Alibi V.13 No.30 • July 22-28, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

Mayoral Election Runoff an Amendment Away from Reality

Voters get to decide in November

One of the three proposed state constitutional amendments that will be on this November's ballot could create a very interesting scenario for Albuquerque's next mayoral election if it passes. Constitutional Amendment 3 will permit municipalities to hold runoff elections.

You will remember that our last two mayoral sweepstakes have been won by candidates picked by less than one-third of the voters. This is because the runoffs called for in our City Charter had been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

The predictable has occurred since that ruling: Without runoffs and with multiple candidates, the winner seven years ago (Jim Baca) and the winner three years ago (Marty Chavez) each took office without the clear-cut mandate that might have helped them face down their naysayers on the City Council.

Still, it isn't clear that the voters will approve the amendment. Sure, not having runoffs is a virtual guarantee our mayor will be a minority choice who has to wrestle for any degree of cooperation he extracts from our city councilors. But that isn't all bad.

And runoffs have a couple of unfortunate characteristics of their own: They are expensive (each time you plug in the electoral machinery, you have to shell out another $300,000 I'm told), and they will delay the final decision about the next administration for another month, cutting into the already tight time frame for transitioning.

So it isn't a slam dunk that this amendment will pass, especially if the opposition gets organized and manages to tap the broad vein of civic antagonism toward municipal spending that occasionally surfaces here. But if it does pass, the question arises: Would it help or hurt Mayor Martin Chavez' re-election chances?

Marty has a solid core of support, something approaching 25 percent of the electorate, largely concentrated in the bedroom neighborhoods west of the river where his pro-growth and pro-Paseo extension views are received enthusiastically. That core will vote for him, runoff or not.

Without a runoff, that 25 percent almost could produce a victory all by itself, provided the rest of the candidates (as happened last election) split the remainder up fairly evenly.

You see the dilemma created by this amendment. Chavez is a stronger candidate without a runoff, but a stronger mayor if he wins with a runoff.

And for Republicans, the proposed amendment also creates heartburn. Even though more Albuquerque voters are registered Democrats than Republicans, the GOP voters (when aroused) tend to turn out at the polls in greater numbers, negating the Democrats' supposed numeric advantage. (This, and only this, can begin to explain that mysterious phenomenon, the Heather Wilson syndrome, in which a congressional district in central New Mexico is represented by someone from New Hampshire. Very peculiar.)

While Republicans have not recently held the reins of municipal power (Harry Kinney, our last Republican Mayor, has been gone from City Hall for almost 12 years), they have come close. In fact, without a runoff, and if the Democrats' trend of running more candidates than Republicans continues, then an obvious strategy might arise. Just discourage all but one Republican from running and you win. Of course, this is easier said than done.

In the last election, for instance, two Republicans were among the six candidates. Mike McEntee polled 11 percent and Bob Schwartz polled 27 percent. Together they wound up drawing 8 percent more votes than Marty Chavez did. Most likely, if the GOP had been able to talk McEntee out of running, Schwartz would have been elected.

In a runoff scenario, however, Chavez would probably have attracted more support from the other three Democrats' backers. So it would appear that the Republicans might oppose the amendment, both on the basis of fiscal frugality and for the purpose of enhancing their chances for actually winning City Hall.

The Greens, independents and other minority party members, too, might consider opposing the runoff amendment. Though an independent's chances might seem slim for winning the top job in city government now, they become slimmer under a runoff situation.

All of this creates the interesting situation, less than four months before the voters will decide it, in which it may be difficult to find anyone to pick up the reform banner and wave it.

There is yet another municipal "good government" measure languishing in our community for lack of a champion: the city/county merger. Once again the absence of clear, strong voices speaking in favor of the merger spells impending rejection at the polls—just like last year.

I can't be the only one who remembers a stirring chorus of powerful singers chanting its praises just four short years ago when the Legislature set the merger machinery in motion. Where are all those basso profundos and Irish tenors now?

But that's always the trouble with good government reforms, isn't it? They make assuming and wielding power harder to accomplish. No wonder they fall flat so often.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.