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An incumbent commissioner who says she’s battle-tested and ready for a second term representing Bernalillo County’s eastern reaches is facing a primary challenge from a first-time political candidate who contends the county government is heading in the wrong direction.
District 5 Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, a mental health therapist in her first term on the county’s governing board, said she’s worked to do what she thinks is right, even in the face of criticism, and considers herself a responsive representative who helps people who don’t know where else to turn.
“I always wanted to be that person; that’s why I ran for office,” she said. “Having been a therapist for 20 years and helping people one on one, I wanted to keep helping people in a different way.”
But a host of candidates are looking to unseat Pyskoty, including Democratic primary opponent Eric Olivas. A small-business owner who served previously on the city of Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency, Olivas said he would bring a distinct perspective to the board.
“I have a record of service and of really understanding a lot of different viewpoints, from being a laborer, but also being a job creator and being involved heavily in public service already,” said Olivas, who owns a five-employee landscaping and plumbing company.
District 5 extends from the middle of Albuquerque to the county’s eastern border, covering such areas as Uptown, Tijeras and Edgewood.
Pyskoty, who lives in the East Mountains, said she’s worked on a variety of initiatives in her district since taking office, from bringing a new water and wastewater system to Carnuel and a mental wellness center to the East Mountains, to fighting alongside neighbors against a proposed Albuquerque Public Schools bus depot in the area.
“I feel like my biggest accomplishments were not necessarily legislation, but things that really affected people in their day-to-day lives,” she said of her first term.
Pyskoty, 61, had never held elected office before taking her seat on the commission in 2019 and said the reality has been far different than what she predicted, due largely to the challenges of shepherding the county through a global pandemic.
“You have to be fast and flexible, and light on your feet and creative,” she said. “There’s been so much that’s happened in the past two years that I never would’ve had on my commissioner bingo card.”
With another four years in office, she said she’d focus additional energy on the county’s Behavioral Health Initiative, funded since 2015 by a special gross receipts tax.
The BHI is undergoing a reorganization. With a strategic plan nearly completed, Pyskoty said she believes the BHI is working well.
But Olivas says the BHI is an example of current county leaders’ failings, saying it seems discombobulated.
“We’re not seeing a wholesale plan; it’s a lot of money the county has, and the city has its own pot of money, and we’re not seeing results,” he said.
Olivas has suggested consolidating the county and city behavioral health activities into an entity similar to the water utility authority, which is governed by a board made up of elected officials from both jurisdictions. He said “personalities and egos,” and quests for political credit sometimes inhibit intergovernmental efforts, but that the water authority is a “shining example” of how to do it effectively.
“It’s about leadership and having people in place who are willing to push for that and fight for that,” he said.
Olivas, 31 and an Uptown area resident, said he believes the county has mismanaged the jail and not done enough to partner with the city to combat crime. While the sheriff, the county’s top law enforcement official, is elected independently, Olivas said he believes that, as a commissioner, he could help facilitate more collaboration.
“I want to run to be a bridge-builder,” he said.