Councilors Chris Rivera and Renee Villarreal don’t have to try to sway voters in any other way. Running unopposed in council districts 3 and 1, respectively, they are assured of winning reelection during Tuesday’s election.
“This is the first year of having our election in November, and I’m surprised how many people don’t realize that,” said Rivera, who is destined to be elected to a third term on the council. “Even though I’m unopposed, I think it’s important for people to get out and vote.”
Rivera added that there are competitive City Council elections in districts 2 and 4, as well as one school board district and two positions on the Santa Fe Community College Governing Body.
In addition, Municipal Judge Virginia Vigil is running for reelection, though she, too, is unopposed. So is Rudy Garcia, who is running to keep his seat on the school board.
The municipal election and elections for Santa Fe Public Schools school board and Santa Fe Community College were moved from the spring of even numbered years to November of odd numbered years as a result of the Local Election Act passed by the state Legislature in 2018. The purpose of the act was to consolidate elections in an effort to avoid voter fatigue and standardize November as the month in which both the municipal and general elections are held.
But that hasn’t sunk in for many eligible voters.
“I don’t think (Tuesday’s election) has been on the radar for a lot of people. So one of my goals is to let people know about the election in November,” said Villarreal.
It’s difficult to tell whether moving the non-partisan elections has had its desired effect of improving turnout.
“There’s no way I can predict anything until all the numbers are in,” said County Clerk Geraldine Salazar, whose office is now running the municipal elections that City Clerk Yolanda Vigil used to be in charge of before the change in the law. “I can say that voters seem to appreciate that everything is on one ballot and that we have a regular election cycle for non-partisan elections.”
As of late afternoon on Thursday, Salazar said that 236 of 806 absentee ballots that were issued had been returned and just shy of 4,000 people had cast early votes.
Looking back at past recent elections, a total of 7,916 early and absentee votes were cast in the mayoral race of the March 2018 municipal election. In 2016, 228 people voted absentee and 1,531 voted early.
School elections tend to draw a lower turnout.
In the February 2017 SFPS school board and SFCC governing body elections, 30 people cast absentee ballots and 1,613 people voted early.
Two years earlier, 146 people voted absentee and another 655 voted early.
Unopposed, but campaigning
Despite being unopposed, Villarreal said she prepared for this election as if she was.
“Even though I’m unopposed, I don’t take that for granted, and I won’t rest on my laurels,” she said.
She and her team of volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, collecting enough $5 donations to qualify for public campaign financing. She uses Facebook to announce campaign events and meetings, has put out yard signs, attended candidate forums and sought endorsements.
Because she was up for reelection, in early September, she started holding what she calls “Spill the Beans” events where she meets with constituents to hear their concerns. She’s held four of them so far and plans to continue holding them on a quarterly basis after the election.
“We on the council have been trying to have more contact with the public by meeting them where they are at. It’s one aspect of trying to improve community engagement,” she said.
That’s also why she’s attended candidate forums.
“I still participate in those because I think it’s important for elected officials to express their stance on topics and express their values,” she said, adding that it gives her an opportunity to hear from her potential colleagues on the council, as well.
Villarreal has also spent money on her inevitable reelection win. According to campaign finance reports, she spent $140 from the $1,500 in public campaign funding she received on label sheets. She said she also might pay two campaign workers from that account.
In an interview, she explained that those are stickers with “Re-elect” printed on them that she can place on the same 100 yard signs she used four years ago when she first ran for City Council.
Villarreal acknowledged that yard signs and getting out in the community helps promote name recognition, which would benefit her if she chose to run for some other elected position. She considered becoming a candidate for the Congressional District 3 U.S. House seat being vacated by Ben Ray Luján, who is running for U.S. Senate instead, but decided against it. She’s not ruling out a bid for another elected position in the future.
“I never planned on being in political office, and the reason why I did was because I needed to see a lot of people who looked like me or represented my experiences,” she said when asked if she had aspirations to run for a higher office. “You never say never, but there are other things I also want to do in life and not be just an elected official.”
Rivera says he’s done a minimal amount of campaigning. He and fellow District 3 councilor Roman Abeyta meet monthly with constituents, he says, and he has gone to three candidate forums he’s been invited to.
“I do it just to be engaged with neighbors and to let them know you’re out there and that there’s an election coming up,” he said. He had about 20 yard signs out, but recently collected those so volunteers can wave them near polling places on Election Day.
Rivera, who in the past flirted with the idea of running for mayor, said he might like to run for higher office one day.
“Possibly,” he said when asked the question. “But I want to focus on this election and these four years, and then see what’s available.”
Asked if he would be interested in running for the House District 45 seat that is opening up now that Rep. Jim Trujillo decided not to run again, Rivera said, “Right now, I’m just focusing on this election and trying to get through Tuesday. Then I’ll figure out what the next steps are.”