With this mayoral election, lil' Albuquerque has caught up to many larger cities. Maybe it's a rite of passage in graduating from "cow town with a dollop of sleaze," as one national magazine described us in the '80s, to a spot on the "best of" lists of Forbes and Money. But unlike other milestones in our city's history, we should leave this one out of our Tricentennial celebrations.
Albuquerque is seeing its most expensive mayoral election ever. Money is flooding our municipal democracy. Incumbent Martin Chavez and challengers Eric Griego, Brad Winter and David Steele, collectively reported raising about $1 million by mid-July. When the next round of finance reports hits, we'll be approaching a multimillion dollar race for a job that pays less than one hundred grand.
Where is all the dough coming from?
The largest chunk belongs to Chavez, who reported receiving around $700,000 in campaign donations. He raised those funds from 1,162 contributors, at an average of about $600 per donor. The share coming from the development industry—real estate, construction and finance—ranges from never less than 40 percent to over 60 percent on each of his quarterly reports during the past year.
Critics say Chavez is beholden to developers. But Chavez, with his apparent lead and reputation for vindictiveness, may have the leverage in that marriage.
According to the Winter and Griego camps, as well as a few candidates running for Council that aren't Marty's favorite choice, people in the development industry have received calls from Chavez' campaign stating that he expects them, and their partners, to make the maximum contribution, followed by a pledge that he will know when and if their money hits his accounts. The Griego and Winter campaigns also allege that Marty has issued unsubtle warnings to well-known contributors against contributing to his opponents.
Businesses vulnerable to shifting political tides frequently self-insure by spreading their money around. They give even-handedly to the front-runners, or at least donate to more than one candidate. Call it the price of doing business. That practice has nearly disappeared from this election, providing at least circumstantial evidence of the effectiveness of Chavez' methods.
You will also find in Chavez' reports substantial contributions from city workers. This echoes the ABQPAC scandal, when city employees were leaned on to give money to a so-called political action fund that funneled $30,000 to Chavez personally, and another $30,000 to pay his meals, airfare and hotels and wife's cell phone.
City contractors comprise one other noteworthy category of Chavez' contributors. The generosity of airport lessees, equipment and material vendors, service providers and lawyers with city work has definitely helped Chavez attain that $600 average.
Next comes City Councilor Eric Griego. Although he reported raising less than a fourth of Chavez' war chest, he attracted nearly as many donors. That's because most of his funds come from small donations. He reported $156,000 from 1,024 donors, for an average of $152 per donation. Except for occasional thousand-dollar donations skewing the curve, the bulk fall in the $25 to $100 range.
No pattern other than modest, individual donations leaps from Griego's reports. He has not received a great concentration of money from one industry. And, unlike Chavez, he has not accepted a large number of checks from corporations.
City Council President Brad Winter got in late and has filed but one report so far. He reported $42,744 from 151 people for an average donation of $283. Only a small fraction of regular Republican donors ponied-up. Many GOP contributors on Chavez' list have yet to aid Winter. Former Gov. Gary Johnson and Congresswoman Heather Wilson have started raising money for Winter. He needs to do much better if he's going to get his message of "honest leadership" to the Republican voters he needs to at least reach a runoff. Winter reportedly has now banked significantly above $100,000, and the Republican Party has launched its own "independent" direct mail efforts.
David Steele reported more cash than Winter. He claimed $55,000 from 63 donors, although $7,000 came from his own pocket. Excluding personal contributions, Steele received the highest average donation of $787. That fact is as incomprehensible as his candidacy.
To be realistic—or cynical, if you prefer—giving money can be as necessary to participate effectively in today's elections as voting. I don't know anyone who likes this fetid situation, except mercenary political consultants and those who treat political donations as investments in profits and power.
Voting against whomever big money wants the most would be a heroic defense of the Albuquerque we love and don't want to surrender. I'm thinking a populist Charge of the Light Brigade. We might fail against the sharp edges of all those crisp $100 bills but, oh, the glory! And while we're poking a stick in the eye of moneybags who think our city's for sale, we can also support public financing in future elections.
That excellent idea made the ballot thanks to Eric Griego. Winter, regrettably in line with GOP dogma, opposes it. And Chavez? His campaign hopes to blow past the million-dollar mark before October.