Keller will try to ride Tuesday’s high voter turnout to November victory

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Craft beer, snacks, smiles and blue t-shirts flowed like a river to City Hall in downtown Albuquerque on Tuesday evening. Packed into the Red Door Brewing Company, supporters of mayoral candidate Tim Keller were upbeat as election night returns trickled in, showing their man with about 39 percent of the vote.

That was significantly higher than the polls suggested — and more than enough to ensure Keller the frontrunner spot in the Nov. 14 run-off with the number two vote-getter in the race, City Councilor Dan Lewis, who garnered nearly 23 percent of the ballots.

Tim Keller

Courtesy photo

Albuquerque mayoral candidate Tim Keller

“Keller, Keller, Keller,” chanted a diverse crowd of burqueños illuminated with many millennial faces as the ten o’clock hour approached. “Tim will win, Tim will win.”

Electrifying the jammed back space of the trendy tap room, the New Mexico state auditor turned mayoral hopeful strode up to the stage attired in a gray suit, blue shirt and red neck-tie. He was all smiles.

“How about that voter turnout today?” Democrat Keller proclaimed, whipping up more cheers. “I’m so proud and humbled to be chosen by Albuquerque tonight to be on that path to mayor.”

Surrounded by his family, campaign volunteers, firemen, cops and other backers, Keller credited a “small army” for conducting a “block by block campaign” that netted his first-place showing. He attributed a ground game executed “the old fashioned way” for his advance into round two of the mayoral race, and thanked multiple forces for making it possible, including “front-line” Albuquerque police officers, teachers, carpenters, city workers, union members, and neighborhood activists.

Turnout in the election was surprisingly high — at 29 percent, or almost 100,000 votes cast. Four years ago, the last time the mayor’s office was up for grabs, turnout was 20 percent.

Some attributed high turnout to Keller’s ground game. Others attributed it to the controversial proposal that would have required employers in Albuquerque to provide paid sick leave to workers. Voters narrowly rejected that proposal, 50.39 percent to 49.61 percent, unofficial returns showed.

Keller traced his rising political fortunes to a stint as state senator for Albuquerque’s International District and an enlightening experience as New Mexico’s state auditor, a job he said has taught him many lessons about functioning and non-functioning governments. Keller has pledged to resign from the auditor job if elected mayor. Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, would appoint someone to serve out the remainder of his term, which continues through the end of 2018.

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In his comments to scores of ecstatic supporters on Tuesday, Keller said it was time for Albuquerque to “own up” to its many challenges, combat crime and create jobs.

“And we’re going to invest in local business right here in Albuquerque,” he vowed, sparking more applause. “We’re going to be a safe, inclusive city that works for all of us… we’re going to be a multicultural role model for the rest of the country.”

Isabella Del Frate is part of the “small army” that Keller praises for getting him this far. She’s also a member of an emerging generation of idealistic and politically-active millennials that came of age in the 2017 Albuquerque municipal election. A tall and thoughtful young woman, Del Frate has served as an intern for the Keller campaign, knocking on doors and dialoguing with residents about local problems and what it will take to solve them. 

The Albuquerque native said she learned about negative campaigning when dubious ads aired on television that likened Keller, who many regard as an advocate for sexual violence victims, to a protector of pedophiles. 

In Del Frate’s book, crime, jobs and inequality rank as burning issues awaiting solutions in the Duke City. Except for her own family, “every single person on our block has gotten (burglarized) more than once,” she said. For the 20-year-old UNM student, paying for college is another outstanding matter, especially at a time when lottery scholarships have been cut and tuition increased.

“We want to make this city a good place to live,” Del Frate said of the deep aspirations of her millennial friends. “Our city has so much potential. That’s what my life experience has taught me. Albuquerque is so special.”

Eight candidates were on the ballot for the mayor’s job. Brian Colón, a Democrat who outraised all others in the race, got 16.38 percent of the vote; Republican Wayne Johnson had 9.63 percent; Gus Pedrotty had 6.85 percent; Michelle Garcia Holmes had 3.87 percent; Susan Wheeler-Deichsel had 0.51 percent; and Ricardo Chaves — who stopped campaigning and backed Lewis but remained on the ballot — got 0.49 percent, according to unofficial results.

Three write-in candidates were also running. The city clerk’s office said their votes will only be counted as part of the official canvass.

Gaining more votes than the polls predicted, Pedrotty emerged as an example of how a new generation in Albuquerque — and New Mexico — is plunging into politics.

A recent UNM graduate, the brainy Pedrotty drew notice for his innovative proposals on a host of issues ranging from economic development to policing. The 22-year-old is considered politically close to Keller, and cross-over votes from Pedrotty’s camp to Keller’s in the November run-off could give Keller another edge in his bid to claim the big desk in City Hall.

Incumbents hold on

Also Tuesday, four incumbents easily warded off challengers in city council races. In the only open council race — for the District 5 seat being vacated by Lewis — Robert Aragon and Cynthia Borrego will face each other in a Nov. 14 runoff because no one in that three-way race had 50 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, after trouncing her opponent with almost 68 percent of the votes cast, Councilor Klarissa Peña told KANW radio one of her priorities will be to finish the memorial park for the women and unborn child who “passed away” tragically.

Peña, of course, was referring to the 11 female murder victims, one of whom was pregnant, who were discovered buried in a clandestine graveyard on the city’s West Side in February 2009. No one has ever been charged in the crimes or publicly identified as the perpetrator(s). Unless the case is cracked before the next mayor takes office on Dec. 1, the incoming administration will mark the third in which a major debt with justice remains pending. 

Albuquerque voters on Tuesday also approved eleven municipal bonds.

A lively scene at a voting center

In contrast to the light turnout that characterized September’s early voting, lines and waits were reported on Tuesday’s Election Day. Among the sites witnessing brisk voting was Daskalos Plaza in the heart of the Duke City.

Arriving shortly before 2 p.m., this reporter saw line of more than 50 people waiting outside to enter and vote, with additional people lined up inside for their turn at the several voting booths. Many lines around the city remained after polls closed at 7 p.m., and those in line were allowed to vote.

At Daskalos Plaza, Elaine Aragon, a volunteer for the Lewis campaign, explained why she supports him. “I like everything he has to say. He’s a righteous man,” Aragon said.

Aragon, who said she had worked as a police officer in Santa Fe, spelled out APD and crime as the primary issues at stake. The political activist said APD was “blackballing” military veterans in the hiring process, including a relative and another person she knew who had been rejected for officer positions in a department widely considered understaffed. Like many locals, Aragon reported she had been a crime victim herself, suffering two vehicle break-ins — but, luckily, not the theft of her ride. 

The 14-year resident of the Duke City was impressed with Lewis’ pledge to sack APD Chief Gorden Eden. “He’s going to look for a new chief and not going to keep up with the good old boy system like now,” Aragon said. “How can all these veterans be turned away?”

Aragon criticized Keller and Colón for supporting Albuquerque as an immigrant “sanctuary” city. “And I’m Hispanic,” she added. “I’m sorry, you come here legally.” 

Looking trim and meticulously shaven, Colón made a brief appearance at Daskalos Plaza while people were voting. In old-school style, a smiling Colón accompanied by several supporters waved from the back of a pickup. The old Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” boomed from a sound system:

“It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks…”

Colón’s truck led several other pick-ups and trailers plastered with the candidate’s name through the parking lot. But it was the former New Mexico Democratic Party chair’s last growl, at least in the 2017 contest for Albuquerque mayor.

On to round two

Officially a nonpartisan race, November’s round of the mayoral election is likely to get noticeably partisan now that it’s down to one Democrat and one Republican. The state GOP pledged Tuesday to work hard for Lewis. The Democratic Party pledged to fight for Keller. Super PAC spending could also drag the Keller-Lewis contest deep into the mud.

If Keller picks up Colón and Pedrotty voters, and the voter turnout stays more or less the same, he should win. But Johnson’s voters would give Lewis a boost. And both campaigns are expected to vie for Colón’s supporters.

As in round one, crime and APD are almost certain to be the top issues. An initial takeaway from Tuesday’s election is that the ground game will again loom large.

Aragon pledged she would be back on the streets in November for Lewis. Keller soldier Del Frate will be there too. “If they need any help, I’ll be there,” she said.

Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.

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