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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
If Ken Sanchez had an inner circle, everybody he knew probably felt like part of it.
The longtime Albuquerque leader did not consider his fellow city councilors as mere colleagues but rather brothers and sisters. And his constituents were not just his West Side neighbors but also his friends.
Sanchez’s death this week at 63 has left a gaping hole in the community, according to those who worked alongside him.
“It’s just hard for me to put in words just the way he was,” recently retired City Councilor Brad Winter said. “He was a role model of what a good elected official should be.”
Councilor Isaac Benton said Sanchez was a consistently warm and optimistic leader who had a profound impact on the city and the council itself.
“We’re a small community in Albuquerque, (and) Ken was an outstanding member of it,” Benton said.
Granddaughter Natalie Zamora said she always knew that she shared her grandpa with the rest of the city.
He was a regular presence at University of New Mexico basketball games and at Mac’s La Sierra restaurant, where he was known for his miniature meals – a chicken finger and salad or sometimes just one small pancake, Zamora said. And no matter where Sanchez went in public, Zamora said, someone usually stopped him to talk. He gladly obliged, she said.
“You say people love their job, but he really, really did,” Zamora said in an interview in Sanchez’s ninth-floor office at City Hall. “He’s just so good at spreading himself to everyone – no matter who needed him, he was there.”
An Albuquerque native who worked at his family’s tax and accounting firm, Sanchez spent most of the past 25 years in public office. He served as a Bernalillo County Commissioner from 1995 to 2002. Voters first elected him to the City Council in 2005 to represent a district that spanned most of the area west of the Rio Grande between Central and Montaño. He won three subsequent reelection bids.
Many know him as a relentless advocate for the city’s West Side, pointing to several major area projects that happened while he represented the district. They include the West Mesa Aquatic Center, the Patrick J. Baca Library, the fire station at Central and 57th Street, and the Regional Sports Complex. Recently named after late community advocate Jennifer Riordan, the venue already has five baseball fields, and Sanchez had been working to fund an additional indoor sports complex.
Others have touted his support for first responders.
He and City Councilor Trudy Jones co-sponsored a 2018 gross receipts tax increase that is expected to yield around $60 million this year, most of it designated for public safety.
The Albuquerque Police Officers Association called him a “tireless advocate” for the city’s police officers.
“He worked to ensure that our officers are paid a fair wage, and he fought for their voices to be heard when doing so wasn’t the popular thing,” the union said in a statement Thursday. “We are deeply grateful for his service to this community and for his passion to make our police department better.”
Former Mayor Richard Berry said the whole city “is a better place” because of Sanchez, whom he called a statesman.
“I held Ken in high regard and enjoyed working with him and his wonderful staff during my time as mayor,” Berry said in a statement.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday called Sanchez a “fierce advocate” for the West Side.
Former City Councilor Michael Cadigan said Sanchez was indefatigable, managing to attend what seemed like every West Side community meeting and event. Cadigan, who represented a Northwest Albuquerque district, said Sanchez constantly worked to ensure the city’s fast-growing West Side had the services and facilities it needed.
“He knew how government worked and knew what levers to press and knew how to do it without being angry or without being small or petty – a real gentleman,” Cadigan said.
But colleagues say he also thought about the bigger picture.
Benton noted that Sanchez often supported Downtown Albuquerque projects, while Winter said the West Side councilor also backed needed facilities in the Northeast Heights.
Winter said that he served with 34 people during his own 20-year career on the council and that Sanchez, a Democrat, stood out for both his bipartisanship and his kindness. Even when he and Winter, a Republican, disagreed or cast opposite votes, Winter said, the two were always on good terms.
“Off the dais, we were friends; we got along very well and just worked together – but he was like that with everybody,” Winter said.
Sanchez played a major part in one of the City Council’s highest-profile 2019 votes, introducing an amendment that significantly reduced the scope of the city’s plastic bag ban by exempting restaurants and dry cleaners, as many critics had requested. Benton, one of four Democrats who had co-sponsored the more sweeping original legislation, said he and Sanchez mostly agreed but their rare disagreements never strained their relationship.
“(Disagreements) didn’t matter – the next minute you’d go to a dinner break (in a meeting) and we’re fine again,” he said. “That was a great thing about Ken: He was a real people person.”
The Albuquerque City Council has canceled its scheduled Monday meeting after Ken Sanchez’s death.
“The city needs time to grieve, and to process the unprecedented loss of one of our sitting council members before going back to business as usual,” Council President Klarissa Peña said in a statement Thursday.
The council is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 22.
Mayor Tim Keller, who is responsible for selecting Sanchez’s replacement, is not yet discussing the process.
“For now, we are really focused on supporting the family and the community’s grieving,” spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn said in a statement. “The right time to outline what’s next in filling the vacancy will be a few weeks down the line.”