Thinking about next November's election this early is as shameless as those cheesy Christmas decorations that go up at the mall every October. But 2006 is a big election year for our city, state and nation. So here's a call to voters to put your good citizen caps on and start thinking about the upcoming elections, even as you recover from your holiday shopping/eating binge.
In 2006, Albuquerqueans will decide on a school bond and school board members, a county sheriff and two county commissioners, all Albuquerque-area state representatives, and, oh yeah, governor, attorney general, and whether or not to keep long-time U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson.
The first election will be in February for a proposed APS bond and half the school board members. Several nearby cities including Santa Fe will hold their local elections for mayor and city council in March. In June, Republicans and Democrats (and possibly Greens) will go to the polls to pick their party's slate for county, statewide and Congressional races. And, of course, the first Tuesday in November will be when we choose most of our leaders for the next four years. Bored yet? Good. Now here's a roundup of the big races, along with a few predictions.
Four-term U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman is running to make it an even 30 years of service in the U.S. Senate. In addition to the huge advantage incumbent senators have, Bingaman's Jimmy Stewart charm makes him well-liked by Democrats and Republicans alike, and a serious challenge in his race will be unlikely. Unless a nude Don Shrader jumps in the race—this one will be a snoozer.
Just when you thought the Albuquerque-area Congressional seat would have to be pried from Heather Wilson's cold, dead hands, this year's race could be the tightest and liveliest ever. Her frosty demeanor has thawed considerably over the last four elections and some folks say she's become downright cuddly. Well, maybe that's exaggerating, but she does seem to be winning more hearts as she has decisively whopped each of her last three Democratic opponents, even though the district leans Democratic.
In 1998, the Democrats tried the Hollywood strategy, running millionaire playboy Phil Maloof against Heather, but despite his tons of cash (it was the second most expensive race in the country), Maloof's boyish good looks couldn't defeat the Domenici protégé. To try to beat Wilson, who is also a Rhodes Scholar and Air Force Academy grad, the Democrats tried a new strategy in 2000—running U.S. Attorney John Kelly, a politically moderate crime-fighter, who was more “statesman”-like (some would say milquetoast). He lost. In 2002 and 2004, the Democrats hoped to unseat Heather with the folksy former high school principal and State Senate Pro Tem Richard Romero. Heather won both elections by larger margins than 2000, so most pundits thought she had the seat locked up for good.
Not so fast.
Enter Latina dynamo and two-time Attorney General Patricia Madrid. Not only is she the first woman to run against Heather, but she has the highest positive name I.D. of any candidate who has challenged Wilson. If early jabs are any indication, look for a knock-down drag-out, the likes of which have never been seen in this Congressional race. Patsy is already taking shots at Heather's support for the Bush Iraq policy, her ties to indicted House Majority Leader Tom Delay and her coziness with big industries like pharmaceuticals. But Heather's folks are in the ring, too, calling Patsy on “looking the other way” on the state treasurer scandal (not to mention ABQPAC and the APD evidence room debacle) and her own contributions from some big corporate interests. This will not be one for the faint of heart and could come down to the wire if President Bush continues his political freefall.
Despite the Albuquerque Journal's misguided obsession with Richardson's past baseball career, how tactile he is with whom and how he flies to parts of the state he runs, he will be next to impossible to beat. With a huge war chest, no credible opposition, a national profile and a prolific agenda for the state, the Journal will have to come up with something better than the incisive investigative work about Richardson's pedicures to make the governor's race competitive. Richardson is popular and will win at least as handily as he did last time.
The state's top lawyer has been the springboard office for the likes of Jeff Bingaman, former Governor Toney Anaya and Congressman Tom Udall. And unlike the governor's office, it has also been held by a Democrat for most of the past few decades. Currently, three Democrats are slugging it out for the nomination. They include former State Rep. Gary King, whose dad, Bruce, is a former governor; Lemuel Martinez, the current district attorney in Sandoval and several other neighboring counties; and Geno Zamora, who was Richardson's general counsel for the past few years.
What King lacks in charisma, he makes up in name ID, having run for governor and Congress, not to mention sharing a surname with his backslapping father. As a district attorney, Martinez has the most crime-fighting experience, but he has not raised much money and is not well known outside Sandoval and a couple of smaller counties. Zamora is the youngest in the race, but seems to be working the hardest, raising the most money and generally running the strongest campaign. He also has the coolest campaign logo, which should be worth something. The big surprise in the race is the entry of Republican Bob Schwartz, who, if he can beat down the right wing to get through the Republican primary, could win the whole thing. Schwartz was Richardson's crime advisor, so he has some support in Democratic circles. He is also the most colorful and charismatic candidate in the race, not to mention the most experienced, having served as district attorney in Bernalillo County, the toughest district in the state. His strong second-place finish in the 2001 Albuquerque mayor's race, with almost half his votes coming from Democratic areas, makes him a strong contender in the AG's race. But only if he trims his buccaneer mustache and gets a haircut.
After the scandal involving Robert Vigil, it may be tough for a Democrat to win this office. The only serious candidate at this point is Santa Fe State Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela. The fact that he shares a name and nickname with a former mobster I am sure will not affect voter's decisions. Rumors of Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer James Lewis jumping in the race are swirling, and if he does he may have better luck than he did in his dismal fifth-place finish in the 2001 Albuquerque mayors' race. State Rep. Al Park, also rumored to be running, has opted instead to stay in the Legislature. Ironically, the race for state treasurer might have been the perfect fit for Park, who is a thin, bespectacled thirty-something lawyer, who looks more like a twenty-something IRS auditor. If the Republicans field a strong reform-minded candidate with good financial credentials, the job could very well change hands to the Republicans for the first time in many moons.
Every state legislator has to run this cycle, but given the gerrymandering deal agreed to between the Republicans and Democrats a few years back, there will be few surprises. In the Albuquerque area, Westside State Representative Harriet Ruiz is not running again and so far there are three Democrats looking seriously at the race. They include former Assistant District Attorney Moe Maestas, perennial City Council candidate and Westside activist Dan Serrano, and Pat Baca Jr., son of a long-time Westside city councilman. Maestas seems to have the edge in terms of support at this point, but it will be a close race. The northeast heights seat held by Greg Payne will be up for grabs as well, as Payne will become the mayor's new transit chief. Several names have been bandied about to replace Payne, including Democrat Dave Campbell, the development community's top lawyer. However, it is a strong Republican-leaning seat and will likely be won by a more conservative Republican.
Alan Armijo and Michael Brasher both face re-election for their second and final terms on the Bernalillo County Commission, since county commissioners are term-limited by state law. Armijo should win his Westside district easily, given his cautious political positions and long political career, including several terms on the Albuquerque City Council. Brasher may face a tougher challenge, including possibly one of the former City Council candidates (Tina Cummins?) in the far east commission district that includes part of the East Mountains. Sheriff Darren White should have a cake walk of a re-election campaign, since he is on the local news more than most anchormen and no one can express outrage at crime more convincingly than the good sheriff.
The first election in the New Year will be in February when county voters will decide whether to renew a $100 million-plus bond issue and half of the board for the public's favorite punching bag—the Albuquerque Public Schools. Despite calls for a property tax increase to fund additional new schools, the APS board didn't have the stomach to propose a new tax, and so voters will only decide whether to renew the current level of school taxes. Conspicuously missing from the bond election debate has been any discussion of sharing the school construction costs with the developers on the Westside by changing state law to allow cities to charge impact fees for new schools. Instead, the governor has put over $200 million on the table to help with new Westside schools. Sadly, it will not be nearly enough to keep up with the growing demand. The bond may fail unless APS and developers come up with a real plan for future schools.
And so another political year has passed with many interesting developments, including one of the largest corruption scandals and the most expensive mayoral race in the state's history. On the positive side, Albuquerque will be among the first cities to publicly finance local elections beginning in 2007, after voters approved the ballot initiative. City voters turned down a local minimum wage increase after a shady campaign by opponents, but the chances are good that the State Legislature will pass a statewide minimum wage increase in the 2006 session. Good citizens, pundits and political junkies, prepare for a New Year of rough-and-tumble politics—hopefully not as usual. For those of you who thought the 2005 elections were wild and wacky, prepare for an even nuttier 2006. And remember your vote is your voice—so I'll shut up already.