Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Manuel Gonzales prides himself on his political savvy, saying he has been intrigued by public office since he was a child following former President Richard Nixon’s impeachment.
He said he’s learned both through watching and through his own experience as Bernalillo County’s elected sheriff that party lines are not impenetrable barriers.
A lifelong Democrat, Gonzales has drawn ire from some within his own party for the company he keeps – perhaps most notably former President Donald Trump – but he sees political flexibility as an asset.
As he runs for mayor of Albuquerque, his hometown, he thinks voters will also see it as an asset.
“I’m looking at doing something completely different from my observation of what’s gone on in Albuquerque; (that’s) to bring people together – regardless of if they’re Republicans, or Democrats or independents,” Gonzales said in a recent Journal interview. “I will have the most diversified administration in the history of Albuquerque, and that’s why I believe that will be the most successful administration in the city’s history.”
Gonzales won his 2014 and 2018 campaigns for sheriff as a Democrat but said he rarely discusses his political affiliation.
He disagrees with the party’s more progressive element, but still identifies with what he calls its “traditional” blue-collar values and willingness to lift up people who need help – just as long as the assistance doesn’t create “dependency,” he said.
Gonzales, 58, remains a registered Democrat and said he has not considered changing his affiliation to Republican.
“Never,” he said. “I never would.”
But his tenure as sheriff has sparked questions about his underlying ideology. That includes last year when he visited the White House as Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr announced a federal crime-fighting initiative targeting select cities, including Albuquerque. One high-profile New Mexico Democrat, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, called on Gonzales to resign as sheriff of the state’s most populous county. Trump, meanwhile, subsequently tweeted a message of thanks to Gonzales.
And for his mayoral campaign, Gonzales hired political strategist Jay McCleskey. Well-known for being political adviser to former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, McCleskey has also worked with many other Republican officials, candidates and organizations. Gonzales said that he hired McCleskey for the campaign because he had heard he was “very good” but that he would play no role in the city administration if Gonzales wins.
The sheriff believes he is more than capable of navigating the political landscape himself.
“I think I have a political mind,” he said. “I think I’m a pretty good political strategist or I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you (as a mayoral candidate).”
Gonzales would come to Albuquerque’s highest office after decades in law enforcement.
He joined BCSO in 1989, but it was his dad, who had worked for the city’s Solid Waste Department and run a lounge in Northeast Albuquerque, who encouraged him to think about positions beyond deputy. In the years before his 1995 death, Gonzales’ father urged his son to consider running for sheriff and tossed out the idea of a mayoral bid. The latter stuck with the younger Gonzales, who said it makes sense to him now.
“I basically prepared all my life for this,” he said, citing his years as sheriff but also his time in the Marine Corps and his experience with his father’s business.
Should Gonzales beat incumbent Tim Keller and radio show host Eddy Aragon on Nov. 2, Gonzales said he would run the city like he does the Sheriff’s Office. He said he would gauge his success on whether crime falls and the economy grows.
And as he sees it, improving the economy is predicated largely on making the city safer.
He is running as a “tough-on-crime” candidate and said his brand of hard-nosed policing is needed in Albuquerque. Although property crime has decreased under Keller, the city is in the midst of a record-breaking year for homicides and has had an increase in other violent crimes.
Gonzales is the top elected law enforcement officer for a county that encompasses Albuquerque, and his office has the authority to – and often does – run operations inside the city. But the sheriff said he takes no responsibility for Albuquerque’s crime issues. His staff focuses mostly on the county’s unincorporated areas, leaving the city streets to the Albuquerque Police Department, which has about triple the number of officers.
“The mayor and the chief of police are responsible for (fixing city crime). They’re being paid very high salaries to do that job,” Gonzales said. “The mayor said that that was going to be his No. 1 issue when he took office, and he has failed miserably.”
APD generally does not arrest people suspected of committing nonviolent misdemeanors after settling a federal lawsuit about poor jail conditions. As mayor, Gonzales said, he would change that, arguing that doing so would not run afoul of the settlement agreement. He contends that it is essential to “restore” APD’s power by arresting people for misdemeanors such as trespassing and vandalism.
“You have to be able to do that in order to mitigate some of these other issues, like people speeding,” he said.
Although the sheriff has pitched himself as the answer to Albuquerque’s crime quagmire, his own department’s data indicate that both violent and property crime jumped in 2020 in his territory.
Gonzales initially attributed it to the pandemic, telling the Journal earlier this month that COVID-19 lockdowns prompted criminals to change the way they operate, citing as an example several cases his office had seen of men “flying in from out of state to have sex with children” they had communicated with online.
His office provided the Journal with 2020 numbers that show increases in rape, aggravated assault, robbery, arson and larceny and slight decreases in murder, burglary and motor vehicle theft – but with the caveat that the numbers were incomplete. The fresh report also shows crime trending down in 2021.
Regardless of the numbers, Gonzales said he judges his success largely on personal feedback, and he said the personal anecdotes he hears are positive.
“If you ask the public – which I always take my information from – they said they’ve never felt safer in the unincorporated areas,” he said.
As sheriff, Gonzales had long resisted calls to outfit his deputies with body-worn cameras, saying his department had other needs and that voters elected him knowing his stance on them. The New Mexico Legislature ultimately forced his hand in 2020 by passing a law requiring them.
Now, not only does BCSO use cameras, but the department has what the sheriff touts as some of the best smartphone-based equipment available.
He said that as mayor he would prioritize technology across city departments, such as planning, in an effort to improve efficiency.
“We need to bring the city of Albuquerque into a smarter city, technology-wise,” he said.
Gonzales also supports making city services, such as community centers, more accessible. Some are not open on weekends, when Gonzales contends they may be most valuable to the general public. He advocates for extended hours that would make them “usable for people when they’re off-hours versus when the city feels it’s most convenient for them.”
Gonzales, however, does not support the city’s proposed investment in a different kind of facility: a new multipurpose soccer stadium, where New Mexico United would play. Keller pitched the idea of putting a $50 million stadium bond question to voters, and the City Council in August passed a bill to make sure it goes on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Gonzales objects to the project, saying the timing is all wrong, given the city’s crime and homelessness challenges and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m for sports. I love sports in a selfish way. I think a lot of people would want that. But that’s not the way you prioritize (spending),” he said.
Gonzales’ path to Election Day has been rocky due to a well-publicized battle over public campaign financing. He spent two months challenging the city clerk’s decision to deny him over $600,000 in taxpayer campaign funds for breaking rules.
The city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices, meanwhile, fined Gonzales twice after finding his campaign violated city code while pursuing the public money, including by submitting forged documentation.
Gonzales said he did not know about the forgery and bears no responsibility because he cannot control other people’s behavior – only how he responds to it. He likened it to how he runs BCSO today and how he would manage a city workforce if elected.
“If they go out and commit a crime, it doesn’t mean I committed a crime,” he said. “But it’s my job to hold them accountable, and I have throughout my career.”
The sheriff ultimately abandoned his quest for public financing and is now running on private donations but said he doubts his campaign will suffer any damage as a result of the ethics complaints and public financing fight.
“I have all the confidence based on my previous elections and being successful in them, and my performance of success will prevail at the end of this race,” he said.