Last Night's Westside Mayoral Forum

After a moment of silence for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a prayer for the troops in Iraq and recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, approximately 150 Westsiders took their seats at the Taylor Ranch Community Center at 6:40 p.m. The mayoral debate was supposed to start at 6, but was delayed, according to an organizer, due to a "traffic situation." None of the gatherers laughed when the organizer delivered this punchline. Such is life on the Westside.

Channel 7 meteorologist Joe Diaz moderated with the precision of a seasoned Hollywood game show host (I mean that as a sincere compliment) and as soon as he read the ground rules, including the perfunctory "hold your applause until the end," you knew the event was in good hands. As it turned out, folks applauded frequently for Chavez, infrequently for Griego and not once for Winter, and Diaz did all he could to keep things moving along swiftly.

So would you like an objective play-by-play report, or my biased analysis? OK, biased analysis it is!

The majority of the crowd could fairly be placed into two categories: Marty supporters and Marty worshippers. Eric Griego had a few folks on his side, as did Brad Winter, but this was definitely the mayor's hood.

Brad Winter went right after the mayor, although with a subtle jab, in his opening remarks by thanking all the city employees in attendance and saying, "I hope you'll keep an open mind." Griego also seemed to go on the offensive in his opening remarks, saying "I'm not receiving any money from developers, but that's OK." To his credit, Griego seemed poised and relaxed throughout the 90-minute forum, although the Chavez backers clearly viewed him with hostility.

However, once Marty got the last word in the introductory statements, the tone for the evening was set. He neutralized his opponents weak attacks with a flutter of "It's wonderful to see my friends out here on the Westside ... we grew up together ... for so long Westside has been an orphan ... don't you love this community center ..." He went through a list of public projects, taking credit for every capital improvement, community center, little league organization, aquatic center, skate board park and, above all, those beloved road projects like Universe, Unser and, yes, Paseo! Montaño bridge—I will restripe it for you before Oct. 4! And this debate was pretty much over before it started as far as addressing any issue that related to Westside's planning and infrastructure woes.

Sure Griego talked eloquently about the virtues of the Planned Growth Strategy, about the need to build great neighborhoods with parks, schools, and other quality of life initiatives, he scorned the planning process that fosters unregulated sprawl that hemorrhages these communities and makes their daily grind stressful; he called for better regional transit planning, long term sensible solutions like HOV lanes and Westside light rail, instead of quick fix short-term road building that solves nothing. He might as well have been talking to the walls.

Brad Winter called for a more concerted effort to prioritize planning, get traffic across river expediently, complete Paseo-Unser-Coors and I-40, promote Westside light rail and so on. A big yawner for these folks.

The simple fact is people most concerned about sprawl, ironically, live in the University area. A pollster once explained to me that after doing focus groups for homebuilders and environmentalists, the results confirmed that people are willing to accept the downside of a horrendous commute for the affordable housing the production builders are selling on the Westside. These residents are concerned about traffic, but their solution is more roads and more buildings. Their solution is restriping Montaño, not car-pooling. When Griego says the Council stood up to developers, worked to alter the trend of rezoning Westside land for more and more residential housing, these folks don't care. They just want more pavement. D-5 is just one-ninth of the city, but a likely hotspot when voter turnout is measured.

Presumably Winter and Griego know this and should therefore be focusing their energy on other issues that resonate on the Westside. But that didn't happen and Marty actually came out unscathed, because the candidates didn't attack him on obvious points.

The most important issues in municipal elections are always crime, education and water. I don't care what any political strategist says, or what part of town you're in, these are still the important issues in this mayoral race.

On crime, Marty puts on a happy face and says crime is down and echoes ad nauseam "public safety is my number one priority." Maybe it is down on some statistical spreadsheet, but our public safety system could realistically be described as a disaster that only new leadership can fix. Every time Marty makes his rosy claim, the comeback should be: Do you feel safe? Do women feel safe walking the streets of Albuquerque? Do elderly folks feel safe in their own homes? Do you pray to Jesus every morning that when you walk out the door your driver's side window isn't smashed? Do you think we are a violent place? When you drop by your neighborhood police substation, is there ever anyone there? Do you know any of the cops that patrol your area? The APD evidence room scandal is a disgrace to this community and the mayor is ultimately accountable, no? And on and on.

Griego did his usual articulate job of promoting his initiative to fund more cops, fire and treatment programs with a quarter-cent public safety tax. He said we need to be honest as a community and recognize we have a serious crime problem and mocked Marty as "the only person in Albuquerque who thinks crime is down." He talks about the problem with a new municipal jail that's already bursting at the seams. The city-county management of the facility is a debacle.

Likewise, Winter decried the lack of officers on the streets, slow response times, empty substations and an under-equipped force (at least 50 cops on waiting list for tasers, he said). He bonked on the metro jail issue, saying we have to figure out who is going to manage it, but didn't offer a solution.

But why didn't anybody say the problem with the jail is that Marty hasn't done anything to fix the problem. Why? Because he doesn't get along with the county administrators and as a result the public suffers. That's a classic definition of failed leadership, and I (place candidates name here) am going to take control of the situation, work with other agencies and fix it. Nobody said that.

On education the pattern was similar. Marty talked about how the APS "system is broken," how it needs a "new structure" and then he skillfully diverted the issue to the Westside needing three, not two, new high schools and blaming APS for building a new administrative office instead of spending that cash on the Westside. The crowd's prodigal son scored big again with that one.

Meanwhile Griego talked sensibly about the city's role in funding after-school programs, anti-drop out initiatives, early childhood development; he called for more arts and music programs, giving kids better opportunities to succeed and said developers need to pay more in impact fees to cover cost of schools, and as mayor he would "go to Santa Fe and get in the middle of that," meaning he would lobby for legislation that would allow school costs to be included in impact fee charges, which is currently prohibited. Sounds good, but again, these folks don't care. All they want are more schools.

Winter talked sensibly about the need to have a "partnership" between the city executive and APS, to plan together to share facilities, to bring business to the table.

But here's my point: the candidates did not criticize Chavez for failed leadership. And if his leadership isn't failing, then why vote against him? If the "system is broke" at APS, then where the hell has Marty been for the past four years working to fix it. He hasn't done anything because he has contempt for APS and refuses to work with the board and the superintendent. Is that leadership?

That's where Winter and Griego should focus their arguments, instead of offering more sensible plans and forward thinking. Common sense and being ahead of your time do not win local elections in Albuquerque. Sad, but true.

Here's the biggest shocker: On the issue of ethics, Marty was the aggressor. When Winter unveiled his four-point ethics plan, the cornerstone to his "honest leadership" persona, Marty shot right back with: "I love it when candidates serve for six years and 30 days before the election discover campaign ethics reform." The crowd snickered at that one.

Not content with a jab, Marty turned the opportunity into a combination and replied to Griego's claim that he is bankrolled by developers (and the connotation that he's captive to their interests and offers them special favors in return) by saying, "I'm proud to have support of business community."

Meanwhile, neither candidate ever mentioned the word ABQPAC. Can you believe that? The one word that pinpoints the need for government reform and honest leadership and Marty's ethically-challenged "support" from the "business industry." Yet, Chavez' challengers are acting like it never happened. If Chavez hadn't been exposed as the mastermind behind a scheme to line his pockets with money from city contractors and city employees, among others, his superior political acumen and aggressive campaign style would make him a shoo-in for reelection. But because of ABQPAC, these guys have a chance. But first they need to make it an issue! Otherwise, they should just quit now.

As for David Steele, he is a lovable candidate, at times borderline incoherent in a Foster Brooks kind of way, but when he has a moment of clarity it's usually worth the wait. A recently retired city planning official, his answer to pretty much everything is: "We need a plan. What's the plan? We don't have a plan. We need one. We need a master plan to fix traffic, water and crime problems. We need planning, planning, planning. I'm gonna make a plan, etc."

When addressing a question about the city's "emergency preparedness," Mr. Steele said, "What are we going to do if the Rio Grande floods? How are we going to get people out of here when we only have two exits." A legitimate question if your long-term plan spans 1,000 years, but I don't think that's what the folks in the room were most concerned about. (Quick aside: a local reporter told me when he asked Steele where he went to high school, the candidate replied, "I'll have to get back to you on that." You gotta love that.) Where Mr. Steele hits a nerve, though, is when he talks about crime. He tells the story of his wife of 47 years being mugged at knife point in a Northeast Heights beauty salon, then says women and elderly folks don't feel safe walking the streets and suggests the mayor is "cooking the books" when it comes to his use of favorable crime statistics and increased numbers of cops on the streets. His candidacy isn't going anywhere, but he helps the others on the crime issue. And as far as I can tell, Winter and Griego need all the help they can get.