Historically, much has been made of the fact that people under the age of 25 vote at dramatically lower rates than any other segment of the population. Apathy is partly to blame, but I believe the primary reason for a lack of youth involvement in the political process is cynicism. And much of this cynicism stems from watching politicians who manipulate the media to conceal their true policy agendas.
Take the chief executive of our own fair city, Mayor Martin Chavez. Two recent news items reveal how Chavez is working overtime to reinvent his image:
Item #1: Gail Reese, a top assistant to Mayor Martin Chavez, made an on-the-air call to his radio talk show and, using a fake name, parroted the administration's talking points while flaming several city councilors. When Reese was busted for her crude attempt to mislead the public by trying to pose as just another "Jane Q. Citizen," her first response was to feign memory loss.
After Reese finally fessed up, the mayor's office swung into damage control mode by issuing a press release that spun her surreptitious call as nothing less than a valiant exercise of free speech. KKOB station manager Art Ortega was charitable in characterizing the incident as "disingenuous." The Tribune editorialized against fake "Astroturf" grassroots lobbying efforts emanating from the mayor's office.
Item #2: Albuquerque's morning daily newspaper reported that Chavez had received something called the "Climate Protection Award" at a recent meeting of the National Conference of Mayors. The story trumpeted the claim that Albuquerque had reduced greenhouse emissions by an extraordinary 67 percent since 2000, making it a "Green City."
But there were some glaring problems with the story.
For one thing, the claimed emissions reductions were for city government employees, facilities and vehicles only—not for the community as a whole.
That's a huge difference and it illuminates the challenge Chavez faces in refashioning his image.
Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, cut right through the hype in a Journal letter to the editor: "One only needs to look at the unbridled real estate sprawl development to know that Albuquerque's carbon footprint is rapidly exploding ... If Chavez is serious about reducing Albuquerque's carbon footprint, than he needs to get serious about managing and planning Albuquerque's growth." As anyone who has lived in Albuquerque for the past few years knows, Chavez has been the developers' darling by shepherding their big-box, cookie-cutter sprawl development over and over again.
Oh, and one more thing. The story neglected to inform readers that Chavez' award was sponsored and underwritten by none other than Wal-Mart—the outfit that builds all those big-box stores that do so much to fuel the very sprawl development and car culture that is at the heart of the problem.
There are more recent examples of Chavez manipulating the media as he works to revamp his image and obscure long-held policy positions.
Last month, Chavez issued a sweeping "Executive Order" to ban smoking outdoors on all city government property. TV reporting featured footage of the mayor intoning piously about the health dangers of smoking.
Oddly, this was the very same Mayor Chavez who in 2002 brandished veto threats to block the City Council's efforts to pass an ordinance banning smoking in restaurants. His complaint then? The ordinance restricted to eating establishments was too sweeping and unenforceable. Talk about a 180!
And then there is Chavez' unveiling of his "Open Government" initiative. It calls for posting the minutes of city board and commission meetings online and reducing photocopy costs for public documents. With the ABQ PAC slush fund scandal fading from public memory, Chavez clearly has calculated that it’s time to jump on the "ethics" bandwagon.
But again, when you get past the hype, it's worth recalling that Chavez' silence was deafening during the last Legislative Session when really tough ethics reforms were being debated—contribution limits, an independent ethics commission and clean election financing (which he opposed for city elections in 2003).
This, of course, is what explains Marty's rush to makeover his image. Anticipating a gubernatorial run in 2010, but facing lagging poll numbers, Chavez is desperately trying to reinvent himself to appeal to Democratic primary voters around the state.
Hollow posturing of this sort is exactly what turns off young voters, who are a growing force to be reckoned with. After years of lagging participation, their turnout surged in the last two elections. Young voters demand honesty and authenticity from those who would presume to lead us. That's bad news for Martin Chavez and his big bamboozle.