It was a livelier luncheon than you might expect.
In a forum before hundreds of business leaders Monday, Albuquerque’s three mayoral candidates clashed over the merits of requiring union membership to get city contracts and whether the Police Department is “out of control.”
Mayor Richard Berry pitched himself as a pragmatic leader who had steered the city through tough economic times. His rivals – Pete Dinelli and Paul Heh – repeatedly slammed his leadership and offered themselves as welcome alternatives.
Heh was particularly aggressive. Toward the end of the forum, he at one point shouted at the audience and called one of Berry’s answers “bullshit.”
Election Day is Oct. 8. If no one gets 50 percent of the vote, a runoff with the top two candidates will be held in November.
The forum was sponsored by NAIOP, the local commercial real-estate development association, and the crowd was mostly friendly to Berry.
One audience member took the microphone to ask the candidates a question, only to declare that, although he usually contributes financially to Berry’s campaigns, he won’t have to this time, presumably because the challengers are so weak.
Other audience members had real questions. Roxanne Rivera-Wiest, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico, asked the candidates whether they support or oppose “mandated project labor agreements” on city construction projects.
Dinelli was the only candidate in favor of them. He said the business community shouldn’t be afraid of the agreements, or of working with unions in general.
Berry said he “absolutely opposed” agreements requiring union membership among crews working on construction projects. He used to work in the construction industry.
Forcing “unionism on people to be able to work in this town is insane,” Berry said.
But Dinelli said project labor agreements would “make sure that we get a project that’s built at a fair wage and also assure quality … . It hasn’t hurt the city of Santa Fe. I don’t think it’s going to hurt the city of Albuquerque.”
Dinelli didn’t mention that Santa Fe repealed its project labor agreement ordinance before having completed any projects under it.
Heh drew snickers from the audience when he said project labor agreements conflict with state regulations because “this is a right-to-work state.”
New Mexico is not such a state. Right-to-work laws typically prohibit the requirement of union membership as a condition of employment.
Heh said he believes the agreements increase cost but help get projects “done faster and better,” although he said he wouldn’t support them because they conflict with state law.
On public safety, Dinelli said Albuquerque has a reputation as a violent city, which is a barrier to business recruitment.
“We have a police department that’s totally out of control,” he said.
Heh noted that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether APD has a pattern of violating people’s civil rights, specifically through the use of force.
Berry defended the police department. The city, he said, has enjoyed its three lowest annual crime rates in 20 years during his tenure.
“I will stand up today and say, `I am proud of my Police Department and the men and women who serve,'” Berry said.
That triggered an angry response from Heh.
“Folks, my head’s ready to about explode,” he said. “Seriously, I was a cop for 25 years and the mayor wants to say that the crime rate is going down? Ask a cop that works the streets!”
Heh added: “I have to call bullshit, mayor. I don’t know any other way to say it.”
The crime rate did inch upward in 2012, though it’s still lower than when Berry took office in late 2009.
The candidates covered familiar ground during much of the hourlong forum, held in a ballroom at the Albuquerque Marriott on Louisiana NE.
Dinelli, a Democrat, often referred to Berry as the “Republican” mayor. He pointed to his own experience as a prosecutor, deputy city attorney and city chief public safety officer as evidence that he knows how to make government work and solve problems.
Dinelli also repeatedly referred to his own economic plan, which he said would involve a $1.5 billion investment in projects, creating jobs without raising taxes. He didn’t go into details during the forum.
He also pointed out that he was using public financing so he would not be beholden to anyone.
“I haven’t solicited any contributions from contractors in this room,” Dinelli said.
Heh, a Republican and retired police sergeant, said he didn’t have the backing of a political party because he isn’t a politician, unlike the other candidates. As for financing, he said he was running a grass-roots campaign that wouldn’t rely on donations from people who could barely afford it.
He would bring real change to City Hall, he said.
Berry, also a Republican, said he was honored to serve as mayor and that the city has a bright future.
“I don’t think I want to live in these gentlemen’s world – where everything is broken, where everything’s on a downward spiral, a cloud for every silver lining,” he said.