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Council Chief Up for Grabs

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
          Ken Sanchez walked into the City Council chambers a few years ago expecting to be elected president.
        It didn't happen.
        Fast forward to December 2009, and Sanchez's eight colleagues elected him to the job without opposition.
        The moral of the story? "You never know" how the annual race for council president will turn out, Sanchez said.
        This year's decision could be similarly unpredictable. Behind-the-scenes jockeying for the position has already started, though the election of officers won't happen for another two months.
        Don Harris, a Republican and chairman of the council's budget committee, is one candidate under discussion. Dan Lewis, a Republican who just joined the council last year, has also been talked about, though he says the job isn't "on my radar" at this point.
        It's early, and all kinds of candidates could surface by December. The final result will come down to simple math.
        Councilor Brad Winter, for example, says he once asked a colleague if it takes brains to become council president.
        The answer: "No. You need five votes."
        Harris confirmed Friday that he's interested in the job, which involves running regular meetings deep into the night. It's not an easy task, given that the council chambers are often filled with 240 audience members ready to give you a piece of their mind, all in two-minute turns at the podium.
        The council president also serves as an unofficial spokesperson for the legislative branch of Albuquerque city government and often works as a liaison with the mayoral administration. The president also makes about $20,000, or twice what other councilors make.
        Winter, who's held the job at least four times, said the most important trait is moving the meetings along quickly, having the courage to stop public speakers at their two-minute limit and treating everyone fairly.
        "You need to make sure you represent all the councilors," Winter said. "You shouldn't use that position to push an agenda."
        Municipal offices are nonpartisan, but coalitions among like-minded Democrats or Republicans are common.
        Winter, a moderate Republican, once won the office with the backing of four Democrats.
        Harris this year may be an appealing candidate for the council's Democrats: Sanchez, Debbie O'Malley, Isaac Benton and Rey Garduño. As budget chairman, Harris has worked well with Sanchez, a moderate Democrat. And because Democrats don't comprise a majority of councilors, they may opt to back a Republican.
        Harris has shown a willingness to seek middle ground with opponents, and he isn't particularly cantankerous or combative. He seems to get along with newly elected Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican who lives in Four Hills, which is part of Harris' district.
        "This mayor has been very easy to work with," Harris said. "He seems to be approaching things from much more of a policy plain. There's been no indication that he's treating councilors and their districts any differently based on how they vote, which is a change from the prior administration."
        Berry defeated then-Mayor Martin Chávez, a Democrat, in last year's municipal election.
        For the first time in at least 20 years, Republicans now hold the Albuquerque mayor's office and a majority of the council. The mayor works on the 11th floor of City Hall, councilors the ninth. The proximity, however, doesn't always lead to good relationships.
        "There's more of a limited-government approach coming from both the 11th floor and ninth floor," Harris said of the new political landscape.
        Lewis said he might be interested in serving as council president at some point. But right now, he said, "I'm focused on just doing the best job for the West Side."
        One key decision for a council president is agreeing on appointments to the board of the Water Utility Authority, which is overseen by three city councilors, three county commissioners and the mayor.
        Harris said he would support appointees who understand the need for water conservation but that "it would be very important to me that the water board shouldn't be making land-use policy."
        The city's current appointees to the board are Republican Trudy Jones and Democrats Garduño and O'Malley. Jones serves as chairwoman of the water board.
        Whether those appointees would change is unclear.
        "It's kind of early," O'Malley said of the presidential race. "It ain't over till it's over."
        Sanchez knows it first hand: "I thought I was going to be the council president (a few years ago), but at the 11th hour, five minutes before the meeting, it all changed. Anything is possible."

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