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The race to represent Albuquerque’s Northwestern-most reaches on the City Council is a rare battle featuring two people who have had the job before and a third candidate counting on voters’ desire for a fresh start.
District 5 incumbent Cynthia Borrego is running for a second term but facing a challenge from her predecessor, Dan Lewis, who held the seat from 2009 to 2017, and from political newcomer Phillip Ramirez.
All three candidates pinpoint infrastructure as a critical need in their area but believe they are best suited to steer improvements on the West Side.
Borrego said she has raised — in both city bond money and state capital dollars — nearly $20 million of the $27 million needed to widen Paseo del Norte west of Kimmick Drive and about half of what’s needed to widen Unser Boulevard. Both projects are in design, she said.
“These are some of the reasons that I am wanting to run again, because I’d like to finish what I started,” Borrego said.
Lewis, however, argues that West Side infrastructure progress has become too slow and touts his experience shepherding the Paseo del Norte interchange construction and projects like extending Unser Boulevard between Montaño and Paradise.
“In the same way I brought over $100 million in infrastructure projects to the West Side from 2009 to 2017, I’ll put together the entire funding we need to be able to complete and widen those roadways (Unser and Paseo del Norte) in the next four years,” he said.
Ramirez, meanwhile, said he would bring years of experience and perspective from the construction industry. He said he is used to negotiating, something he said would be useful when convincing eight other councilors to make investments in District 5.
“Why can’t we negotiate and get things done yearly?” he said.
Borrego, a Democrat, and Lewis, a Republican, are running publicly funded campaigns, while Ramirez, a Democrat, is relying on private contributions.
It’s been four years since Borrego took office — inheriting, she said, “a bag full of mess” that included the beleaguered Albuquerque Rapid Transit project — and she believes the city is now heading in a positive direction.
“I think we’re moving into a better place,” she said.
The first-term councilor said the city still must do more to curtail crime, but while Lewis has questioned why voters would reelect any incumbents given Albuquerque’s growing challenges, Borrego counters that the problems are not new. She said crime was rising during Lewis’ council tenure, too.
“It’s taken us a while to get to where we’re at, and I think it’s going to take us a little while to get back,” she said, noting that she has helped pass budgets that fund additional police officers and boosted support for the crimes against children unit.
An Española native who’s been in Albuquerque since college, Borrego, 64, is a retired city planner now running her own retail shop in Los Ranchos.
She said her city career — which included running the Metropolitan Redevelopment agency — was excellent background for her council work.
“I always say to myself I see things from a different perspective because I actually have helped build Albuquerque,” she said.
As councilor, she counts as her biggest piece of legislation a 2019 bill that requires hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation to activate the closed-captioning function on their televisions or face a civil fine.
“To me, that was something that gives people equal access,” she said.
Lewis thought he was done with politics four years ago when he decided to run for mayor instead of another term on the City Council, then lost the race to Tim Keller.
But the defeat did not fully extinguish his interest in public office.
“You look around and go ‘Maybe this is my role. I can help out our neighborhoods. I can help the West Side. I can make it better,'” said Lewis, who was born in California but has lived in Albuquerque for 25 years.
The former councilor said the city has spiraled in the last four years and that key West Side road expansions are taking too long. He said he prioritized infrastructure the moment he joined the council in 2009 and would do the same if reelected.
Lewis, 51, said he also would focus on making changes at the Albuquerque Police Department.
“The council plays a pretty critical role in developing and overseeing APD policy,” he said, adding that he wants to see more officers assigned to field services and more driving through the city in marked — rather than unmarked — vehicles.
Lewis contends the city has little progress to show after raising the gross receipts tax in 2018, and is critical of a decision to put a new multiuse soccer stadium project on this year’s ballot as a $50 million bond question. Lewis — who previously supported similar bonds to finance the West Side baseball complex and other city projects — said he believes based on his experience that the stadium will ultimately cost around $150 million after property acquisition, infrastructure and more.
Given crime and homelessness growth, he said asking voters to support such a project is “absolutely outrageous right now.”
Unlike his opponents, Ramirez has never held elected office before.
He does not think that matters, saying people he has met on the campaign trail have articulated an interest in change.
What Ramirez, 43, said he brings to the role is blue-collar life experience.
Ramirez has spent his career in the construction industry, working for his father’s company. He started as a sheet metal and plumber apprentice and is now lead estimator and project manager.
A father of five who is still working toward his bachelor’s degree, he said the city’s leadership does not always reflect its working class.
“When I look at the City Council, I don’t see secretaries, I don’t see plumbers, I don’t see carpenters, I don’t see restaurant workers,” he said, adding that even policies aimed at supporting those populations can suffer when decision-makers do not have the same life experience.
“I want to be that person that says ‘I am skilled labor; I am a blue-collared guy that is living in your shoes and that is constantly facing the struggles that you’re facing on a daily basis,’ ” he said.
Ramirez said his goals if elected include legislation to require project labor agreements on large city construction projects, which would mean union involvement and union-level benefits for people working on the jobs.
He said his current service as an appointed member of the state’s Construction Industries Commission reinforced his interest in running for City Council.
“I have the ability to negotiate and work with people first-hand on trying to change policy (and) create regulations,” he said.