Firefighter Jeremy Ward stole the show Saturday, drowning out the political overtones of a taxpayer-funded event.
Ward has the build of an NFL linebacker and a genial disposition. Those attributes made him a good ambassador for city government, especially after he turned on a powerful fire hose and soaked his audience.
He maneuvered the hose for almost 25 minutes in the midday sun at SWAN Park, showering more than 160 kids and adventurous parents.
“Thanks. The kids loved it,” said the father of two little girls.
“Great show,” another dad said.
Not a discouraging word was heard as kids received replica firefighter hats, in pink or black, and got a close look at Ocho, the title emblazoned on a red fire engine of Company No. 8.
Oh, and Mayor Alan Webber arrived as he promised — in a campaign announcement that grated on a segment of Santa Fe residents, including his challengers, in the fall election.
City government had already promoted the SWAN Park “Cool Down” in a nonpolitical statement. Webber, though, made a pitch of his own.
He listed himself as a featured participant in the department’s event in an email distributed by his political staff under his campaign logo.
“You’ll find fire trucks (and Mayor Webber!) ready to play,” his announcement stated.
Webber arrived at 11:24 a.m., a few minutes before the scheduled starting time. Dressed in jeans, a casual shirt and a teal Santa Fe baseball cap, he followed firefighters onto a grass field.
Ward took charge at that point. He launched streams of water toward a mass of laughing children.
Webber latched onto the fire hose for a moment at 11:43 a.m. The mayor shook hands with a couple of firefighters, then moved toward a fence and slapped low-fives with kids standing there.
Had Webber not tied a city-funded event to his reelection campaign, the 35 minutes he spent in the park wouldn’t have riled anyone or gotten him so much as a column inch of negative press.
Instead, Webber drew criticism while giving a platform to the women who want his job.
Candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson read Webber’s email and immediately filed a city ethics complaint against the mayor.
“He’s using city employees for his own aims,” Martinez Johnson said.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, the other mayoral candidate, had considered attending the watery gathering in SWAN Park. She decided not to after thinking it through.
“It clearly was used by him as a campaign event,” Vigil Coppler said of Webber. “I felt like it would be disingenuous for me to attend because I would be perceived as campaigning. This event is for families.”
Webber did not respond to questions I sent him after his email blast labeling the gathering in SWAN Park as an event in his reelection campaign.
Trying to walk back Webber’s email message, his political staff said the event in SWAN Park and a similar one next week in Franklin Miles Park are city-sponsored activities unaffiliated with the mayor’s campaign.
Webber was merely trying to get the word out to boost attendance, his campaign spokeswoman said.
A bright line stands between attending a city function and overtaking it as part of a reelection campaign. There was no legitimate reason for Webber to link his campaign to publicly funded events that were likely to please the audience.
If spreading the word was Webber’s only goal, his path was an easy one. He can control the city’s publicity office. All he has to do is order more announcements about the fire department’s community outreach program, and they will fill email inboxes.
Of course, the city communication office would be under scrutiny to make sure these announcements weren’t favoring one candidate over another. In truth, publicity about events run by the fire department shouldn’t mention any politician.
By early afternoon, the fire department’s event in SWAN Park had created a nice COVID-era memory for a lot of people.
Kids got wet, and firefighter Ward made quite a splash. A native of Louisiana, he’s been with the Santa Fe Fire Department for four years.
“I love the job,” he said as he moved to secure the now-dormant fire hose, so kids wouldn’t trip over it.
He had worked up a sweat while enjoying the crowd.
Behind the ugly backdrop of city politicking, it was the fire department’s day after all.