George “Walt” Benson remembers the moment he decided to run for elected office. It was March 2019 and three family friends told him they were leaving Albuquerque — they were bolting to Denver, Salt Lake City and Atlanta. Benson, a local entrepreneur whose only public work experience was a college lifeguarding job, said he wanted to do something to turn the tide and thought running for the Bernalillo County Commission was a good start.
“That was when I decided (to run),” he said of the aha moment. “There wasn’t a long-held dream.”
Wende Schwingendorf, meanwhile, had worked in government for years, including at the state and county level. She had been mulling a County Commission campaign of her own, thinking that her varied background — which also included being a reporter and working for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce — would translate well. But it was after her fiancé underwent a double-lung transplant last summer that she committed to the idea.
“He said, ‘You’re going to regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t go for this,’ ” she said of running. “That was kind of a turning point for me.”
The two first-time political candidates are now squaring off for the right to represent Bernalillo County’s District 4, which covers the northern edge of the county, extending slightly past Universe Boulevard to the west and Tramway Boulevard to the east. The winner will replace Lonnie Talbert, who is termed out after eight years.
Benson won a four-way Republican primary in June; Schwingendorf was the only Democrat who ran for the seat.
Both grew up in Albuquerque and say they want to help improve the place they have chosen to make their lives as adults.
“Our people are great; we just have an environment that our crime is unchecked and we are not friendly to jobs. … If people can’t find a job or they’re limited in their jobs or their job can only grow so much and they’ve got to move if they want to keep growing higher, they’re not going to stay, and I don’t like it,” said Benson, who owns two Albuquerque Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops and is the managing partner of New Mexico Waste Management.
Though the county’s top law enforcement officer is the independently elected sheriff, Benson said the commission can use money to help combat crime.
“My goal is to continue to build relationships with the other commissioners and the sheriff’s department … (and) work with them to make sure they have the budget they need for recruitment, retention of their deputies, training … their equipment, the vehicles,” he said.
But Schwingendorf said she wants to learn how the commission can affect crime at the root, whether through behavioral health interventions or addressing addiction and economic issues.
“There’s a lot of reasons why crime happens, and my job as a commissioner is to discover those underlying issues and address those issues,” she said.
As a commissioner, she said, she would prioritize the community’s economic recovery, and she said she sees an opportunity for the county to procure more grants to help local businesses. Schwingendorf said she’d leverage her existing relationships across government entities to enhance the overall business climate. For example, she said that if public agencies collaborated to improve infrastructure or make it easier for licensed professionals to transfer their credentials into New Mexico, it could help bring in projects like the U.S. Space Command. The U.S. Department of Defense has identified Albuquerque as one of 31 potential locations for the command’s headquarters.
She also sees potential to grow the economy by being an attractive work-from-home location.
“Relatively speaking, Bernalillo County is a pretty affordable place to live,” she said. “With remote work forces happening now, people can move here, work remotely and it’s a better quality of life.”
Benson said the county is not providing an environment for businesses to flourish, and that the county’s recently implemented paid sick leave mandate — which took effect Oct. 1 — may deter activity.
“My goal would be to just generally remove roadblocks and obstacles,” he said.