Tip O'Neill, the prominent former Democratic House speaker, in his oft-quoted quip said "All politics are local." This is not to be confused with the old New Mexican saying "All politicos are loco." But let's be honest: Who gives a rat's red patutee about who the next trustee in Romeroville is? You should.
With the tumultuous legislative session and Democratic presidential primaries in full swing, not many of us were paying attention to the numerous local elections around the state on March 2. Unless we happened to have a friend or relative in one of the races, why would we? The answer is, local elections, for mayor, City Council and county commission are important. These officials are on the front lines for public service—dealing with issues that effect people in their daily lives.
One of the most compelling reasons to pay attention to local politics is their effect on state and federal policy. Some of the most innovative ideas are being pushed at the local level. Much of the legislation proposed at the state level was passed in similar form in some community in New Mexico. Whether it is the mayor of San Francisco bucking the state's Hollywood governor on gay marriage or the numerous city councils around the country that passed local resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act, local elected officials often are the first to step into to the fray on important national policy issues.
Perhaps more importantly than their affect on any one area of public policy, many of these local officials move on to more prominent elected and appointed positions that affect all of us. Gov. Bill Richardson, for example, appointed more than a dozen former mayors and county commissioners to high levels in his administration. Several members of the state Legislature—especially from more rural parts of the state—were former mayors, councilors or county commissioners. A future governor or House speaker may be now making decisions in some New Mexican city that will give us a great insight into what kind of leader and public official he or she will be.
Even though more voters turn out for presidential elections than City Council elections, most politicos realize to win, you have to keep your eye on the issues closest to the electorate. Does this mean George W. Bush should campaign on speed bumps? Of course not. But it does mean that candidates at all levels of government ignore local issues—and local elections—at their own peril.
For those of us who welcome progressive change in New Mexico, the last round of local elections bring hope. The Española City Council race was one of those races. A slate of progressive leaders led by northern New Mexico's rising political star, Councilman Joseph Maestas, won a decisive victory over the handpicked slate of the city's long-time establishment mayor. He ran on a good government platform—something Española and many cities desperately need. Maestas is currently the only New Mexican and one of only three Hispanics on the Board of Directors of the National League of Cities.
In Santa Fe, four progressive, incumbent Council members fought off a CGA-style coordinated effort to unseat them. Rio Rancho voters sent a strong message by electing a number of Council members who may not tow the current mayor's pro-development line in the state's fastest growing city.
There were some disappointments for those supporting progressive change at the local level. Los Ranchos Mayor John Hooker lost a re-election bid by four votes to a local businessman. Mayor Hooker is one of the state's brightest leaders, chairing the Mid Region Council of Governments and supporting a more progressive growth and water policy for the state. Fortunately for New Mexico, Hooker is running for the state senate in the district seat once held by Republican state senator and former Party chair Ramsey Gorham—but that soap opera might not be in its final act.
In June and again in November we will not only be asked to go to the polls to pick our nation's next president, but in many counties, we will also be choosing those officials who will represent us at the local level. In addition, there will be several other local elections over the next two years that will give us all a chance to send a strong message about where we think our cities and towns should be going. Regardless of what that message is, let's at least show up to send it. Who knows, you might be electing the next governor—or president—in the years to come.