Gene Grant: The Mayor’s Race

The Mayor's Race

Gene Grant
7 min read
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There’s a research info website called Smart QandA (; plug in a question and an answer comes back. How they hook you is by giving you a list of related local news stories, hoping you’ll want to expand your knowledge on the subject.

I couldn’t help thinking about the current mayoral race when, looking up some info on recently deceased Mayor Louis Saavedra, I stumbled across Smart QandA and this question: When did Albuquerque become a city?

I had to chuckle. The “correct” answer, of course, is when we incorporated in 1890, but for all intents and purposes, it was when Mr. Saavedra’s successor, one Martin Chavez, took office in December of 1993.

For a lot of people both here and elsewhere, Albuquerque virtually didn’t exist as a city until Martin Chavez told them it did. I mean that. Albuquerque to that point was a rumor. There was no postmodern lens to consider it through. Marty invented the lens and told us to take a peek.

That was then, and this is now, but there’s something quite familiar in this year’s version to 1993. It’s all in how one reads the tea leaves and stitches campaign tactics to a vision.

Keep in mind, when Mr. Saavedra took office in 1989 this city was flat-ass broke. The economic downturn then was fairly nasty. He did what he could with layoffs, cutbacks and fights with the Council (and in hindsight, his ruthlessness with cutting budgets could be an object lesson for today). And with that, he made his exit.

By being a one-termer, however,
Saavedra opened the door for the ascension of Mayor Chavez at the exact time the country was casting forward into a bold New World Order, with a rather dynamic figurehead in the White House in Bill Clinton.

Change was in the air. It was an exciting time for the nation, but a question was yet to be answered: Could Albuquerque play at the national level? There wasn’t much going on in the city then to say so with any surety.

The first time I laid eyes on Martin Chavez was at a mayoral forum outdoors at Anderson Vineyards in the North Valley. My ex-wife and I lived on the east side of Anderson Field. Now, in those years, virtually anyone could run for mayor and, with apologies to anyone who was running then, my recollection is of a jangled collection of political nitwits.

There were about 15 or 16 of them, nearly all still hung up on an “old” Albuquerque ideal of what the archetype of a mayor should look like. It was a complete mess. Nice people, certainly. Committed and all that, but wildly behind the curve of what was happening.

For perspective, Geraldine Amato was running that year, and the rest of the pack had more in common with her compared to what Marty unleashed that afternoon.

Dude was coming from a completely different solar system. It was startling. The rest could only sit and watch. Not three minutes into his speech, my ex turned to me and said, “That’s the guy, right there.” This mayoral thing was so over it wasn’t even funny.

Marty had a message, a counterintuitive point of view that his current opponents would be well served to note. While everyone was having a crying jag about this or that Albuquerque problem, what Marty did in short was go to the podium,
look everyone in the eye and say, “Isn’t this great?”

It was a spectacular position in hindsight. Fantastically bold, given the gloomy headlines of the day. He just got what was happening nationwide and shaped his own local version. With the rest bogged down in the economics and politics of the moment, Marty’s gaze was fixed to an unseen future that held some unspoken promise for everyone … if they’d let him lead them there.

They did and he did.

And while he’s had his share of epic blunders, sometimes from his own arrogance and blindness, he’s essentially never looked back.

There’s a terrific young entrepreneur in Albuquerque named Lance Maurer. You may know him (Academy, UNM and such). He laid it out quite succinctly during a panel, at August’s Albuquerque Film Festival, on building a post-production community here—another arguably “unseeable” Albuquerque future at this time—when he said, “Where there’s confusion, there’s opportunity.” Bingo.

That’s what Marty essentially told us that summer Sunday afternoon in ’93. Forget the noise, the fear and the confusion of lean times. It’s the opportunity.

I sometimes wonder if Richard Romero and R.J. Berry (his opponents this year) truly understand what they are running against, given their platforms thus far. I really do, because it seems both of them have missed the signal flags. This race really isn’t about Martin Chavez. It’s about the opportunity inside the anxiety and paralysis of the moment—and who can see past it.

So the question for Mr. Romero and Mr. Berry: What is the opportunity? Or put another way, Why should I give a shit?

Do you have a vision that casts Albuquerque
forward from this downturn? So far, it’s seemingly all about Marty, what he did or didn’t do, and the past.

Mr. Romero, quite ironically, feels like Mayor Saavedra redux, a solid, no-nonsense administrator who could fix our economy, but not exactly visionary. And with Mr. Berry, one gets the sense he would be as honest as they come and not be pushed around, but would serve a narrow slice of the city and potentially
never set foot in the rest.

These are decent, thoughtful men with proven leadership skills, but
regrettably, neither seems to have a feel for what’s unfolding in real time before our eyes; a coming of age for an enormous population bubble finding its stroke. One of these challengers had better start talking to people near 30 and do it now, because as it stands this thing is playing out with talk radio issues.

It’s doable, certainly, but this would be a nice time for them to step out with some boldness. And in our current campaign finance scenario, the best forum to do so is debates.

Alibi , the New Mexico Independent, KUNM radio and my shop, KNME, will host one of the last debates of the cycle on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, at 6:30 p.m. If I was the campaign strategist in those challenger camps, the plan for every debate these last few weeks would be rather simple: Out-Marty Marty by leap frogging him with your own shining mansion on the mesa. It’s doable.

There’s a strange magic with mayors. You have to literally dare a populace to give you the chance. Yes, it’s about cops on the street, balancing budgets and all that. But it’s equally, if not more, about bringing a populace to a higher consciousness, a new sense of self-worth. That’s essentially the litmus of an effective mayor versus a seat-holder.

You pull that off and you’re no longer just an elected official. You’re a savant.

Mayor Saavedra had a saying back then: “Everyone lives under the same sky, but not everyone has the same horizons.” Mayor Chavez’ fundamental strength—and deep visceral appeal—is that his horizons have always extended beyond our own. How far Mr. Berry and Mr. Romero can see is the question. It’s not too late by any stretch for them to lay that out. See you on the 16
th .
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