ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories on the contested races for the Albuquerque City Council in the Nov. 5 election.
Four years ago, the race to represent Downtown on the Albuquerque City Council was a one-man show: Isaac Benton ran unopposed to keep his seat in District 2.
Today there are six candidates for the same job.
In the largest City Council race since 2003 – when now-U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich was first elected to the municipal board – incumbent Benton is facing five challengers for the right to serve a district that includes Downtown, Old Town and parts of the University of New Mexico and North Valley, a community that all candidates agree is struggling with crime and homelessness.
The field includes four people making their first run at public office – three of them 30 or younger – and a community activist who previously served as a city councilor in Idaho.
Benton, 68, has been in office since 2005. An architect who grew up in Puerto Rico but moved to Albuquerque in his mid-20s, Benton says he wants to remain on the council to follow through on issues he cares about, noting that as a representative he has pushed for workforce housing projects, the purchase of the Rail Yards, “urban vitality” initiatives like the historic El Vado Motel redevelopment, and walkability initiatives.
“We’ve accomplished a lot” in 14 years, he said. “I think my record stands for itself. I’d like to be able to continue with some of the projects we’ve started.”
Benton said the mushrooming homeless population is among the top concerns he hears from District 2 constituents and acknowledges the city has not effectively handled it, saying, “I’ve yet to see a city that has.”
He said the city is “on the right track” with the plan to move its emergency shelter services from the far West Side to a more centralized replacement that would also serve as a place for first responders to take those it might otherwise drive to the emergency room or jail.
While some of his opponents are urging a faster exit from the Albuquerque Police Department’s existing agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice as a way to reduce crime, Benton views the decree as a positive turning point for the city.
“I think it’s resulted in a better trained force,” he said. “It probably did drive some people out of the force, and the force was reduced during that period when we were going through the initial stages of that settlement, but I think we have a much better department as a result.”
Robert Blanquera Nelson
Nelson, a 39-year-old Wells Park resident and Filipino immigrant, has spent most of his career in the nonprofit sector, including work with children and with the homeless community. He was with Heading Home – which runs several local programs, including the city’s West Side emergency shelter – at its founding and currently consults nonprofit agencies through his job at The Grants Collective.
But it was his work as a community organizer that spurred his interest in running his first campaign for public office, citing what he considers the city’s inadequate outreach during the creation of the Integrated Development Ordinance.
“We need to redefine what a city councilor does and we also need to really look at how we can engage our community much more effectively than we’ve done in the past,” he said, lamenting that nearly two years after its passage, the city has yet to make the IDO available in Spanish.
He has cited a new city public health department as one of his chief objectives, saying it would foster a bigger-picture view of pressing issues like homelessness and crime and better collaboration among agencies and noting that there are presently four different waiting lists for those looking for housing in the community.
“Cleaning up that bureaucracy from a public health standpoint helps us systematically get people more quickly into housing and … making sure we coordinate more adeptly with community health organizations, along with nonprofit organizations,” he said.
Quintero, a 28-year-old legal analyst and native New Mexican, said that seeing family members experience wage theft during his Mesilla upbringing helped lead him to public service, saying “I saw what injustice does first-hand.”
He said he wants more young New Mexicans to find opportunities that allow them to stay and work in their home state, noting that he worked on a program during a previous job with the city of Santa Fe that paired college students with public, private and nonprofit sector internships in the capital city.
“I think we need to bring some energy back into local government,” he said. He suggests the city align with the University of New Mexico, the local chambers of commerce and other partners to ensure the thousands of jobs that will become open locally in the coming years, due primarily to retirements, are filled by area talent.
With degrees in economics and law, Quintero said he brings a different perspective on the issues of crime and homelessness, which he said the City Council has not focused on enough in recent years.
“It felt like we prioritized a lot of our spending toward major infrastructure projects and not really maintaining a community policing presence and being innovative with the way we use technology to locate gun-related crimes or crack down on domestic violence,” he said.
A small business owner, Griego, 29, is a lifelong North Valley resident who can trace his family history in District 2 back generations and said he sees too many people his age fleeing over concerns about crime and education.
“A lot of people in my generation don’t want to raise their families in Albuquerque,” he said.
He said he is making his first bid for public office to “bridge the gap” – or several gaps – between District 2’s history and its future, the government and the public, and elected officials and the police department.
Griego has spent his life in public safety, starting as a teenage lifeguard, subsequently working for the Bosque Farms Police Department and currently teaching CPR and other lifesaving skills through his own company.
A board member for Heading Home, he said the city has to look beyond an emergency shelter to combat its homelessness epidemic and focus on keeping people from reaching that point.
“I don’t have the (perfect) answer, but I do have the willingness to collaborate with others’ ideas in the community,” he said.
The son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff, Baca, 30, is currently a freelance process server and skip tracer. A North Valley native, he has lived within the district – including Downtown – his whole life and said he felt compelled to seek his first elected office out of fear the community is becoming a “third world country” and is a vocal critic of the current leadership. He called local elected officials “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime” on his campaign Facebook page and has questioned the fiscal choices of Mayor Tim Keller and the City Council.
Baca contends the city has done little to effectively combat the homelessness crisis, which he said is intermingled with crime and best attacked from that perspective.
“You kind of have to handle it from a criminal justice perspective – crack down on the low-level crimes that the homeless community is doing; have officers do warrant pickups, crack down on those very small crimes like drug abuse. … A lot of the people (who are homeless) are addicted to drugs; you need to get those people into the court system so they can be forced to go to rehab,” he said.
A Wells Park resident who once served as a city councilor in a town outside Boise, Idaho, Vigil, 62, has more recently turned her attention to community organizing and a group she founded, the Greater Albuquerque Small Business Alliance.
“I feel I could have a better voice, particularly for our neighborhood, Wells Park,” Vigil said. “We’re really, really struggling with this homelessness vagrancy and trash issue in our neighborhood. It’s shot several businesses down. It’s prevented a lot of the newer businesses from doing as well as they could and we’re really not getting the support we need.”
The self-described “semi-retired” teacher has publicly advocated for an alternative solution to the city’s homelessness crisis that would include a large campus in a remote area that would provide housing and social services. She also wants the community to create new long-term residential treatment centers to serve those with addictions.
“I feel like I have the time right now to dedicate to solving a lot of these major issues that I think are really at a breaking point in Albuquerque,” she said.