SANTA FE, N.M. — The elections of 2014 are over. Are you ready for 2018?
Gary King’s resounding defeat to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, coupled with the loss of the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years, left New Mexico Democrats reeling.
But King’s loss opens a door of opportunity for a new group of potential Democratic candidates in the next governor’s contest four years from now, when Martinez can’t run again.
Among those expected to at least consider a run is Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, just elected to head the city in March.
Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, counts Gonzales as a legitimate, potential gubernatorial candidate. On the plus side, she said Gonzales comes from a political family, is politically well-connected and has experience as an executive in the private sector.
But she noted that, other than being the former party chair, he lacks statewide experience.
Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff said Gonzales would make a formidable candidate for governor in the Democratic primary and beyond.
“Being mayor of one of the state’s most important cities and one with a lot of Democrats would help him,” he said. “Whether he would be painted as too liberal by his Republican opponent is too early to tell.”
Too liberal or not, Gonzales came out as gay just before announcing his run for mayor last year. It appeared to be a non-factor in the Santa Fe race, where he faced longtime City Councilor Patti Bushee, who broke the barrier of being a gay elected official long ago. In a statewide race, the same issue would probably be more of a wild card.
Gonzales is keeping his options open.
“What I’ve learned about politics is (four) years is an eternity,” he said this week from his office at City Hall. “For me, I’m not thinking down the road; it really is about solving and bringing forward a set of policies in Santa Fe that will move us forward for the next 20 years.”
Gonzales, who holds the title of vice president for corporate responsibility and sustainability for national commercial real estate company Rosemont Realty, has obvious political positives.
Most comfortable in blue jeans, he presents a bit of a rugged western image and has been known to ride horses in rodeos. He’s seen as down to earth and approachable, making himself available to anyone who wants to speak to him during a series of “Meet the Mayor” events.
He has the pedigree: His father is a former mayor of Santa Fe and a longtime politician. Gonzales is, of course, Hispanic and a native son, often a plus in New Mexico elections. He’s previously won two races for a seat on the Santa Fe County Commission.
Becoming mayor of Santa Fe only adds to his credentials and gives him a chance to prove himself before he has to make any decision about running for governor. What he can accomplish in the next two or three years is critical to positioning himself as a viable candidate in the Democratic primary in June 2018.
A four-year program
Eight months on the job, Gonzales says he loves being mayor and is where he thinks he can do the most good.
“I believe that being a mayor puts me in a position to affect positive change better than any office in the state,” he said. “What I’m finding out is being at the local level, being mayor, is giving me the ability to bring about change much quicker.”
Since he was sworn in, the city has adopted and implemented Gonzales’ “People to the Plaza” ordinance resulting in two additional streets being closed off around the Plaza, and picnic tables added during spring and summer months.
The City Council also passed an ordinance reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Though the move is in line with Gonzales’ stated positions, he voted against the decriminalization ordinance. He said he wanted pot decriminalization to be put to voters as called for in a petition drive that got the issue before the council.
That measured “no” vote puts him in an interesting position moving forward. He made clear his support for legalizing pot during the mayoral campaign, but as mayor he didn’t cast a vote in favor of mere decriminalization.
Other Gonzales initiatives are in the growing stages and can’t be checked off as accomplishments yet.
He’s opened the door, via a planned consultant’s study, to the idea of establishing a “public bank” in Santa Fe. It’s something of a ground-breaking idea promoted as a way for the city to maintain control over where it puts its money, provide more investment for local businesses and programs, and pull away from national and international banks with agendas at odds with the progressive goals of Santa Fe’s political majority.
Soon after taking office, Gonzales assembled a transition team to provide a snapshot of where the city stood internally and “set the trajectory” for where it was headed the next four years. He has since created task forces looking into improving the night-time economy, the environment and public schools.
As was the case with his campaign for mayor – in which just about every major Democratic interest group and individual player rallied together to push him forward as the chosen candidate – City Hall has a bit more of a big-time political feel under Gonzales.
Matt Ross, whose political consulting company helped get him get elected as mayor, and who assisted in his campaign for Democratic Party chair and then served as the party’s communications officer, was hired as spokesman for the city.
Ross described his previous role as “a communications and strategy consultant.” His talents could come in handy if Gonzales decides to run for governor.
“Him being here is helpful to me because he’s worked with me in the past,” Gonzales said of Ross. “He certainly knows me well, and understands what I believe in policy and what I want to communicate.”
Also, Xochi Campos Biggs, hired as an assistant to Gonzales, came to City Hall from U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s staff and formerly served as an assistant coordinated campaign director for the state Democratic Party.
While noncommittal about whether he’d run for governor, Gonzales did say he was only committing himself to one four-year term. He said he’s told his staff being mayor was a “four-year program” for him.
“At the end of four years, hopefully I’ll have a record of accomplishment and, at that point, I can make a decision whether to go back to the private sector, ask people to give me another shot at being mayor, or look at something different,” he said.
Who wants the job?
OK, so let’s say Gonzales chooses either the first or third options. That opens the door for speculation who might be the next mayor … or does it?
“I can’t imagine how anyone could give you an answer to that question,” City Councilor Patti Bushee, runner-up to Gonzales in the mayor’s race last March, said when asked if she planned to run for mayor in 2018.
Joseph Maestas, a former mayor of Española, also said four years was too far down the road to be thinking about that.
But four current city councilors are at least ready to say they’re thinking about it. Carmichael Dominguez, Peter Ives, Chris Rivera and Ron Trujillo each said they haven’t ruled out running for the city’s top job next time around. Some said their decision to do so would probably be contingent on whether Gonzales decides he wants to keep the job.
“I’m never going to shut that door,” Dominguez said. “But right now I’m concentrating on doing what’s best for Santa Fe, for District 3, as finance (committee) chair and with all the other issues that come before the city.”
Ives said that, before running for mayor, he would be more concerned about winning re-election to his District 2 seat in 2016. Maybe after that, though. “I can’t say I would rule it out in due course, but I’m not ready to go there yet,” said Ives, an attorney who serves as senior counsel for the Trust for Public Lands.
Rivera dipped his toe into this last mayoral race, but ultimately decided not to run. “I had an interest this past election for a short time and this next time my family will be a little older,” said the father of four daughters who retired as fire chief four years ago. “I’d definitely consider it. We’ll see what happens in the next four years.”
Trujillo, now in his third term on the City Council, is one councilor who makes no bones about his desire to become mayor someday. What better time to run than if Gonzales makes a gubernatorial bid next time?
“Having been on the Council this many years, I have a vision where I’d like to take the city if I’m elected mayor,” said Trujillo, who, like Dominguez, works for the state Department of Transportation, a traditional spawning ground for elected officials in Santa Fe.
For him, the emphasis is on the locals: “How do we make Santa Fe a better place 24/7 for those of us who live here and our children? How do we make Santa Fe kid-friendly, but at the same time bring in jobs that cater to the locals?”
Who else may throw their hat in the ring is only open to conjecture. And a lot of it will come down to what Mayor Gonzales decides to do.
“When it comes to conversations about governor, I’m honored to be with the circle when it’s talked about,” he said. “But I know that job one is to deliver on the promise I made to Santa Fe to move this community forward.”