Tim Keller and Manuel Gonzales challenged each other’s integrity and track record, contending in the latest Albuquerque mayoral debate that the other is unfit to lead Albuquerque for the next four years, while fellow candidate Eddy Aragon — who has never held elected office — criticized both as ineffective leaders.
In a debate broadcast Thursday, Keller, the incumbent, and Gonzales, Bernalillo County’s second-term sheriff, slammed each other’s performance in their positions. Gonzales said “Albuquerque is dead” if Keller wins another term, noting that crime and homelessness have increased during Keller’s first term despite increased city spending, and asserting the incumbent is more concerned with his political future than the city’s residents.
“Crime is out of control and the criminals run the streets of Albuquerque,” Gonzales said. “… It’s time to go a different direction.”
Keller, however, said Gonzales — elected sheriff in 2014 — lives in a “glass house” and questioned why he has not done more to fix the metro area’s problems. He called it “embarrassing” that Gonzales was the only local law enforcement official not participating in the “Metro Crime Initiative” the city started this summer. About the city’s growing unhoused population, Keller said “the sheriff has actually had eight years to help with this issue. He has literally done nothing.”
Aragon, meanwhile, said neither of his opponents deserve the office on City Hall’s 11th floor, saying he joined the race because he is so troubled by the status quo.
“I’m tired of seeing despair and poverty on the streets and lofty political promises from our officials,” he said.
As has been the case most of this campaign season, crime and homelessness dominated discussion during the debate hosted by KOAT-TV, KKOB radio and the Journal.
Gonzales stressed that Albuquerque broke its annual homicide record twice under Keller and that citizens are “sick and tired” of crime. He pitched himself as the answer to the problem because he’s the only candidate with law enforcement experience, noting “I’ve actually arrested people.”
“Under my leadership, Albuquerque will be a much safer place to live, work, run a business and raise a family,” he said. “It will also be a much better place because City Hall will be depoliticized.”
While violent crime is growing, Keller noted that overall crime is falling in Albuquerque and said he has set programs in motion to address the issues, including the Metro Crime Initiative and a Community Safety Department that will take 911 calls that do not require a police response away from officers’ workload.
“It’s easy to lay out a bunch of clichés and try and campaign based on things like reducing crime. The question is, how are we going to do that, and also what leader is going to be able to get that done? And I believe … I have answers — a path going forward,” Keller said.
The debate also touched on legalized cannabis, the November ballot’s $50 million stadium bond and COVID-19.
Aragon reiterated his objection to pandemic-related rules and restrictions, saying he disagrees with mask requirements, vaccine mandates — he has not personally taken the vaccine — and capacity limits on business activity. He said he would fight such rules as mayor, saying “this whole thing with COVID is nonsense.”
Gonzales said he too opposes vaccine mandates, while Keller — who has so far declined to implement a vaccine requirement for city employees — said he wants employees to be vaccinated and will “push them as hard as we’re allowed to,” citing unspecified legal and collective bargaining considerations.
Aragon and Keller each criticized Gonzales for the violations his campaign committed while trying to qualify for about $600,000 in public campaign financing. The city’s Board of Ethics & Campaign Practices fined Gonzales twice for violating city code, including by submitting documents with forged signatures, and a state judge upheld the City Clerk’s decision to deny Gonzales the taxpayer money after months of legal wrangling.
“You shouldn’t even be in this race because you broke the law during the qualifying phase of this election,” Aragon said.
Keller, meanwhile, raised the issue when candidates were given a chance to ask one question of an opponent, inquiring what Gonzales would do as mayor to ensure something like the forgeries — associated with two people who had key roles in Gonzales’ campaign — did not happen on his watch.
“I will hold ourselves accountable, just like I hold the staff, just like I hold my people (accountable). But you can’t hold me accountable,” the sheriff said.
He called Keller’s question “petty” and said the mayor is afraid of how much money his campaign has been able to raise. Within three weeks of losing his public financing fight in court, Gonzales raised over $330,000 in private contributions, according to reports.
“That’s what concerns the mayor. The only thing he’s concerned about is his politics,” he said.
Keller hit back, saying it was “disturbing” to equate fundraising with justice and that the city expects a mayor to answer for everything happening in the city.
“For our sheriff to say that he’s not accountable it shows that he’s not ready to be mayor,” he said.
Also during the debate:
♦ Manuel Gonzales defended his decision not to outfit his sheriff’s deputies with body cameras until state law mandated them, saying that he did not have the budget — though the Bernalillo County Commission had allocated some money for them — and drew parallels between Albuquerque’s rising crime and the Albuquerque Police Department’s implementation of body cameras. But he also said he is not against cameras and his staff now uses the “most advanced technology” available. At one point, Eddy Aragon quipped “I can’t tell if Sheriff Manny Gonzales wants the cameras on or off.”
♦ Gonzales said keeping officers on the job requires creating a supportive environment, saying it’s “no different than raising kids,” an analogy that Tim Keller derided as “completely disrespectful.”
♦ Aragon referred to Keller as “Tim Trump” for making real estate deals “with the richest guys in town,” specifically the city’s $15 million acquisition of the former Lovelace hospital for its planned Gateway Center homeless shelter and services center.
♦ Keller said state leaders’ decision this year to legalize cannabis could be good for the city if rolled out properly, while Gonzales said legalization was poorly timed and would force the city to work through issues “as we move along.” Aragon, however, blasted legalization, saying it would exacerbate crime and homelessness. “We’re at this particular point where you’re seeing people just strike it up at a stoplight. Come on, we know that this is wrong,” he said.
♦ Aragon addressed some criticism he has received for living where he works — a radio studio in an Albuquerque office building — but said his work and on-air presence was particularly important during the pandemic: “I was helping the shut-ins, I was helping the people who were socially distanced, I was helping the people who had to stay in.”
♦ Keller, who proposed putting the $50 million multipurpose soccer stadium question on the ballot, said it was a worthwhile project for family entertainment and to boost Downtown. Aragon said it does not make any sense, and Gonzales accused Keller of pushing it as a “political ploy” to help his reelection chances.
♦ Keller criticized his opponents for being unaware “how good our economy is doing,” but Aragon challenged the mayor’s assertion that the city is growing faster post-pandemic than cities like Phoenix and Denver, calling it a “bold-faced lie.”