City Boss Fight 2009
For I Am the Mayor of Albuquerque
An interview with Martin Chavez
It's an obscure "Simpsons" reference. An animated Burque mayor wants to steal Springfield's baseball squad, the Isotopes. In the final shot of the episode, he turns to the camera and says, "For I am the mayor of Albuquerque." Our non-cartoon city team takes its name from the ep.
The caricature of Mayor Martin Chavez drawn in Albuquerque's press is of a man with big plans who's unwilling to tone them down when they crash into opposition. His eyes light up in a cartoonish way when he's talking arenas and the modern rail system. You'll always find him in headlines, announcing amenities, feeling out a possible governorship or senator seat, and boxing his varied foes.
He knows the city—and he should. He's run it for 12 years (eight consecutively) and wants to add four more to the Marty era. He can't let his projects go, he says. "I saw it happen when I was out for four years. I saw some of the things I thought were permanent, they started to fade away."
The Alibi will sit down with all of the candidates for the mayoral and Council races in preparation for our Election Guide, due out Sept. 24. We'll endorse candidates for each race in the Oct. 6 municipal election. That process is only just beginning, and contrary to what Chavez might think, we haven't yet selected our candidate. This year, we'll run write-ups in the news section for each of the contenders in the mayor's race.
Christie Chisholm, Simon McCormack and I drew up a list of questions and fired them off. Chavez generously spent more than an hour answering them. Here are some of the highlights:
Chavez was mayor from 1993 to 1997 and from 2001 until the present. In April 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled that a city charter allowing only two consecutive mayoral terms was unconstitutional. It was at Chavez’ request that the court re-examined the charter last year.
Why was the term limits rule changed?
The state constitution says in local elections, the person who wins is the person who gets the most votes. "It makes no provision for term limits," Chavez says. The state's high court ruled years ago that term limits for councilors are unconstitutional, he adds, and that extended by implication to the Mayor's Office, though the old ruling didn't expressly spell it out. "It was a no-brainer for them."
He supports term limits for the president but doesn't back it in state legislatures and cites California as an example of term limits gone awry. People in those positions need sustained experience so they can see a little further down the road, he says. "Clearly, I don't support them at the mayor's level."
Opponents have argued that term limits are important because they maintain the balance of power. "I notice neither of the candidates started talking about it until it got near Election Day [Oct. 6] and neither of them seemed to be doing so well."
On his campaign website, the mayor says his No. 1 priority is public safety. He contends he'd like to hire 100 new police officers. Two of the three Alibi staffers interviewing Chavez experienced a violent crime within the last year.
How can we ensure those 100 new officers are quality police? What else can be done to mitigate violent crime in the city?
For the first time in a few decades, Albuquerque has the luxury of more qualified applicants than slots on the force, according to Chavez. "That was never the case in the past." Psychological screenings, background checks and physical requirements are intense, he says. "We've made the compensation package the best in the state," he adds. It includes paying off student loans, putting officers through college and a $7,500 down payment on a house.
"A small percentage of the criminals are doing the repeat crimes in this town. I am frustrated. My police are frustrated." He points to an incident a couple of weeks ago wherein police collared a burglar and found he had 14 priors, most of them residential burglaries. "I'm going to start calling judges out," he says. "It's a combination of two things: One, judges let repeat offenders go lightly, and two, we have laws that allow them to do that."
In May, the City Council threatened to take the mayor to court because they couldn't agree on the capital project budget. In early August, the Council unanimously overrode the mayor's veto of amendments to the city charter.
Does the mayor consider his relationship with the Council contentious? How does that affect the city? What can be done to patch things up?
"First off, the Council and I agree on almost everything," Chavez says. "I'm the only elected official responsible to the whole city. We have nine Council districts." In their heart of hearts, each councilor wants what's best for the city, he speculates. But they have to cater to the needs of their districts and the people within those zones who elect councilors to office. An expansion of the zoo or Balloon Museum is fought by councilors, he says, when those amenities aren't in their districts. "What I tell people is that I'm very easy to work with. And those that work with me will tell you that. I'm really hard to work against."
One of the reasons he didn't like the amendments, he says, was that they substantially weakened the executive branch (the Mayor's Office) to the benefit of the legislative branch (the City Council). "It's an institutional friction that's inherent." It's the chief executive position, he adds. "If you have a strong mayor, which is what most major cities have, you've got a leader. You've got somebody who sets vision. Nine people can't set an agenda or a vision for a community." Plus, having a powerful mayor means having more accountability, he says, because if you don't like him, you can kick him out. "People say, I elect my officials so they'll be fair and unbiased. No they don't. They elect their officials to do what they want done."
Finally, Chavez concludes, on any issue sparking strong Council-mayor disagreement, he's always offered the middle ground.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Eileen Welsome investigated the relationship between Chavez and Marc Schiff, an architect convicted in the Metro Courthouse scandal. Welsome wrote that Schiff's contract to build the Balloon Museum inflated from a six-figure deal to one that cost the city nearly $7 million.
Do we need to be concerned about ethics surrounding city contracts? How can we be sure contracts are handled appropriately and going out for bids?
"Any contract my administration has entered into is subject to scrutiny, and it ought to be," says Chavez. "City Council approved every one of those contracts and all the amendments to the contracts." The mayor makes few decisions on contracts, he adds. "Almost everything we do is low-bid, and the mayor's not involved in that process at all." City contracts are open for the public to read through, he says, because it's the public's dime. "The mayor doesn't get to pick and choose like people think," he finishes.
Services for low-income families and the homeless need cash as demand increases and donations drop.
Homelessness presents a host of problems Downtown. Is there anything the city can do to increase funding for providers?
Chavez points to a panhandling law that allows police to bust those who are aggressively getting in the faces of passersby and doing so in a quasi-threatening manner. Under the law, the panhandler has to do it twice, which requires a plainclothes officer to be asked for money, and then another undercover officer to be asked again. "We're issuing 20 citations per week." Albuquerque's seen a spike in homelessness, but many of the people are coming in from out of state. He advocates a plan where services aren't concentrated Downtown.
"The second way to deal with homelessness is not necessarily to spread it out," he adds, "but to populate it [Downtown] with everyone else, and then they tend to blend in."
The city can't offer homeless providers more money, according to Chavez. "We're in a recession. The budget's balanced. I'm one of the only mayors in the country to balance their budget without layoffs or a reduction in service." Federal stimulus dollars also went to creating a program headed by Catholic Charities that will help people who just lost their homes or who are about to. "We got $1.8 million, which is a rip-off, but still, it's better than nothing." The program is the only one developed with stimulus dollars that creates an ongoing, recurring financial obligation for the city, he adds. "If someone finds an absolute cure for homelessness, send it in."