On Assignment: Chatting With Isaac Benton

District Two City Councilor Has Burque’s Back

August March
8 min read
Isaac Benton
City Councilor Isaac Benton (Corey Yazzie)
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Did this summer creep up on you like it did on the folks over at Weekly Alibi? Over here in downtown Burque, the unseasonably cool weather had something to do with the year’s quick passage.

Of course, it being the end of June, there’s another election around the corner. Though we’ve told you about it before, it bears repeating that this year’s municipal election—featuring City Council races in Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8—is an important one inasmuch as it provides an opportunity for Burque and its citizens to fashion a reliably progressive council.

Toward that end, we’ve begun investigating the various races and candidates involved and hope that you do, as well.

As part of that process, we sat down with longtime District 2 City Councilor Isaac Benton. Benton has been serving openly as a progressive voice in the council chambers for more than 14 years.

An architect by trade and an urbanist at heart, Benton has overseen the fortunes as well as the fractiousness of Burque’s most urban council district, a geographic area that includes Downtown but also less citified neighborhoods like Barelas and even stretches to semi-rural spots like the corner of Montaño and Rio Grande.

Benton has been very successful in bringing myriad services, improvements and other civic opportunities to this wide swath of Albuquerque, and is notable for several legislative initiatives he’s worked on, including decriminalizing marijuana in the city. But this year, he faces a fairly large number of opponents from all across the political spectrum.

Benton stopped by the newspaper’s offices last Friday, armed with cookies and a campaign manager. He was affable, knowledgeable and in touch with local issues in a way that only someone with a good amount of experience and education can possess.

And those two qualities are essential to good governance, both for Downtown and for the rest of city, too. Benton is and has been the model for progressive politics—and served as role model for other excellent progressives on the board, like Pat Davis—in this town for nigh on 15 years. His commitment to improving and even exalting the urban areas of town is practically legendary.

Here’s what he said to convince us of his efficacy as a leader with the accumulated skill and wisdom to actually get things done. That said,
Weekly Alibi—as it has done in summers past—endorses Isaac Benton. His continued service will help make this a better city, but you know what? We will let the man tell you himself.

Weekly Alibi: Let’s talk about Isaac Benton!

Isaac Benton: You know, I’m from this part of the city. I bought my first house here in 1978, just north of Downtown. And I’m an urbanist for sure.

I know you’ve worked as an architect.

Yeah, most of my work as an architect was in the field of what architects used to call social architecture—things like affordable housing, libraries, schools and public buildings. That’s what I always wanted to do as a career as an architect, and it was a good segue into my current role.

And that goes well with the sort of municipal governance going on in the council?

A lot of the stuff having to do with infrastructure and safe streets, and clean streets, housing … those are all tough challenges for every city. My career as an architect was my motivation to seek public office. I’ve also tried to apply that outlook to the challenges of government, toward getting things done, especially during what we referred to as the “dark ages,” with a Republican mayor and even a Republican majority on the council.

We’ve tried to make that fact clear to our readers recently, the Republican failure here in Burque, but after all of that is said and done, the city still faces challenges. How are you working to solve issues like homelessness?

You know, when I was first elected to the council, I immediately met with the organizations who were providing homeless services to the city. And what became clear back at that time was that there were a lot of good people doing good work, but they [different organizations] weren’t talking to one another. And so I think we’ve moved the ball forward from that situation. In the last 14 years, we’ve become much more coordinated. There’s more discussion going on between the providers themselves and between the providers and APD. APD communicates with citizens in the neighborhood because there is a neighborhood impact. In the past, the problem was largely centered in our district, now homelessness can be seen all over the city. I’ve worked on that and on recognizing how APD got in trouble with the DOJ.

Do you think APD’s relationship with the city’s homeless had something to do with the problem?

I think so. I don’t think they had the standard operating procedures in place to deal with homelessness. That resulted in things like [James] Boyd being shot to death in the Foothills. That was the pinnacle moment. At that time, the chief came out and said it was a justified shooting. I was in the paper the next day, saying, “I can’t believe they’re saying that.”

What do you think of former Mayor Chavez writing recently that APD was never out of control and that the DOJ agreement is a constraint?

There were a couple of good critiques on that. I thought that was extremely unfair because he wasn’t taking into account the fact that, as a council, no matter our political makeup, we’re the ones that hear from people [about injustice]. We provide the forum for that at every meeting. The public comment about APD was about a department that seemed to be out of control. In Chavez’ time, he had built up the numbers at APD, but to some extent, he had done so by reducing the qualifications necessary to work there. Also, he’s just basically giving a blanket criticism of nine councilors and Mayor Berry. We were not in lockstep with Mayor Berry. To the contrary. Five councilors voted to ask the DOJ to look at our situation, I was one. But that move was vetoed by Berry. On the other hand, I did things like seeking better pay and benefits for officers so we could make quality hires. We have a better department now.

There has been a substantial amount of progress made recently with regard to APD. Is that because the council has developed a good relationship with the current administration and the newish police chief?

Exactly. And candidates are getting better training now. I really enjoy my interactions with the average cop on the street. They are compassionate, imaginative people for the most part, and I think that the bad apples have been weeded out.

I got an email today saying more than 100 city police have joined the ranks. So now we have more police, a good thing. The city police I’ve worked with are nice folks for sure. On the other hand, I’ve heard from several readers that they are uncomfortable having the state police around.

I think the governor’s plan was well-meaning and I appreciate the intention. There is a concern, though, that because we’ve had all this new training—having to do with dealing with behavioral crises, use of force, et cetera—that the State Police not having the same training is worrisome. They’ve dialed it back a bit. But if they are coming in and successfully tackling things like auto theft, or another area where they could really focus and help without having too much interaction with people on the street, then I’m all for it.

That’s a good idea. I didn’t think about that.

I’m not that comfortable with them just being out and having interactions with people on the street, but they have a lot of expertise.

That’s a good answer and it speaks to my final question for today. What then, given the work you’ve done, is your vision for this city as we move toward 2020 and beyond?

I think it involves a safer, more beautiful public realm. Livability is very important to me. We must keep building affordable housing, too, especially for the homeless and the behaviorally disordered. I’m still working on public restrooms Downtown. To me, the tree canopy is also a big deal. We’re starting a program called NeighborWoods with disadvantaged neighborhoods, but I hope it spreads all over the city. Trees bring up property values and cool down the streets. From the economic development standpoint, we’re on the right track now [with Keller]. I’ve been a stalwart. I’ve been through the dark years, like I said. But now we have a mayor that we’re aligned with. He aligns with my values. And ultimately, that means more progress is not only possible, but inevitable.
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