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 V.15 No.16 | April 20 - 26, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

Manliness at City Hall

The minimum wage, jail and public education

There's a new book out in defense of manliness. It's got the commentators all atwitter with its premise, which is that, as a nation, we are making a huge mistake by downplaying the importance of those classic hunter-gatherer virtues, such as decisiveness, bravery, courage under fire ... and volume.

But the critics aren't united in their praise for the author's contention that we need more of those uniquely male qualities in our societal leaders. Many have sharply challenged the notion as one which has, among other things, landed us in the current Iraq mess, where we could have benefited from a lot more care, planning and negotiation and a lot less muscle-flexing and bombast.

For example, the bodybuilding governor of California scoffs at his opponents as “girly men.” But history has taught us that truly effective political leaders are those who have learned to temper testosterone-driven reactions with something akin to feminine reflection and even (amazingly, the rarest of leadership qualities) the willingness to listen to and learn from others.

Of course, we latinos have a long history of trying to live down our special version of manliness, machismo. It plays great in ballads, telenovelas and barrooms but has proven less successful in politics, bedrooms and divorce court.

Still, there's no denying there is something fascinating about watching alpha males strut their stuff. Chest-pounding at the gorilla compound at the BioPark always draws a crowd of excited onlookers. Blustering and bellowing, stomping and glowering, these manly primates seem determined to act. Certainly not to think; that's far less entertaining.

In several recent actions on the local political front, manliness (bluster, noise, threats) seems to be substituted for dialogue, debate, negotiation. We are all the losers when that kind of belly-bumping replaces the give and take which is supposed to be the strength of democracy. When decisions are made solely on the basis of who can stare-down whom, those decisions aren't going to be the best.

And so it is with three hot issues currently at City Hall: the proposal to increase the minimum wage, the struggle over the county jail and making the mayor responsible for public schools. Each is of vital importance to the community. Each has elicited responses from the Eleventh Floor that can only be described as manly. Each deserves much fuller consideration than to be treated as yet another test of wills.

Mayor Chavez showed considerable political know-how at the rally honoring Cesar Chavez the first weekend in April. He was booed when introduced at the event. Many of his policies have not endeared him to the young people in the community.

But Marty skillfully turned those boos to cheers by promising to honor the memory of Cesar Chavez in signing legislation raising our hourly minimum wage to $7.50. It was a move applauded by all in attendance. It sounded manly: decisive, clear, effective.

It was also a move he has been qualifying ever since, sounding less and less leader-like with every step backward. Now we learn he actually favors a gradual phase-in (is there any term less manly than gradual phase-in?) in small increases over a three-year period.

Similarly, in the case of the city's unilateral decision to pull out of running the jail, the mayor's style has been to use press releases and press conferences to issue ultimatums to the County Commission rather than sit down and negotiate some kind of settlement that won't prove disruptive to the functioning of that important institution.

Sure, he has state law on his side. Jails are county, not city, responsibilities. But after decades of sharing the burden, to suddenly pull the plug on joint operation and financing is the sort of dramatic, macho gesture comic book heroes make work in their tidy little closed universes ... but that we don't expect from democratically elected officials operating in the real world.

Finally, Mayor Chavez has been drawing all kinds of fire from apologists for the school system for his suggestion that we ought to consider making the schools a responsibility of city government rather than allowing them to operate independently, like they have historically.

Again, his modus operandi has been to use the bully pulpit of the mayoral press conference to blaze away in the best tradition of Western gunslingers, throwing all caution to the wind. And this time, the outlaws are firing right back. He's badly outnumbered and isn't getting much supportive firepower from his usual defenders in our daily press.

That's a pity, because I think he's on the right track on this issue. If he'd opt for careful analysis instead of a gunfight, I think he might get a lot further. Think about it. One half of the state's entire budget goes to public education. And APS pulls down about one third of the public education dollars annually spent in New Mexico. That means one in every six state dollars is getting spent by the APS board.

That's a huge responsibility. It ought to be scrutinized much more closely than it is now. But we should talk about it; reach a decision through debate, not arm wrestling. A little less machismo, please, Mr. Mayor, and less leaping from blazing buildings.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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