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BernCo candidates discuss future opportunities

George Walter Benson

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

COVID-19 may still be wreaking havoc with nearly every facet of American life, but George “Walt” Benson and Wende Schwingendorf see opportunity in the crisis.

Wende Schwingendorf

The candidates seeking to represent the northern district of Bernalillo County say there is potential for a silver lining, saying the county could leverage its relatively low rate of coronavirus infections compared with other metropolitan areas along with its other qualities – such as a relatively low cost of living – to make long-term gains.

Benson, a small-business owner and husband of a physician assistant, said it’s a good time to address the “shortage” in the local health care workforce.

“This is a great time to attract providers from cities on the East and West coasts, developing a program that recruits and retains clinicians that will allow us to have greater services here in the community,” Benson, a Republican, said in a virtual candidate town hall hosted this week by the commercial real estate development association NAIOP.

Schwingendorf, meanwhile, said the county should seize the telecommuting moment.

“I also think we should explore the potential in the permanent increase in remote work that’s being brought about by the pandemic – with more affordable housing than many U.S. cities, we could benefit by attracting these remote workers who in time could actually end up owning businesses in our community,” said Schwingendorf, a Democrat.

In a discussion dominated by the pandemic and the economy, Benson said he wants to see the county focus more on incentivizing growth through mechanisms such as industrial revenue bonds, which provide tax breaks for companies that build or expand in the area. He also said pushing state lawmakers to reform the New Mexico tax code would help support prosperity and advancing projects such as Santolina – a planned community for as many as 90,000 residents southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street – could be a boon.

Creating jobs, he said, will help combat crime.

“People aren’t breaking into stores on the way to work,” he said.

Schwingendorf, who works for a local credit union, said she’d focus on giving small businesses the tools and resources needed to tap into financial supports that already exist. She said she would also harness the county’s existing data experts to explore untapped federal resources, like grants for roads and broadband infrastructure, saying New Mexico traditionally “underperforms” in procuring such funds.

She also touted the potential of economic development projects like rejuvenating the Kirtland Rail Spur.

“I believe in planned, incremental growth – building where infrastructure exists,” she said. “I believe that we must grow in a way where resources are allocated fairly between new growth and our older communities that have deteriorating infrastructure,” she said.

Benson and Schwingendorf are competing in District 4, the only contested Bernalillo County Commission race on the Nov. 3 ballot. Democrats Steven Michael Quezada (District 2) and Adriann Barboa (District 3) won June primaries but face no Republican opposition in the general election.

NAIOP, the forum’s host, has given to several County Commission candidates this year, according to campaign finance reports.

Benson has received $3,000 from NAIOP’s political action committee, while Quezada has reported $2,000. NAIOP also donated $2,000 to one of Barboa’s primary opponents, Marcos Gonzales, and $500 to one of Benson’s primary opponents, E. Tim Cummins.

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