Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Just hours after losing another round in his prolonged and fruitless legal fight for public campaign financing, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said he will try a new tack in the 2021 mayor’s race.
Gonzales said Tuesday afternoon he would turn to private donors for support, forgoing his quest to get taxpayer money for his campaign.
The decision comes just seven weeks before Election Day and concludes his monthslong battle over the publicly funded campaign pot worth about $600,000. Gonzales’ battle sustained a blow earlier Tuesday when a state judge ruled that City Clerk Ethan Watson had taken the appropriate actions necessary to deny Gonzales the taxpayer money and rejected Gonzales’ claims that Watson was biased.
The sheriff told a news confere
nce Tuesday that he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling but that his supporters will not be “hushed” and are ready to power him through private donations and in the voting booth.
“This is something that has never happened to another campaign. And I think that’s going to be the driving force, and the motivation, and the inspiration for us winning this race,” he said at his Northeast Albuquerque campaign office as about 15 supporters stood behind him.
As a privately funded candidate, Gonzales will be able to solicit contributions of up to $6,250 per donor.
Gonzales has a lot of ground to make up on incumbent Tim Keller, who did receive the public financing and had $524,710 in his campaign coffers as of last week, according to campaign finance reports. Gonzales has $20,830. Candidate Eddy Aragon – who launched a late mayoral bid and is privately funded – has $13,360 in hand, his latest report shows.
Private donors for months have been supporting Gonzales’ mayoral candidacy through Save Our City, a political action committee backing the sheriff. But the latest campaign finance report shows that donations recently have waned. Save Our City raised $12,672 in the past month after bringing in $75,855 in July and $52,500 during the June reporting period.
Asked by the Journal on Tuesday whether that was cause for alarm, the sheriff said he does not pay attention to the PAC’s efforts and is not worried. He said donors could have been sitting back until they could give directly to the sheriff’s campaign, which his Tuesday decision allows.
“Maybe they were waiting for today,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales’ shift in strategy comes after a contentious and high-profile clash with City Clerk Watson over whether Watson had improperly denied Gonzales about $600,000 to run his mayoral campaign.
To qualify for the funding, mayoral candidates must demonstrate sufficient community interest in their bids by getting 1% of city voters – 3,779 people – to make a nominal donation of $5.
Keller and Gonzales both appeared to reach that mark, according to numbers posted on the city clerk’s website in June.
However, Watson on July 9 declined to certify Gonzales for the money, citing evidence he had received as part of two ethics complaints Keller’s reelection campaign had filed against the sheriff. Both complaints involved alleged fraud in the collection of the $5 qualifying contributions.
In the first ethics complaint, a voter said that he signed a $5 receipt to support the sheriff but that Gonzales told him he did not need to pay the money because the campaign would cover it. Candidates can only submit money received from the named contributor. The city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices – after a three-hour hearing – decided that Gonzales violated the city’s Open and Ethical Elections Code in the case.
In the second complaint, Keller’s campaign challenged the authenticity of signatures on paperwork Gonzales turned in to the city clerk and subsequently provided statements from about 40 voters who said they never signed the $5 receipts Gonzales submitted in their names.
Many of the questioned receipts were tied to two women with key roles in the Gonzales campaign – women Gonzales had designated as official representatives with authority to interact with the Clerk’s Office on his campaign’s behalf.
The city’s Office of Inspector General – an independent city accountability agency – has since investigated the matter, finding last month that there were problems with nearly 16% of the 239 randomly selected Gonzales campaign receipts it reviewed. The voters identified in those instances said either that they signed the receipt but never gave money or that they never signed the receipt or gave $5.
Gonzales’ attorneys have acknowledged forgery likely did occur but deny that the sheriff himself knew about it. They also have contended that Gonzales still had enough contributions to qualify for the public money even after disregarding the questionable receipts. And they have argued that Watson – who was appointed by Keller and whose term as clerk is tied to Keller’s – is not impartial and that he made his July decision without giving Gonzales the opportunity to answer the claims.
The sheriff has had little success fighting Watson’s determination.
Gonzales first appealed it in July, prompting an administrative hearing. The hearing officer upheld Watson’s decision.
The sheriff subsequently appealed in New Mexico District Court. Judge Bryan Biedscheid of the 1st Judicial District ruled on Aug. 27 that Watson had not given Gonzales due process and sent the matter back down to the clerk to rectify.
In response, Watson gave Gonzales a chance to address the fraud claims during a Sept. 1 hearing – after which Watson decided, for the second time, that Gonzales should not get the money due to rules violations.
The sheriff asked Biedscheid to rehear the case, but the judge on Tuesday said Watson’s hearing was sufficient.
Gonzales also had requested that the New Mexico Supreme Court intervene in the case, but the high court denied that petition last week.