Tim Keller impressed most everyone as a youthful state senator. He introduced bills that mattered, spoke on the record in clear, declarative sentences and had a thick skin.
A Democrat, Keller usually introduced himself by saying he represented Albuquerque’s International District — fair warning that he didn’t want it called the “War Zone” any longer.
Pelt Keller with personal insults and he shrugged them off. Disparage his district as crime-infested, and he recited its success stories.
Crime remains an unwelcome topic for Keller seven years after he left the Senate to pursue higher offices. Now the 43-year-old mayor of Albuquerque, he is running for his political life as he seeks reelection in a city that surpassed its yearly record for homicides — in August.
Albuquerque has turned progressively more Democratic in the last decade, but even that trend doesn’t guarantee Keller anything after a crime wave. Big-city mayors spend a lot of their time on a hot seat. Keller’s chair hasn’t cooled all year.
The mayoral election is still Keller’s to lose. In some ways, the setup is perfect for him.
Two more conservative candidates, Manny Gonzales and Eddy Aragon, are likely to hurt one another by drawing from the same pool of voters. All that’s left is for Keller to hold his ground.
But the crime crisis gives Keller’s opponents hope for an upset.
Being a state legislator and then state auditor allowed Keller to play to his strengths on broad policy issues. As mayor, he’s found more headaches in a month than he had in his previous decade of government service.
Keller had immediate success as a senator. He helped restructure the then-tainted State Investment Council, and he sponsored a successful bill requiring thorough analysis of whether taxpayer subsidies for moviemakers were helping New Mexico’s economy. Film and television then became even bigger businesses for the state.
He resigned from the Senate after winning election as state auditor in 2014. The watchdog role of auditor also suited Keller.
Working off a tip, he launched an investigation of then-state Cabinet Secretary Demesia Padilla, who headed the Taxation and Revenue Department.
Critics howled that Keller was an unfair partisan harassing Republican Padilla. His work stood up. A jury this summer convicted Padilla of two felonies for embezzling more than $25,000 from a client of her accounting business while she was a Cabinet secretary.
Keller decided to run for mayor of Albuquerque instead of completing his four-year term as auditor. His decision might yet derail what was a promising career in politics.
Mayors are under daily pressure to deliver city services efficiently. Potholes, weeds, muggings, transit troubles and especially homicide records can end a mayor’s hopes of remaining in office or springboarding to something bigger.
Keller’s record in city hall might have scotched any chance he had of one day winning another statewide race, if he can survive the city election.
He would be in more trouble in the mayoral race if not for the bumbling of Gonzales, a conservative Democrat who’s the Bernalillo County sheriff.
Albuquerque’s city clerk found Gonzales’ campaign committed fraud in trying to qualify for more than $600,000 in public financing for his campaign. Gonzales challenged the ruling in court, gained a respite, then lost another decision by the clerk.
Keller has qualified for public financing, clearing the path for him to control the advertising airwaves while Gonzales probably is left to scramble for private donations.
The other candidate, radio station owner Aragon, is a Republican in a city that has become decidedly more Democratic in the last decade.
Though the mayor’s race is nonpartisan, Aragon’s party affiliation is as blatant as Keller’s.
Aragon ran for the open congressional seat in the Albuquerque-based 1st District last spring. He lost the GOP nomination to state Sen. Mark Moores. In turn, Moores was thrashed by Democratic state Rep. Melanie Stansbury.
Stansbury’s biggest challenge was winning the eight-way Democratic primary election. Nonpartisan mayoral elections don’t have primaries, but Keller’s path might still be rocky.
The mayor is pushing a $50 million bond issue to help finance a stadium whose primary tenant would be New Mexico United, a pro soccer team.
With a surge in COVID-19 infections, a weakened economy and the string of murders, Keller has trouble all around him. Urging voters to borrow money for a publicly financed stadium makes him seem tone-deaf.
He readjusted his career to run for mayor, and and he still might get a second term.
This could be a case of be careful what you wish for. You might receive it.