Like politicians everywhere, Richard Romero’s message is change.
Scrutiny of Mayor Martin Chavez' administration fuels Romero’s campaign. Like fellow candidate R.J. Berry, he's hammering on ethics reform, public safety and the economy. And both are hitting the mayor on the city's budget. But though the topics are the same, proposed solutions diverge, highlighting the political backgrounds of the contenders. It's a nonpartisan race, but it's fair to say that Romero's firmly a Democrat in his approach, and Berry's unabashedly Republican.
Romero became a state senator in 1992 and stayed in the Legislature for three terms. He was elected President Pro Tem of the Senate in 2001. He ran against Heather Wilson for her seat in Congress in 2002 and 2004 but lost both races. He assures that Alibi that he's in this race because he wants to be mayor of Albuquerque, not just to keep his political star in the sky. "I'm working hard," he says. "I wouldn't be running if I wasn't serious about it."
After leaving the Roundhouse, he became a lobbyist, which has lately drawn questions about whether the use of political connections as a lobbyist is fair. "Lobbyists are part of the political system," Romero said during his candidate endorsement interview with the Alibi. "Our very first lobbyist was Ben Franklin. He lobbied France to fund the war." Lobbyists represent entities from the American Cancer Society to tobacco companies, he adds. "I was selective about who I lobbied for," he says, and the list of his organizations has included the University of New Mexico, various educational organizations, Isleta Pueblo and social workers.
The Alibi has chewed the fat over the last couple weeks with mayoral and Council candidates in the Oct. 6 municipal election. (Our endorsement guide comes out Sept. 24.) We're publishing parts of those conversations with the top three mayoral contenders in the news section. This week, Romero’s in our spotlight. This is the last of the interviews, and the rest are available at alibi.com.
Romero's personable, easy-going and his experience as a campaigner shows. He stayed on message and comfortably answered all questions from me, Christie Chisholm and Simon McCormack.
“We need to get the politics out of the police department, particularly when it comes to hiring at the upper levels.”
The Albuquerque Police Department eats up a good portion of the city's operating budget, according to Romero's campaign website. Yet crime is out of control, he says.
What can be done to decrease crime rates in Albuquerque—especially violent crime?
Albuquerque needs more officers on the street, Romero says. "I know we're shorthanded, even though the mayor says we have 1,100 cops. He's counting policemen in the airport, cadets still in training." It's a challenge, he continues, because though some new cops are hired, others retire. The community policing concept needs to become a reality—“We need to stop talking about it and do it"—he adds. Officers should be integrated into neighborhoods and schools so they become connected, a part of them.
"We need to get the politics out of the police department, particularly when it comes to hiring at the upper levels." Commanders shouldn't be at-will employees, Romero says, which by definition makes them beholden to the mayor. "We've got to cut the administrative fat at the top. We've got so many deputy directors, it's not even funny. We need to let cops do their job. We need to push authority as far down as we possibly can." The mayor, he says, shouldn't be running APD. "The disciplinary actions that occur in the police department need to be fair and they need to be handled by the police department."
It was reported in early August that the Albuquerque Public Schools' graduation rate was 46.2 percent in 2008. The Mayor's Office doesn't have direct control over APS, though the city does kick over a chunk of change to the public school system every year.
How can the next mayor help APS graduate more students?
"We've had dropouts since time immemorial," Romero says. "The problem is, in the old days they used to drop out of school and into a job because we had such a large manufacturing base." Those kinds of opportunities don't exist anymore, he says. "So consequently, when kids drop out, they drop out into the streets. They get drawn into gangs."
“When I talk to small businesses, they tell me that the bidding process is not fair.”
Albuquerque has to admit it has a gang problem, he adds. Early intervention is key, according to Romero, and head-start programs should be beefed up, while middle schools should have more extensive sports offerings. "We need to have alternative schools work with the charter schools and make sure we capture these kids if they happen to drop out."
City bureaucrats must find a way to work with APS, he says. "They've got to be talking to each other." As mayor, Romero says he’d work with the public schools to plan facilities and save taxpayer dollars. "The current mayor just kicks them around. He wants to control them."
Among Romero's campaign promises: an audit of city contracts to root out abuse and the end of "special interest deals" like tax money going to SunCal. He also notes Pulitzer Prize-winner Eileen Welsome's investigative piece on the Balloon Museum. She reported the contract inflated from a six-figure deal to a $7 million payout for architect Marc Schiff, who's been convicted in the Metro Courthouse kickback scandal.
How have the well-connected benefited over the last eight years? What would make city government fair and honest?
Romero would like to see the city's budget online and available for every citizen to parse. "When I talk to small businesses, they tell me that the bidding process is not fair. It's almost a pay-to-play situation." Government has to be open, he continues, and there can't be any more no-bid contracts. "It's amazing how much more we could do if we didn't care who got the credit."
Political history comes into play in the water debate. Mayor Chavez and Romero are trading jabs about water this election cycle, and it’s not the first time they’ve squared off on the subject. Romero says the city's future water supply isn't a sure thing, and Chavez criticized Romero's support in the Legislature of a bill that created a city-county water department with no direct accountability to Albuquerque voters.
Is the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority good for the region?
The mayor's bad attitude caused the creation of the Water Authority, says Romero. "Legislators just wanted to stick it to him." He doesn't think the Water Authority is a bad thing, he adds, and he wishes it were bigger so it would oversee neighboring municipalities using the same supply.
Plus, he says, the Water Authority can be held accountable to voters. Its governing board includes three city councilors—Trudy Jones, Rey Garduño and Ken Sanchez—and Chavez. "The mayor sits on the board. If he'd ever attend one of those meetings, I think it would be very beneficial to him."
When Romero was a kid in Barelas, he says, he could dig down three feet and hit water. But that doesn't happen anymore. Cottonwoods close to his near-Downtown home have started to push roots through sidewalks because they're competing with lawns for hydration.
For water conservation to be effective, Romero says, we've got to work with neighboring municipalities. Rio Rancho, Valencia County and Bernalillo all have straws in our aquifer, he says. "We have to work with people to conserve so we can make sure we can continue to grow appropriately."
Like his opponents, Romero supports what he's calling "smart growth" in Albuquerque, though definitions of that term reveal drastic differences. He's come out against TIDDs for SunCal, the company that bought the Westland Development in 2006.
Should Albuquerque keep growing? How can we ensure we don't overextend our resources?
"One of the difficulties with policing Albuquerque is that we're so sprawled," he says, and the amount of land the city occupies is large when considering our population.
Growth has to be sustainable, he adds, and it has to be controlled. "I'm not against growth. It has to happen here. Otherwise our young people would leave." But Albuquerque needs to be careful, he continues.
He says he believes in redevelopment but finishes that thought with "I do not support the SunCal TIDDs." The city's enabled SunCal to put the risk associated with its housing development onto the shoulders of the public, he says, while keeping the profit for itself. "It should be the reverse. Developers should risk their own money, not the public's money." Plus, he points out, once the massive addition is built, Albuquerque will still be saddled with providing police and fire protection.