Santa Fe is slowly moving into election season. It looks like it may not be so nice this year.
Mayor Alan Webber reacted last week to two pieces of print media – an essay critical of the mayor published as an advertisement in the Santa Fe Reporter and a flyer circulated by the city employees’ union.
The essay was by Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, a traditional Hispanic fraternal organization that has been fighting with Webber for many months, mostly over removal of historic monuments. The ad headlined “Mayor Webber’s Dark Side” was explicitly a campaign attack, mentioning Webber’s announcement that he will seek reelection and saying he doesn’t deserve a second term because he “fails to understand the traditions and culture of this great City.”
Somehow, though, Virgil J. Vigil, president of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, maintains the ad wasn’t political. He said that the group’s bylaws prevent it from supporting candidates.
Webber, in a statement issued by his campaign, condemned the ad for being wrong on several points. “Even worse, their intention is wrong: Their purpose is to inflame divisions in our city.”
The ad was mainly a list of things that Union Protectíva doesn’t like, such as: Webber’s order to remove the statue of Don Diego de Vargas from Cathedral Park as tensions over historical monuments rose nationwide last year, and the statue’s subsequent, ignominious storage in someone’s backyard; his police department’s pull-back before protesters toppled the Soldiers’ Monument obelisk on the Plaza; overdue city audits required by the state; and homeless camping that was tolerated in Franklin Miles Park on Webber’s watch.
But, without explanation, the essay describes as “Marxist” the process Webber has set up for public discussion of historical monuments and related matters. It also maintains that Webber supports removal of a Hispanic artist’s mural from a building where a state modern art museum is planned, although Webber has taken no public stance on that issue. The essay, without elaboration, maintains that Webber wanted to illegally privatize city services.
Does the ad “inflame division in our city”? Well, it certainly reflects those divisions, at least divisions between Union Protectíva and what it calls “outsiders.”
The group’s essay decries the role of “outsiders” in the historic monuments review process and the “rich outsiders” who are alleged to want Gilberto Guzman’s mural removed from the old building that will become a modern art museum on Guadalupe Street. This is an apparent reference to the wealthy couple who moved to Santa Fe from Chicago and whose purported sin is donating $4 million to help create a major new cultural site here. There’s been no indication that Bob and Ellen Vladem are exercising any control over the state museum’s design, including whether Guzman’s “Multicultural” mural should stay or go.
The bottom line is that Union Protectíva’s published ad amounts to a political attack ad. It’s over the top (see “Marxist”) and misleading or wrong on various points.
To be clear, there’s absolutely no indication that City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, Webber’s only campaign opponent so far, had anything to do with the ad.
Webber was right to respond, and his response to the ad was valid and on point.
Still, Union Protectíva, however imperfectly, represents a significant piece of Santa Fe worried about changes to our 400-year-old town.
And, in general terms, the group’s essay raised real issues that should be under discussion in an election season. There are in fact divides in Santa Fe over difficult issues of race and historical culture. Old-school traditionalists such as Union Protectíva may decry “rich outsiders,” while younger advocates condemn gentrification.
But, to be taken seriously, Union Protectíva needs to stick to the facts. It also should acknowledge at some point that people not born in Santa Fe, some of them even rich, can be good citizens, too.
The other item that Webber objected to, the flyer circulated by the city employees union, is about a tussle with city management over supplemental life insurance (spelled “suplimental” in the flyer). The flyer has a drawing of a short, bald man in a suit, quivering and sweating in front of a computer screen showing the Santa Fe city logo, and urges union members to contact various city officials, including the mayor.
Webber says the man in the drawing is meant to represent him, but with “a large, exaggerated nose.” Large noses have historically been used in derogatory depictions of Jewish people, most infamously in 1930s Nazi propaganda. “This has no place in Santa Fe, not just with regard to me, but for everyone in our diverse city,” said Webber, who’s Jewish.
The union says the cartoon figure was supposed be to a generic city bureaucrat, not Webber. The union vice president who drew the cartoon said he was not aware that depicting an enlarged nose was derogatory toward Jewish people. Intentionally or not, the drawing does seem to represent Webber. And what about the nose? It isn’t the evil “hooked nose” used in well-known racist tropes. This nose looks more like Pinocchio’s after a couple of lies. But it’s too close to anti-Semitic stereotypes to go unnoted.
If racist imagery in fact was not intended, this may be another teachable moment for some involved in Santa Fe’s public affairs.
A few years ago, a well-known local advocate claimed to not understand how posting photographs to compare a Black U.S. representative to an orangutan could be considered racist instead of just funny.
Santa Fe’s last mayoral election, with no incumbent, was pretty much devoid of mudslinging or attacks. With Webber running on a record this time, there’s bound to be – and should be – more critical commentary. But the critics will have to do better than we’ve seen so far if they want to advance the cause of serious debate on local issues.