City Boss Fight 2009
The Candidate on the Right
An interview with mayoral contender Rep. R.J. Berry
It's the job of the challenger to stomp out of the saloon, guns blazing for the incumbent. That's the way this mayoral race has gone. State Rep. R.J. Berry and Richard Romero attack, and Mayor Martin Chavez deflects (though he's certainly squeezed the trigger a few times himself).
Berry's campaign updates can be found at berryformayor.com, and most fire rounds at city administration. "I think we can do better," he says. "Frankly, I think some of the main goals that people want in the city aren't being met today."
Berry, a Republican, is in the middle of his second term in the Legislature. He's served on the Legislative Appropriations and Finance Committee and holds a degree in finance and administration from UNM. Still, he considers himself a relative newbie. "I'm the fresh face to politics," he says.
The Alibi sat down with all of the candidates for the Oct. 6 municipal election, and our endorsement guide hits stands on Sept. 24. We're running highlights of the conversations we had with each of the mayoral candidates here in the news section. Two weeks ago, we published excerpts from our interview with Chavez [" For I Am the Mayor of Albuquerque," Aug. 13-19].
This week, it's Berry's turn behind the bullhorn. He's friendly, speaks quickly and came to our offices with a list of talking points, though he was able to answer questions from me, Christie Chisholm and Simon McCormack that deviated from his campaign plan.
Berry has said if elected, he'll only occupy the mayor's seat for two terms. At Chavez' request, the state Supreme Court evaluated the constitutionality of the city charter's mayoral term limits. In 2008, the court decided to do away with the rule restricting a mayor to two consecutive terms. That ruling is why Chavez can run this cycle after eight years in office. (He was also mayor from 1993 to 1997.)
Are term limits important?
It's healthy, Berry says, to change out the top dog. And he contends the citizens felt the same way when they voted in favor of mayoral term limits back in the day. "It's important at the executive level, because after 12 years of our current mayor, the creativity and the innovation have waned significantly," Berry says. "Political machines end up developing, whether that's intentional or not."
“This is not an immigration policy. This is a public safety policy.”
Rep. Berry is in favor of term restrictions at the executive level (like the Mayor's Office) but not for lawmakers (like legislators). "There's a lot of viability to have a lawmaker at any level who has experience and institutional knowledge," he says. "That experience is vital to being able to work with the career administrators that work in government to come up with balanced solutions."
Berry advocates ending what he calls the "sanctuary city policy" on his website. As things stand, Albuquerque Police Department officers cannot inquire about someone's immigration status unless it's pertinent to an investigation. Instead, he supports the policy followed by the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department: An officer can look into a person's immigration status after he or she is arrested for a crime.
What can be done about violent crime? How can we ensure we have quality officers, not just a quantity of police, on the streets? How much crime in the city is actually committed by illegal immigrants?
"As a businessperson, I believe you have to tap the expertise that you have," says Berry. "We need to sit down with the police department and ask: What aren't we doing?" Albuquerque needs to fight its gang problem, he says, not just by responding with good police work—funding for the youth gang prevention program should be restored.
There are many fine officers in APD, he says. "With the economic downturn it gives us the opportunity to attract folks to the force who wouldn't have been as interested several years ago." We need to train cops well, he adds.
A small number of people cause a great amount of harm in Albuquerque, according to Berry. "This is not an immigration policy. This is a public safety policy." Police should be able to use every tool at their disposal to get criminals off the streets, he says. He's not implying that most crimes are committed by illegal immigrants, he insists. "This is not a statement about 'I think immigrants are causing the problems.' "
“That's $112 million in improvements you and I won't ever see around the city.”
He's spent his life in the construction industry and worked as a housepainter and odd-job man through high school and college. Now Berry's a licensed contractor who has spent more than a decade developing a construction business. He received the Associated Builders and Contractors endorsement.
How should growth play out? What about impact fees imposed on builders? Green building codes?
Albuquerque has to grow, or it will stagnate, Berry says. "I want to make sure my son, who's 13 this week, has a bright future in Albuquerque." The question is: How do we grow? "Do we only promote infill? Do we grow on the outskirts?" Planning should have an eye toward sustainability and livability, he says, but we need to make sure to entice businesses to put up capital in our town. This will create jobs in the expanding city, he finishes.
The mayor and City Council are having a lengthy discussion about waiving impact fees—partially or entirely for green building projects—to stimulate the economy, Berry says. "What they've in effect done is they put everybody on the fence." He asks why someone would start building today if the fees may be waived tomorrow. He's in favor of doing away with the fees to spark interest. The impact-fee system as it stands doesn't work, he says. "It should create predictability." He says the arbitrary nature of how much a developer has to pay is a problem. "Let's make it even."
Green building codes can't grow too strict too fast, Berry says. Industry will drive eco-conscious building, he adds, if developers can save money by being energy efficient.
Berry's made a point of picking apart the city's budget. He says the city's sitting on $100 million that could be used to create jobs and that the mayor's a "deficit spender" because he increased the size of the city government.
How can both things be true? How should the city spend money? Should there be a decrease in city jobs?
The $100 million Berry's talking about came to the city through state grants, bonds and impact fees. That cash could create jobs right now through city improvements, he says, "primarily in construction, because that's what a lot of capital expenditure goes to." The city could landscape medians and build senior centers, offering contracts up for bid, he adds. Project leaders will dole out the money to architects, contractors, plumbers and electricians.
Chavez increased the size of government by almost 50 percent from 2003 to 2007, according to Berry. He also says the mayor used funds from quality-of-life projects like road improvements and soccer fields to finance his big government. "That's to the tune of $112 million over the last six years. That's $112 million in improvements you and I won't ever see around the city."
He again pushed the idea of creating incentives for business to boost jobs and increase the flow of gross receipts taxes into city coffers. "When you don't have the dollars, you can't maintain an overgrown government," he says. "Nobody goes into City Hall looking to lay people off. That's not something that I have on the top of my list of things you should do as mayor." But a mayor has to be fiscally responsible, he says. "I'd argue that making government 10 percent more efficient and holding it flat is as good as a 10 percent cut over time."
Berry's also been hammering on ethics in city contracts and expenditures.
What can be done at the city level to increase transparency?
"When you start creating a transparent environment—and this is where I agree with a lot of my friends on the other side of the aisle in Santa Fe—then everything else revolves around that." The candidate says he dug through the city's website looking for budget info for the last few years. "I can tell you having a truckload of data is one thing. Having it searchable and transparent is different." He'd like to put together a website that allows anyone to search for contracts or names, or to see what each department is spending on directors and assistants.