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 Dec 9 - 15, 2004 
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Ortiz y Pino

Mayor's Race Is a Whole New Ballgame

Money taints our once fair and balanced election process

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

For a poor state, New Mexico sure seems to have a lot of elections, don't we?

I mean maybe we ought to figure out some way to turn our year-round, practically continuous, voting efforts into economic opportunity. Could we charge admission, sell the film, television or naming rights or perhaps even make book on them ... you know, pari-mutuel betting on the outcome, with odds set by experienced touts and the proceeds at least paying for the recounting costs. Or would that take all the fun out?

In two months we'll be asked to select four new members for the Albuquerque Board of Education (as well as to decide the fate of an enormous new bond issue for school construction). But these are just appetizers for the main course, the center ring, the headline event for 2005: selecting the next mayor of Albuquerque.

And this year a couple of rules changes could wind up making this a whole new ballgame, one that might seriously complicate the pundits' efforts to handicap it. Of course, isn't that the first rule of show business? Keep 'em guessing?

The first change is that the voters just approved a constitutional amendment which will require runoff election this time around. If no candidate gets at least 40 percent of the vote on Election Day, there's going to be a second vote taken a month later, but this time only involving the top two vote-getters from the first ballot.

Martin Chavez, the city's current top dog, intends to be the first mayor in our town's recent history (i.e., since the Mayor/Council system was adopted in the Charter back in the early '70s) to win re-election to a second consecutive term. Thanks to his name recognition and his incessant press conferences, he will almost certainly be at the top of the initial round, particularly if there are a large number of people running.

But if he falls just short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff, he could be beaten in round two by a challenger who might forge temporary alliances with supporters of all the other candidates. If the runoff turns into a kind of "Anyone but Marty" phenomenon, this rule change could bring Chavez down.

Notice, I said could. The mayor is riding high right now, his popularity with Westside voters surging in the wake of his road bond victory that will push Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyph National Monument and open up vast tracts of the mesa to development (sorry, this doesn't mean traffic reduction. In the interests of accuracy, let's leave it at development).

Which brings us to the second change in the electoral ground rules, the truly lethal one: lifting the spending caps. I hope you kept a copy of the list of donors to the "Quality Neighborhoods Committee" campaign that was published in the dailies right before we voted. That same list of public-spirited boosters will now be anteing up really big bucks to make sure we get a mayor willing to finish the job of smashing through all that rock art to foster more Westside residential expansion.

What I'm saying is that Mayor Chavez is positioned extremely well to be able to outspend his opposition. For the sprawl home developers, a contribution to Chavez is just part of the price of doing business. It won't matter how much money other candidates raise because Marty's going to be able to top that by a lot. That is the ugly reality behind the politics of booty, which is the only kind of politics we have left in this country.

Once the U.S. Supreme Court absurdly ruled that money is the equivalent of free speech and that any attempt at restricting it in campaigns infringes on free speech, well, the handwriting was on the wall: All politics are now the politics of booty. Booty; loot; dinero; rocks—those that have it get to have more democracy than those that don't. Finito.

So this year's mayoral race isn't going to be another of our colorful little exercises in civic involvement. We aren't going to have a dozen contenders squaring off in school auditoriums at quaint forums before a crowd of League of Women Voters, working people and their own relatives. No, no, no. We will now have a bona fide 21st century American election. You know: countless, dreadful 30-second television spots.

A word to those would-be candidates making phone calls this weekend to potential supporters. If you don't have a quarter of a million pledged by the filing deadline, save your energy. Mayor Chavez' account is bulging and the new ground rules mean you won't have a chance.

The only way he might be beaten is if an attractive Republican candidate were to jump in and siphon off some of the business community's support. I don't think Bob Schwartz, nominally a Republican, though one currently working with the Richardson administration, would do it.

Marty was extremely careful throughout the presidential campaign to avoid being identified closely with the Democratic party and he's gotten awfully cozy with the bankers and the barons of industry. So it wouldn't be a shock to discover that the GOP has decided to stay out of this year's fandango. He may call himself a Democrat, but his heart seems to be elsewhere.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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