Both the City Council and Mayor Martin Chavez learned bitter lessons last week. Which lesson turns out to be the more painful of the two won't be known for sure until the October elections are completed.
The Council (and remember, every single councilor except Brad Winter is a first-termer) learned the painful lesson that the mayor can play real hardball when he is challenged, something that hasn't happened very often.
He overwhelmed a very minor attempt at reshaping his city budget priorities by unleashing a barrage of brush back fastballs aimed at upstart councilors' chins, skulls and fleshy soft parts that would have made Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez envious.
The lesson the mayor received wasn't as dramatic but eventually could turn out to be much more damaging than the one he gave. Sometimes it might be better, he found out, to let the opposition win a small concession, a minor victory, than to squeeze so hard to win every single point that you wind up lighting a fire under a dangerous opponent, which is what Brad Winter could become.
By nature, the likeable Winter is more of a conciliator than a crusader. He is serving this year as Council president precisely because he is a voice of moderation. He is someone the other eight members of the Council can trust to be fair and open. Intrigue is not something you associate with Winter, who can at times seem indecisive and even hesitant because he is searching for that elusive common ground that should make everyone happy.
But Winter also has a competitive streak. He is still occasionally pole-vaulting and winning medals in the event in Masters Track meets and was actually a champion athlete in high school and college. There is a keen competitor beneath his gentle exterior, but away from the track it only comes out rarely—when he gets angry or pushed into a corner.
Two years ago he got angry. He was running for reelection and his opponent's attacks provoked him into waging a vigorous, hard-hitting campaign. He fought back hard and won handily. It was a Brad Winter on fire who took that race. Now it is a similarly flaming Brad Winter who's been motivated to challenge Chavez for the mayor's seat, and Marty has only himself to blame for stoking the flames.
His hardball strategy over the budget, the effective but unfair accusations he leveled in the press at the Council and especially his unwillingness to even consider compromise on three new items in the budget that are high on his priority list but that don't even hit the radar screen on the Council's—those are the issues that pushed Winter into jumping into a race that he had appeared almost willing to sit out.
Can Winter defeat the incumbent mayor? Yes—but only if he stays angry and only if no other conservatives jump in. While the race is officially "non-partisan," that becomes moot when forming campaign organizations and soliciting contributions.
If Winter, a registered but at times unorthodox Republican, wraps up GOP support, he will be hard to defeat, particularly if it comes down to a runoff. There are a lot more Democrats in town than Republicans, but four Democrats will chop up that side of the spectrum. Depending how the other Democrats wage their campaigns, it could be that Chavez won't win the 40 percent he needs to avoid a runoff.
In a runoff between Winter and Chavez, progressive Democrats could very well throw their support to the genial and flexible Republican rather than the Democrat who acts imperial.
Then there is City Councilor Eric Griego. He's counting on a progressive turnout at least equaling that of the conservatives who will be splitting their votes between Chavez and Winter (again, if the field of candidates remains unchanged), which could open the door for him to earn one of the two runoff positions.
None of this may spell defeat for Chavez, who has an enormous bank account and a proven ability to milk press opportunities. But now a serious challenge to Marty's reelection can squarely be blamed on his own mishandling of the budget battles.
So what were these three earth-shattering issues that he felt so strongly about? The birthday party for the city's tricentennial, the plan of a panda exhibit at the zoo and the size of the new staff that will be assigned to the 311 city information service.
To me, none of the three is worth the risk. I think the private sector could be challenged to finance the birthday party, not taxpayer dollars, and the 311 telephone operators could be phased in gradually to hold down cost until it's clear what the demand for the service will be.
As for the pandas, I once visited the panda exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The crowds were impressive around the cage. Souvenirs were selling rapidly. These creatures demonstrated their drawing power.
What they didn't demonstrate was their presence. No one there that afternoon actually got to see them as they hid out in a bamboo thicket safe from prying eyes.
My suggestion is to put up a sign on a cage surrounding a stand of bamboo but save a lot of money by skipping the actual procurement of a panda. Hey, it worked for the emperor's new clothes, didn't it?