Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
For the first time in 20 years, the race for mayor is wide open.
Richard Berry says he will step down a year from now as part of his pledge to serve only two terms as Albuquerque’s chief executive.
And for the first time since 1997, no incumbent will be on the ballot when voters head to the polls Oct. 3.
That sets up an incredibly unpredictable race – partly a result of City Hall’s nonpartisan setup.
Although the election is nonpartisan, a candidate’s political affiliation obviously can play a role in the campaign.
Among those considering a run are Democrats Tim Keller, the state auditor whose term ends in 2018; James Lewis, a former state treasurer; City Councilor Ken Sanchez; former County Commissioner Deanna Archuleta; and attorney Brian Colón.
The Republican field could include City Council President Dan Lewis and County Commissioner Wayne Johnson. Mayor Berry is a Republican.
“Here we are, a year from the election, and we have no idea who’s going to be the next mayor,” said Brian Sanderoff, the Journal pollster and president of Research & Polling Inc. “People are just now jockeying for position and deciding whether or not they should run.”
Some candidates are already raising money and building their campaign organizations, though most won’t formally announce before January. And the field could be volatile for months after that as candidates evaluate whether they have a shot at finishing in the top two and capturing a spot in the runoff.
“With a crowded field of people with political experience – good candidates – it’s unlikely that somebody is going to win outright,” said Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico professor who studies urban politics and policy. “It complicates the strategy in ways that we often don’t see in normal partisan elections.”
The race will unfold after Albuquerque has been squeezed by a sluggish economy and rising crime. Reforms in the Albuquerque Police Department – the result of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice – are likely to get attention, too.
There’s also been intense debate over Mayor Berry’s push for a new bus rapid transit system down Central Avenue, the old Route 66. Construction is already underway and expected to continue throughout 2017, unless litigation stops the project or federal funding doesn’t come through.
Crime and the economy, Sanderoff says, always have the attention of voters.
Over the past year, Albuquerque has been rocked by high-profile crimes, including the rape and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens – a case the police chief called “the most gruesome act of evil I have ever seen in my career.” Three law enforcement officers in the metropolitan area also have been shot during traffic stops since January 2015.
Meanwhile, the city’s police department has had mixed results as it strives to meet the terms of a settlement agreement with the DOJ. A federal investigation in 2014 found that APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force.
The police department is also understaffed, according to a report prepared as part of the reform effort.
In 2015, violent crime in Albuquerque climbed about 9 percent and property crime went up nearly 12 percent, according to FBI data.
The economy is also a concern. Among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, Albuquerque ranked 99th in the growth of its advanced industries’ output and ranked 85th in employment growth, according to the Brookings Institution.
The challenges facing the city could make for a rich debate among a large field of candidates, drawing voters to the polls.
Albuquerque’s 2013 mayoral race – when Berry crushed the field with 68 percent of the vote – drew about a 20 percent turnout. The national average for elections in big cities is about 27 percent, Krebs said.
The financial landscape isn’t settled.
Albuquerque has a voluntary system of public financing for campaigns. Mayoral candidates who qualify can get about $1 per voter to spend on their campaigns, or about $379,000.
But the council is also seeking voter approval to boost that figure to $1.75 a voter, or about $663,000.
Berry did not go the public financing route when he ran for re-election in 2013 and raised about $900,000 that year.
There’s been talk of sending the new public financing proposal to voters in February as part of the election already planned by the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education and Central New Mexico Community College. But the city hasn’t reached an agreement on how to share the cost of the election and it isn’t clear the question will end up going to voters in time to affect the 2017 mayor’s race.
Independent political committees that can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money also may emerge. Unions, business advocacy groups and national political organizations could shape the race if they decide to support or oppose particular candidates.
“It’s possible,” Sanderoff said, “that tremendous amounts of money could be spent on PACs and super PACs that dwarfs the amount the candidates themselves raise.”
The field of candidates will influence strategy.
In a winner-take-all system – with no runoff between the top two vote-getters – it’s common for the trailing candidates to attack the perceived frontrunner.
But in the nonpartisan municipal system, candidates just need to finish in the top two during the first round of voting. And they could be competing in a field of perhaps 10 candidates.
There’s no minimum threshold for making the runoff. Whoever finishes first and second moves on to the November election.
“The outcome would be practically determined by the combination of players,” Sanderoff said. “Which candidates are cannibalizing the support of other candidates?”
The city could, for example, see four left-leaning Democrats competing for the same slice of the electorate, making it easier for, say, a conservative Republican to secure a spot in the runoff.
Regionalism, ethnicity and other demographics also could play a role.
Party affiliation won’t appear on the ballot, allowing candidates to decide whether to highlight or downplay their party labels.
Martin Chávez, a Democrat, won three mayoral races – in 1993, 2001 and 2005 – by attracting support across party lines. Some voters might not even have realized he was a Democrat, Sanderoff said.
Berry, meanwhile, defeated Chávez in 2009, in part, by appealing directly to Republicans and uniting that share of the electorate behind him in a race against two Democrats, Krebs and Sanderoff said.
At that time, the City Charter had only a 40 percent threshold for avoiding a runoff. Berry won 44 percent of the vote in 2009, thus avoiding a runoff.
Berry drew support across party lines in his big 2013 re-election win. There are no term limits at City Hall, but Berry has said repeatedly that he won’t run for re-election next year.
The electorate itself is also a wild card. Voters in municipal elections are more likely to be older, Anglo and homeowners, Krebs said, often with an interest in politics or otherwise with a stake in city government.
The national political environment – following the election of Republican Donald Trump as president – is also a potential factor. Albuquerque area voters overwhelmingly supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, but the mood a year from now isn’t easy to predict.
“It feels like the country is in a more conservative mood,” Krebs said. “That’s sort of stating the obvious. It’s hard to say whether that’s going to affect a local race and give a lift to Republican candidates.”
On the other hand, he said, the party out of office might be energized as part of a backlash against politicians in Washington, D.C.
“Locally, we might say Democrats have something of an advantage,” Krebs said.
Whatever the case, Albuquerque is in for an unusual mayor’s race.