SANTA FE, N.M. — The final curtain has dropped on a long series of mayoral candidate forums leading up to Election Day on Tuesday.
The forum fest finished with a double feature, opening with a student-led forum Thursday morning at Santa Fe High School and closing with a lunchtime affair before the Rotary Club at the downtown Hilton Hotel.
“I think the two (on Thursday) puts us over 20,” said candidate Joseph Maestas, who did not attend the final forums because of a death in the family the day before.
By his count, corroborated by fellow candidate Kate Noble, there have been 21 forums over the past 12 weeks as candidates try to curry as much favor as possible from Santa Fe voters ahead of the first municipal election in New Mexico history to be decided by the ranked-choice method of voting.
But none of the candidates interviewed for this story thought 21 was too many.
“I think you’d have to say it’s the right number, because that’s how many this community wants to do,” said Noble, who as a former business news reporter and economic development specialist knows a little about supply and demand. “I honestly think that it’s great there’s been so much interest in the forums and people continue to show up.”
But doesn’t it wear on the candidates? Averaging nearly two forums a week for three months must take a toll.
“I don’t know about candidate fatigue,” Noble said, “but it has become a little bit… Put it this way, hearing the same answers from candidates is not always the most interesting way to spend time.”
Peter Ives, one of three city councilors running for mayor, made it to all but one of the forums.
“I certainly didn’t mind the number of forums, but I think they could have been done more effectively as a whole,” he said.
Ives said the candidates were often asked the same questions over and over again. “I wish there were some way to aggregate the responses,” he said. “There must be some way to capture that in some form of a voters’ guide to avoid the duplication of questions.”
Most forums follow similar formats. Candidates are introduced and allowed to make an opening statement. They are asked a question and take turns answering under a time limit, and they often get some time at the end for concluding remarks. It’s a good way for candidates to get into the issues in some depth and for voters to evaluate responses side by side.
Time runs short
The time limit can be somewhat restrictive.
“If I had any real criticism it’s that the time frame for answering very complex questions in the amount of time allotted,” Ives said. “I think longer answers that allow folks to be more detailed would be a significant benefit to the process.”
Another candidate, entrepreneur and author Alan Webber agreed.
“If you’re asked the solution to the housing crisis, you’re probably not going to get a good answer in just one minute,” he said. “Personally, I think the more you can add energy to the conversation the better. So maybe fewer questions and more time to speak about issues in more detail.”
Some forums made an effort to mix it up. Webber mentioned the Jan. 18 forum at the Lensic Performing Arts Theater, where follow-up questions were in play and the candidates were allowed to ask one of the other candidates a question.
The forum put on by Creative the Vote last month added a twist by asking questions specific to each candidate relating to how to improve the creative economy in Santa Fe.
The candidates may not agree on everything, but there was a strong consensus among them that the forums are worth the time. They’re good opportunities to reach the electorate directly, talk about the issues in some depth and lay out their vision for the city’s future.
The forums have been hosted by groups as diverse as the League of Women Voters, The Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce, the pro-bicycle and anti-gentrification Chainbreaker Collective and New Mexicans for Money out of Politics.
“I’ve really enjoyed the forums,” said Ron Trujillo, who has been campaigning the longest, having announced his candidacy a nearly a year ago. “I like it because you’re hearing from different organizations. Not every organization has the same issues it’s concerned with. That’s the reason you have these forums, so we know the issues facing our community.”
Maestas agrees, adding that they also serve to hold candidates accountable.
“There are community organizations, or advocacy organizations or special interest organizations that want to hold their own forums to ask candidates questions about specific topics and they want candidates to take a position and make sure they follow through on their campaign commitments,” he said. “The beauty of it is that as a candidate you can tell from the questions raised what they think the important issues are.”
He added that the forums let voters judge the candidates’ composure and “ability to think on their feet.”
Not all the forums have followed that format.
Maestas singled out Reconnect Café at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center. It had candidates interacting with attendees, each going from table to table to address a different topic at each table.
“It was an informal roundtable style forum. Each table had a facilitator and we went from table to table every 20 minutes or so,” he said.
Trujillo also said he liked the forums that offered a give and take. “It’s important to have that dialogue,” he said.
Noble, a school board member, said she liked the forums put on by schoolchildren. The one at Monte del Sol charter school offered a wrinkle and covered topics, such as immigration, the environment and education.
“That was by far my favorite format,” she said. “Each candidate was asked a different question, and having it come from the kids, with their clarity and perspective, was really great. And that we were answering different questions within a subject area made it more dynamic.”
Let’s get interactive
What’s missing from most forums, Noble said, was real interaction between candidates and an opportunity to respond to what they heard, “because not everything that’s being said is accurate.”
“That’s the difference between a forum and a debate, and we really didn’t have a debate,” Ives said when asked if there should be more interaction between the candidates. “If we had had some debates, that would have likely been a good thing.”
Thursday morning’s forum at Santa Fe High followed the traditional format but focused on affordable housing because that’s an issue students may all soon be facing if they want to live in Santa Fe after they graduate high school or college.
Kim Shanahan, executive director of the Santa Fe Home Builders Association, worked with the students to narrow the scope of the questions.
“Affordable housing is something that not only affects the city but relates to them in their future. They might not be moving out of the house anytime soon because they can’t pay the rent,” he said.
“We tried for specific, challenging questions to put (the candidates) in a little bit of a spot.”
“Why is it illegal to live in the industrial area on the east side of Siler Road, and can that be changed?” was one question. “How can you connect with youth so they can advocate to defeat NIMBYism?” was another.
There were six questions related to affordable housing. Toward the end, students could ask questions about any topic. They asked about whether Santa Fe should continue to be a sanctuary city and what would they do to improve school safety.
About 100 students attended.
About the same number of people attended the Rotary Club forum at the Hilton. What was different about that forum was the candidates were treated to a meal before fielding questions.
So now the long string of mayoral candidate forums are over. But they’ll be back in another four years. People seem to like them and they are an effective way of reaching voters directly.
“The only way I have to evaluate the number of forums is by the turnout, and the turnout has been really high,” Webber said. “People are tuning in and are very much engaged in this election, and that’s what you want.”