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GALLUP — Let’s look at some of the things the new mayor of this town has not done.
He has not thrown a punch at the local newspaper publisher, been linked to a 60-some-year-old sexual assault or been compared by the local press to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein’s propaganda man.
You call that front-page news?
In Gallup it is.
For the past decade, going back to an on-the-ground tussle between then-Mayor John Peña and Gallup Independent publisher Bob Zollinger in 2000, controversy — both real and ginned-up — has been linked with city politics here like turquoise is linked with silver.
Well, now there’s a new mayor in town.
Gallup voters in March chose not to re-elect Harry Mendoza, a lifelong pol whom the Gallup Independent had put in the spotlight repeatedly over the past year about his connection with a gang rape in Gallup in 1948 and who was captured on a video surveillance camera in a parking lot fight with Zollinger over the articles. (Mendoza pleaded to a lesser charge in the fight and sued the newspaper for libel for the rape stories.)
Instead of pounding the same old path, voters called a new play. They overwhelming chose as their mayor Jackie McKinney, 61, a local lumber store manager who had never run for anything. And who happens to sport a long ponytail, ride a Harley-Davidson and wear both a stud and a hoop earring in his left lobe.
I had been out to Gallup many a time to write about political shenanigans and wacky goings-on, a sideshow that McKinney calls “a total embarrassment to our community.”
So I made another trip this week to sit down with McKinney and get a whiff of this breath of fresh air.
“I’m not a politician. I consider this a job that needs to be done,” McKinney told me. “I came in here with no strings attached and no one in my hip pocket. It’s a new day in Gallup — there’s no question.”
Let’s look at some of the things the new mayor of this town has done.
In his first 30 days in office, he organized a citywide trash cleanup with teams of volunteers scouring the worst vacant lots and arroyos and removing plastic bags, broken bottles and homeless encampments.
He reinstated police foot patrols in the downtown area, with officers on alert to call for detox transports for inebriates and to arrest drunks for aggressive panhandling, public urination and open alcohol containers.
“I’ve definitely put word out to our police department — make your presence known, let them know their behavior’s unacceptable and take a strong approach,” McKinney said.
He also instructed the city attorney to begin researching how to put more teeth into laws against public intoxication and panhandling with the aim of closing the book on Gallup’s reputation as a magnet for homeless alcoholics.
McKinney acknowledges that won’t be easy. If it were, other city leaders over the decades would have done more than put a dent in the problem. But McKinney, a Steppenwolf-loving child of the ’60s whose laid-back demeanor belies a steely competitive nature, says it’s the key to Gallup’s future and the right thing to do.
Residents deserve to live in a city that’s clean and to feel safe and comfortable, he said, and alcoholics need help by battling their addiction at home with their families, not on Gallup’s sidewalks and arroyos.
“If this is the behavior that they’re going to bring to our community — stay home. Hopefully, these people will get to a point where they say, ‘I’m not welcome in Gallup anymore’ and they’ll stay home.”
Like many others, McKinney came to New Mexico because of asthma. He was in ninth grade when his family, originally from Oklahoma, moved to Gallup for his health, and he loved it immediately.
McKinney tried college for a year, but it didn’t take. He came home, married and took a computer programming job for a bank. When he got his paycheck with $4 stapled to it and a note that said “This is for your haircut,” he quit. The local lumber company was hiring; he took a job there and stayed for 30 years until he retired last year.
Then McKinney ran for mayor — because he had the time to dedicate to the job and he thought he could bring a new spirit of cooperation to City Hall.
He certainly brings a new look. McKinney told me his hair, gray and pulled back in a neat ponytail, is actually rather short now. He cut it to shoulder-length a year ago when he had knee surgery and, growing out now, it’s midway down his back.
How long will it go before his term is over?
“I hope to my belt,” McKinney said. “I am a child of the ’60s. I’m just an old cowboy hippie.”
His other goals as mayor are a little more complicated.
If in four years Gallup’s streets are cleaner, its shopping centers are no longer panhandling zones and the most chronic street alcoholics have gotten help and been integrated back into their families, McKinney said, “then I could walk out of here with my head held high.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal
Photo Credit – RICHARD PIPES/JOURNAL
Cutline – “I came in here with no strings attached and no one in my hip pocket,” says Jackie McKinney, new mayor of Gallup. “It’s a new day in Gallup — there’s no question.”