Reversal of Fortune
Mayor's race is just getting started
A few weeks ago, a seemingly endless series of problems involving the Albuquerque Police Department's Evidence Room threatened to make the Albuquerque mayor's race interesting. Accusations of theft, retribution, incompetence and cover-up made daily headlines, ending only after Gil Gallegos, the APD Police Chief, stepped down from his post.
In the midst of the controversy, City Councilor Eric Griego—until recently, the only officially declared candidate for mayor—went on offense against Mayor Martin Chavez and his public safety staff, becoming the lead Council pit bull in demanding answers, action and accountability.
Griego, never an ally of the incumbent mayor, scored direct hits in the news media and, from his perch on the Council dais, publicly grilled Chief Gallegos and Public Safety Director Nick Bakas like a couple of pork loins on your neighbor's barbecue. More importantly for Griego's campaign, between the PR debacle of the evidence room and Griego's aggressive performance, it looked like the freshman councilman might actually give Mayor Marty a serious run for re-election.
But then a subtle shift in political momentum occurred. After the resignation of Gallegos and the announcement that APD veteran Ray Schultz would take his place at the helm, Griego continued his frontal assault against Team Chavez calling for the additional resignation of Bakas. According to Griego, as the city's top public safety official, Bakas should be held accountable for the evidence room snafu, too.
Perhaps the public and the city's journalists were simply worn out with the whole evidence room affair. Maybe after watching its lead police officer fall on his sword, the city felt that was enough retribution. Either way, Griego appeared to be overplaying his hand, providing Chavez allies with the first opportunity to counterattack they'd had in an awfully long time.
And counterattack they did. The administration quickly pointed out that Bakas was charged with coordinating the city's Homeland Security effort—not overseeing the APD evidence room. That was the chief's job and the chief had resigned.
Interestingly, Chavez—who tends to prefer having surrogates respond to Griego rather than respond directly himself—weighed in with a scathing press release saying, "The freshman councilor appears willing to say or do anything to hurt anyone to further his political career." Ouch.
What had been a subtle shift in momentum was soon followed by a full-blown damage control situation for Griego, however. Contribution and expenditure reports filed with the City Clerk's office raised eyebrows almost the second the Griego campaign filed them on April 15.
First, the campaign reports were turned in after the actual filing deadline. Second, according to Griego's report, a couple dozen of his contributors were in violation of the city's $4,515 contribution limit. Soltari, a local political consulting group that specializes in working with left of center issues and left of center candidates, was listed as having made an $8,000 contribution to Griego, bringing Soltari's total contribution in the first and second reporting periods to $12,500—well in excess of the contribution caps.
Finally, occupations and addresses of contributors that are required by city election law as part of the reporting disclosure were left blank in the overwhelming majority of Griego's contributions—an interesting omission for a candidate whose campaign platform is based on "openness" and "transparency" in government.
Griego later amended the reports three different times but the amended reports raised even more questions. Nearly $27,000 in contributions were wiped off the books between the first filing Friday and the last amended statement. The $8,000 contribution from Soltari, for example, was re-labeled an $8,000 invoice. In a number of cases (particularly with people in excess of the contribution cap), "contributions" of a thousand dollars or more simply became "zeros."
The Griego camp attributed the discrepancies to a part-time finance director and clerical errors made by an inexperienced staff member during the data entry process. Apparently that wasn't good enough for former Albuquerque Tribune investigative reporter Dan Vukelich, who filed an ethics complaint with the City Clerk's office against Griego over the reports. Vukelich, who once won a national award for his work on a story that centered on political finance reports, called Griego's contribution records some of the "sloppiest" he's ever seen.
Admittedly, Griego's campaign got their stuff stuck in the wringer, causing a few political observers to begin writing the candidacy's political obituary. But let's also remember, a number of the same folks had their pens out for Marty Chavez at the height of the evidence room saga.
A word to the wise: There's five months until election day and this race is just getting started.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.