New Mexico GOP Victory A Hard Lesson for Dems

By Kent Paterson

In the end, the man who fancied himself as “Marty in the Middle” got squished from both the right and the left. A three-time mayor of Albuquerque, incumbent Democrat Martin Chavez was unexpectedly defeated by novice Republican challenger Richard Berry in a fall election that could have wider implications for 2010 and beyond.

Quoted in the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo, business professor Howard Kraye credited a poor economy and a tilt towards fiscal conservatism as reasons for Berry’s victory. Other evidence of a swing to the right came with the victory of a conservative Republican in a city council race in which money from Wal-Mart and California-connected developers succeeded in giving the GOP a 5-4 council majority.

But these developments were countered by the re-election of a left-of-center Democratic city councilman and the overwhelming triumph of public bond measures, including an affordable housing measure. The election results do not suggest a sweeping mandate for change in a city that went for Obama last year. Indeed, Chavez’s defeat might well be a warning that Democrats who ignore the progressive wing of their party face political doom.

A preliminary reading of the election numbers points to several factors behind the surprise Republican triumphs.

Although the three-way mayor’s race was officially non-partisan under local rules, the outcome suggests that party passion and base strength were decisive forces.

In the mayor’s contest, Berry won with approximately 44 percent of the vote. The two Democrats, Chavez and foe Richard Romero, split the remaining 56% of ballots, minus some votes for write-in candidates. Quite possibly, if either Chavez or the more progressive Romero had run alone against Berry, the Democratic candidate would have won.

While New Mexico’s local elections are notorious for their low turn-outs, the 2009 Albuquerque vote was especially abysmal.

According to official statistics from the Albuquerque City Clerk, 84,187 of 326,988 registered voters, or 25.75% of the total, cast ballots. The turnout was even worse than the 2005 city election, when 87,290 of 281,734 voters, or approximately 33% of registered voters, went to the polls.

The approximately 47,000 votes gained by Chavez and Romero came nowhere near the 168,965 votes racked up by the Obama-Biden ticket in the greater Albuquerque metro area in 2008.

For whatever reason, voter abstention was the real winner in the municipal election.

In Albuquerque, Obamania did not transform itself into a movement for Democrats in general, or automatically lead to broader involvement in the political process.

As in any local election, personalities and parochialisms undoubtedly contributed big to this year’s outcome. But other issues were also at work that could carry significance for national politics in 2010.

A construction contractor, Berry advanced a pro-business message not so different than Chavez’s, but also flirted with the Republican Party’s right wing on the immigration question. A so-called majority-minority state, New Mexico is not as polarized on the immigration issue as other parts of the US, but the mere toss of hot potato in a campaign where it was a non-issue likely riled up whatever threads exist of anti-immigrant sentiment in favor of Berry. Hitting on Albuquerque’s relatively high crime rate, law and order was also a big theme of Berry’s run.

Also attacking the Chavez administration’s record on crime, Romero pledged to reform the police department, end the sprawl promoted by the Chavez administration and work with the troubled public school system. Relentless in his attacks, Romero sent out a mailer with a picture of Chavez that read “For Sale.” Although it attracted progressive support, Romero’s campaign ultimately lacked the spunk and spirit of a mass movement for social change.

Chavez portrayed himself as the veritable moderate in the middle, with solid accomplishments in economic growth, environmental stewardship, political ethics, and law enforcement. Endorsed by the police and fire fighter unions, the veteran politician graced his campaign literature with images of stalwart cops and public servants. When an 11th-hour poll showed Berry surprisingly ahead, “Mayor Marty” called out the big guns. A last-minute robo call from Bill Clinton urged a vote for the man who “always delivered the goods.”

But the endorsement of the Man from Hope came too late. Lingering questions hung over Chavez about a one-time campaign slush fund, alleged favoritism in city contracts and scandals in the police department. In a scene hauntingly reminiscent of the carnage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, only four hours south of Albuquerque, last February’s discovery of a grave on the outskirts of the city containing the remains of 11 murdered women sent a macabre message that something was not quite right in the Hollywood-packaged Duke City promoted to business investors by Chavez.

By 2009, “Mayor Marty” had long alienated much of the progressive wing of his party. An unabashed centrist, Chavez pushed gentrification and rapid growth, even backing the construction of a road into a national monument sacred to Native Americans. As the Iraq war unfolded, Chavez stood silent. It was never clear if he was for or against the invasion.

In the election’s aftermath, Chavez supporters complained Romero divided the Democrats only to allow a Republican win. By the same token, it could be argued that Chavez had divided the Democrats. Bereft of progressive backing, Chavez’s loss could well be a warning to other Democrats preparing for the 2010 congressional elections, as the issues of health care, jobs, bank bailouts and Afghanistan steam on the boiler plate.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2009

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