Magic, money, millennials and mostly no candidates

Some random thoughts on this week’s Santa Fe municipal election:

Renee Villarreal.

Renee Villarreal.

Winning council candidate: Renee Villarreal, director of Programs and Community Outreach for the New Mexico Community Foundation, destroyed the competition in the high-profile race for the eastside/northside City Council District 1 seat.

Villarreal, running for office for the first time, won a sizeable majority, well more than her three opponents combined, despite a crowded field that also included: a political veteran who had won several prior races for local office; a high-profile newcomer who raised more than twice in private donations than each of the other candidates could spend from their taxpayer-provided public campaign financing accounts; and another contender making her second run for City Council.

Villarreal got 66 percent of the vote. Villarreal supporters (the Journal North endorsed her, by the way) can legitimately cite her professional background, education, experience in public service and positions on the issues as good reasons for her easy win.


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But Santa Fe politics always seem to have some unspoken methods at work, too. The city’s progressive establishment, largely based in Districts 1 and 2, has a way of almost magically coalescing around a particular candidate in a particular race. And Villarreal was clearly that person in the Tuesday election.

Money: Kathryn “Kate” Kennedy’s experience as a privately financed candidate raises several questions. She had at least $34,000 to spend compared to her opponents’ $15,000 each in public funds, but snagged only about 13 percent of the vote and finished third.

Counting her in-kind contributions, Kennedy raised about $39,000 for the race. With 525 votes, she spent about $74 per vote. Villarreal’s 2,738 votes costs about $5.50 each.

Future candidates will have to weigh the benefits of having more money through private fundraising against what became obvious negatives – regular attacks, fair or not, from opponents that you’re trying to buy the election, an image that you won’t join in the progressive goals of public financing and just the general impression that more money equals less savory politics.

What about those millennials? Kate Kennedy was a personable, bright candidate and, at age 28, with a banking background and as co-owner of the happening Skylight night club, seemed to represent a new generation – those new creatives, the nightlife needy, the much-coveted/discussed/courted/wish-we-had-more-of-them millennials.

Given the outcome, it remains to be seen whether that younger generation, on its own, can mount anytime soon much of a political presence in an aging Santa Fe that still seems dominated by the graying Boomer demographic.

As it is, Villarreal, at 40, represents a new generation herself – “pre-millennials” maybe, or would that be Generation X?

Endorsements: It’s always been unclear whether newspaper endorsements make much difference in elections, but conventional wisdom has it that they mean more in local voting than in state or national races, where there’s so much coverage and on-screen debate that no one needs any help making a decision.

Virginia Vigil.

Virginia Vigil.

In any case, all three local newspapers made the same recommendations in the Santa Fe election – Villarreal for the contested City Council seat and first-time candidate Ignacio Gallegos in the municipal judge contest won by former County Commissioner Virginia Vigil.


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So, discuss among yourselves and draw your own conclusions.

Candidate participation: There were four City Council races on the ballot and only the District 1 seat, being vacated by veteran councilor Patti Bushee, drew more than one candidate. Incumbents Peter Ives (District 2) and Chris Rivera (District 3) skated without opposition.

In District 4, even Bill Dimas’ decision to not run for re-election could not generate much interest – only former Planning Commission member Mike Harris, who’s in the construction business, jumped into the race.

Having sitting councilors without opposition for re-election isn’t too surprising (although incumbents have been known to lose). But an uncontested race for an open seat, even with that standing offer of $15,000 in taxpayer bucks to help with a City Council campaign, is just sad.

Local politics, particularly when City Hall messes up (see parks bond spending or a general budget mess) or when hot-button issues arise (like a recent series of zoning controversies over business or housing developments) seem to bring folks out of the woodwork for big public meetings and in public comment forums.

But, for now, not many people around here seem to want to have to make the effort to hold office and ultimately decide the tough issues.

A positive was the race for municipal judge. This was the first contested race under a city measure requiring that candidates for the city bench actually be lawyers – what a concept!

Both Vigil and Gallegos were qualified, serious candidates with appropriate experience. Gallegos, relatively new to Santa Fe, as well as to politics, made a good showing, but Vigil – as should probably have been expected for someone who had won two County Commission races – took the race handily, with 56 percent of the vote.


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