaign forum.
“I have respect for all the candidates,” Trujillo said. “And I respect that we’ve all been respectful. That’s what this campaign should be about. People want to know where you stand on the issues. They want to know your vision for the city.”
Will PACs show up?
But candidates say the tenor could change as the March election draws closer. It could come directly from another competitor’s mouth or some other political force.
So far, there’s been no sign of any independent political action committees entering the fray, as happened during the 2014 mayoral election. But if PACs show up, that could change the tone.
“PACs basically have no obligation to be collegial or nice. In fact, they are usually quite the opposite,” Maestas said, adding he felt PACs have no place in politics.
And PACs can strike quickly and without warning. The election is more than five weeks away, so there’s plenty of time. “PACs got involved last time,” Noble said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a direct mail campaign by a PAC.”
In 2014, a PAC supporting current Mayor Javier Gonzales launched a direct mail campaign against rival Patti Bushee the week before the election. There’s no telling what effect it had on the outcome, but Gonzales won with 43 percent of the vote to Bushee’s 29 percent, with Bill Dimas a close third. Gonzales had support from outside groups financially backed by the AFL-CIO and public employee unions.
“I hope (the civil tone) can at least stay at this level, but I have a feeling things will get a little more intense,” Noble said.
Last year, Maestas and Trujillo were targeted by PAC mailers over a proposed soda tax to pay for early childhood education programs. The proposal was rejected in a May special election. Maestas and Trujillo had called for putting the election off for a year. (Trujillo eventually was the only councilor to vote against putting the soda tax before the voters).
“It hurt me to see those negative ads come out against me. I took a stance against (the special election) and they attack me and say I hate children?” Trujillo said recently, adding that the perpetrators didn’t even know him. “People in Santa Fe know who I am. Until you know me, don’t make judgments.”
Maestas reacted by sending a salvo over social media, calling those in charge of the PAC “paid hacks.”
“That could be the next major development in this election,” Maestas said of the potential emergence of an independent committee supporting a particular candidate. He speculated it could come from the soda industry or progressive supporters of Webber who also were involved in the 2014 mayor’s race.
“I know it won’t come from me,” he said.
Maestas said he wouldn’t rule out ramping up the rhetoric himself. “I have to get up there and jockey for position,” he said.
Ives said the influence of a PAC and negative campaigning probably wouldn’t be a good strategy in this election, where one of the big issues is bringing together what’s now viewed by many as a divided community as a result of the soda tax fight, in which about $4 million was spent by the opposing sides.
“If you’re going to bring people together across all the divides, it’s not going to be done if you’re out name-calling and pointing fingers,” he said.
The fact that all three mayoral candidates in 2014 took public financing for their campaigns – $60,000 in taxpayer money – but a PAC supporting Gonzales essentially doubled his war chest left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Gonzales faced criticism over the issue. He said he didn’t want or need the PACs’ support but that they had a right to participate in the election.
“It’s a part of politics I would love to see changed,” Ives said of the influence of PACs.
Trujillo is the only candidate getting public financing this year. The others can raise as much campaign moolah as they want from private sources.
While rhetoric on the campaign trail has been calm, Noble said she’s been hearing things.
“There are nasty whisper campaigns out there, and that is something I have had a hard time getting to grips with,” she said. “Because I have heard things about myself that are mean and incredibly untrue.”
Noble didn’t repeat them and didn’t name names. But she said she’s already hearing some of her rivals stretching the truth, stretching the facts and “being willing to tell untruths, otherwise known as lies.”
And Noble said she expects whispers to get louder because the stakes are high. “One person becomes mayor and four don’t,” she said.
Noble said she’ll always work to correct the record but doesn’t plan to engage in “nastiness.” She cites Michelle Obama’s phrase: “When they go low, we go high.”
“That’s a good one to keep in mind,” she said.
Ives said he likes RCV because it is designed to help keep things civil. “Hopefully, it will curb the inclination some may have about trying to go to the dark side,” he said. “I think (voters) are sick of it.”
RCV supporters cite polls and studies that show RCV in fact keeps campaign attacks down. For instance, a Donovan-Tolbert candidate survey found that 29 percent of candidates involved in RCV elections said they felt they were portrayed negatively by their campaign rivals, compared to 40 percent of candidates in plurality elections.
A 2013 Eagleton Poll, conducted at Rutgers University, surveyed voters in RCV cities like Minneapolis and Cambridge, Mass., and in others like Boston and Tulsa with traditional win-by-plurality elections. It indicated that 5 percent thought ranked-choice candidates criticized each other “a great deal of the time,” compared to 25 percent in cities that conducted elections by plurality.
Webber was the one candidate interviewed for this story who said he would be surprised to see a PAC emerge at this juncture. And he said that even though President Donald Trump seems to have “given people permission to say anything they want,” he hopes the Santa Fe election stays respectful.
“I learned during the campaign for governor that if you show respect for people, then they will respect you,” said Webber, who ran for governor in the Democratic primary in 2014.
RCV voting is a new dynamic. “It makes for some odd interactions with voters,” Webber said. “You say, ‘If I’m not your first choice, I hope you’ll make me your second choice.’ ”
Webber said he has “no appetite” for negative campaigning himself but some candidates may eventually take the gloves off.
“It’s a nice group of people,” he said of his fellow candidates. “But candidates may start to think, ‘Is there such a thing as being too nice?’ ”