Robert Blanquera Nelson is running for City Council. In the heavily contested District 2 race—an electoral contest currently being defined by the work and legacy of veteran councilor Isaac Benton—Blanquera Nelson says he can make a difference after all the voting is done in early November.
In fact, Blanquera Nelson told Weekly Alibi that he thought Benton was “out of touch,” a contention we decided to ask him to elaborate on when we told him to come out on Labor Day for an interview with our top-notch news reporting team.
And it all started with a knock on the door.
On Friday afternoon, after a long day of making the newspaper, August March was luxuriating in the study of his little chante in downtown Albuquerque when a knock came at the door.
It was Robert Blanquera Nelson and his trusty campaign manager. They were going door to door, working the neighborhood, generating interest about Nelson’s insurgent campaign.
March looked through the window as Nelson knocked on the door. The Weekly Alibi journalist told his pet chihuahua, Heidi, to settle down as he turned down the stereo, turned the knob and opened the portal to his realm.
Then, the three all stood in the late summer sun and talked politics. March told the candidate and his assistant that though Weekly Alibi had already endorsed Benton, they believed in balanced coverage. Therefore, an interview might be in order, the news editor suggested.
Nelson took the cue and responded directly. They would appear at Weekly Alibi HQ on Monday afternoon, on Labor Day to be exact, to discuss District 2, the campaign for City Council and the issues that Nelson felt he could bring advancement to if he took the reins from Benton after Nov. 5.
What follows, then, is a transcript of the conversation the two had as we all head for a decisive and competence-filled municipal election.
Weekly Alibi: Thanks for joining us today, on Labor Day!
Robert Blanquera Nelson: Thanks for having me.
What led up to your decision to run in District 2?
So, I’m a neighborhood organizer with the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance, which is comprised of neighborhoods like South Broadway, Martineztown, San Jose, Wells Park and Downtown. And the original designation for a lot of those neighborhoods was the “pocket of poverty.” It was a designation the federal government gave a lot of neighborhoods in this area through an Urban Development Action Grant in 1990.
Wow, I had no idea.
Yeah, so Albuquerque was granted an award of $10 million to do economic development, job development and affordable housing for these neighborhoods. So a group of neighborhoods got together and strategized on how that money should be used. They created a 10-year strategic document in the late ’90s. That document is actually housed at the city as a committee. It’s called the Housing & Neighborhood Economic Development Committee. And so, fast-forward a few years to 2015 and the whole ART [Albuquerque Rapid Transit] project.
I’m setting the flux capacitor now!
Anyway, ART is happening, the whole rapid transit project is happening. I get a call from a neighborhood friend of mine.
And this is in your capacity as a community organizer?
Yeah. And so she calls me and says that the city wants to use the remainder of this Pocket of Poverty funding—which amounted to about $5 million—for forgivable business loans for small businesses along the ART construction route.
I remember when that was a solution to the upheaval caused by ART, proposed by the Berry Administration. The Berry Administration suggested those sorts of loans as a way of ameliorating the problems caused by the construction along Central Avenue.
Right. So a lot of the [community] organizers from way back when got together and said, “That’s not the way the money was intended to be used.” It was meant to be used to alleviate poverty, and for citizens to get out of the economic situations they found themselves in. We organized neighborhoods to write a letter to the head of economic development in the Berry Administration and to Councilor Isaac Benton. Unfortunately, I believe Benton signed legislation to make sure that money was used for small business loans. He was in support of the loans and we [community organizers] were not.
He thought that the loans would help, as did Berry.
Yes, they thought it would help, but we’re seeing how that’s working right now, especially how much money we didn’t have lined up for [support] of ART. We did win that fight, Berry vetoed the plan to provide loans from the fund in question. But while that was happening, we started to discover some things about the Integrated Development Ordinance.
You mean the new zoning movement, right?
Yes. It’s a little bit of a mess.
How is IDO a mess?
It’s a mess because we keep creating different conditions and variables in zoning codes. The original intent of the the Integrated Development Ordinance was to streamline zoning so we didn’t have that many zoning codes. In fact, the city was saying, “We have over 200 zoning codes, it’s complicated, we don’t have the capacity to deal with that.” But right now, what’s going on is if you want to change condition within your zoning code, you have to create new zoning.
So every time someone files for a variance in their zoning, they have to create a new code reference to represent that variance?
That’s correct. You see the amendment packages before the IDO was passed in 2017. We talking about hundreds of pages of amendments. Before a project like the IDO was passed, we didn’t see a lot of community engagement, much like the ART project. Prior to 2017, the city’s data indicated that approximately 2,400 people attended five months of planning meetings for the IDO. For a big project like that, you’re talking about a minimum of two years of input, that’s what we should have done. The sense was, from a lot of neighborhoods around here, especially Downtown, that there hadn’t been much citizen input.
And they still moved the project forward?
They still moved IDO forward. The deeper stats on that are concerning. Of those 2,400 folks, 700 were duplicates, and a lot of them were city employees from planning, economic development and transit—as well as corporate developers. That’s not the kind of representation we want at community meetings.
What’s the solution?
What we’re talking about is more community engagement. People need to be involved in the process of public projects in our city. ART could have been more successful if we had more community engagement.
So you’re comparing IDO and ART and seeing a similar set of problems with regard to their implementation, right?
Exactly. The worst part of that data from the IDO meetings was that 85 percent of those participants were white, not Hispanic or Native folks. If you can tell—you live in this neighborhood or you can look at the census data—these are predominantly communities of color.
Yes, that’s true.
Some Asian, and South Broadway is historically a black neighborhood, but many Mexicanos have moved there, too. But they are essentially communities of color and those folks are being left out.
Mostly because meetings are held during the day, like at 3pm when people are working or taking care of their kids after school. They are held in places that are inaccessible through public transit. When folks at the planning department say that engagement is hard, I always come back with, “Why is it hard?” instead of, “Why aren’t people coming to the meetings?” It doesn’t have to be difficult. For instance, a very good example happened in Saint Paul, Minnesota. We talked about this the other day when we met. There are two things we do as a city government to get people involved in the process. We put an ad in the classified section of the newspaper and nobody reads it. The second thing is what they did in Saint Paul. They refurbished a popsicle truck and sent it out into the community. Now citizens get a free popsicle for participating in government. Guess which method fared better?
The popsicle truck got more citizen engagement than an ad in the paper?
Right. For us here in New Mexico, we make it challenging for ourselves when we create artificial barriers to citizen engagement. The same goes for democracy. I knock on a lot of doors throughout the district, especially south of the freeway. People tell me I’m the first person to knock on their door in a long time or ever.
I know you and I talked about that when we met the other day at my house. It’s true that door-knocking is very rare in this part of town. There’s not a lot of interaction between public servants and citizens like that.
The same goes for apartment complexes in this part of the city. I was over at an apartment complex on Delmar and Fourth Street and one of the tenants asked me, point blank, “What are you doing here?’ I told them we need to talk and they replied that most people were scared to come here. But scared of what? These are the people that I grew up with. But I get it: If you have tattoos, if you look brown, if you’re black, you are discounted as a reliable vote.
How are we going to change those things? How do we get citizens engaged, how do we do away with the belief in the notion of these “pockets of poverty” and their unreliable voters?
There are elements of oppression there. Two things really. We need to have honest, authentic conversations about race. When I talk about that, it means we need to talk about developing a common memory. When we start talking about a common memory, we start to share our stories about us, and our stories of us as people here in New Mexico. And then we start to create acknowledgment, which I think has been missing [in the conversation]. When we acknowledge people’s histories, their shared traumas, then you can start talking about things like reconciliation. That’s very important. Once we get there, we can begin to take the pathway to healing.
And healing means civic engagement, am I right?
Yes, you are correct, we can then move forward with projects that are inclusive and progressive. That’s the second part of it.
Why do you think you’re the best choice for District 2?
In essence, I’m about strengthening our community voice, making sure that people are included in our democracy. When people are excluded, that’s when we see things like poverty, crime and drug addiction rise up.
Is there an institutional problem that has helped grow those issues of disenfranchisement?
Yes. We’ve been using band-aids for a long time. Now is the time to find systemic solutions to a lot of long-standing problems, including homelessness, affordable housing, rapid re-housing and strengthening our social services system. We have to be able to talk about these things as a city. That’s not what is happening now. People are getting left out of the conversation and the solution.
What solutions do you suggest?
For me, and for us, one of the solutions I’m proposing is a public health department. Albuquerque is the only city of its size that doesn’t have one. These are all, ultimately, public health issues, [developing] a healthy economic environment is at the heart of all of this.