There’s a month to go until the city election, and already the campaign has been far more combative than Santa Fe’s last mayoral race in March 2018.
Mayor Alan Webber has been hit with ethics complaints about his tactics, especially for slapping his reelection logo atop a flyer promoting taxpayer-funded events in two city parks.
Webber fired back with allegations of his own. He tried to connect a Hispanic fraternal organization that’s suing him to his most dangerous challenger, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler.
The city Ethics and Campaign Review Board dismissed all the complaints. At least the board members didn’t retreat into yet another closed meeting when they threw out the most provable complaint against Webber on a 3-2 vote.
They conducted their entire meeting in public. Sunlight was a welcome change in the chill of a fall campaign.
Many readers have called or emailed me about the acrimony of this election season. Some said politics in New Mexico were more civil, even polite, in days and decades gone by. A couple of people mentioned the calm and courtesy of the 1950s.
That’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t align with the truth. Santa Fe was never Pleasantville, and New Mexico politicians played rough in the ’50s.
No public place was immune from behind-the-curtain maneuvering, including Santa Fe’s city hall.
More than 65 years ago, a slate of city politicians devised what it called a progressive platform. If elected, the candidates promised to hire Santa Fe’s first city manager.
What a breakthrough it would be, they said. Santa Fe’s population had grown to about 30,000. The city manager-city council form of government would be more professional and efficient in serving residents. Let a pro run the show.
The reformers won the election but exhibited no particular interest in delivering on their promise.
With support from Mayor H. Paul Huss, the City Council voted in October 1954 to hire a city manager. Nothing had changed by March 1955.
More than 40 men applied to be the city manager. Several were brought to town for interviews. No one was hired.
The New Mexican was fed up. It criticized politicians who had said government would run smoother if only a city manager were installed.
“From the looks of the situation, we’re no further along the track than we were five months ago. We have an ordinance that provides for a city manager, but that’s all,” the editors wrote.
Did embarrassed officeholders hurry to review the long list of applicants for city manager and finally decide on one of them? Of course not. They had a different plan by the time The New Mexican chastised them for sloth.
State highway commissioners had just fired Pete Erwin, their chief engineer. He was about 13 months shy of qualifying for a 30-year government pension.
Erwin’s future wasn’t in doubt for long. Four days after his firing, he was hired as Santa Fe’s first city manager.
The city job would count toward Erwin’s retirement, under the law that established benefits for public employees.
Mayor Huss said politics played no part in the selection. All he and the City Council ever wanted was to hire the best man for city manager.
Yes, Huss admitted they always intended to hire a man. It was 1955, and the reformers weren’t so liberal that they would consider a woman for the job.
Erwin held the city manager’s job for two years. He resigned in 1957 to become a partner in an engineering firm.
Mayor Leo T. Murphy called Erwin’s departure a blow. Still, the mayor had to keep the wheels of government turning.
He appointed a four-member committee of the City Council to screen the next pool of applicants for city manager. The council had plenty of experience in that regard.
Santa Fe continues to employ a city manager. The mayor’s job returned to full-time status starting with Webber’s election in 2018.
Just like the ’50s, powerful people in state government maintain an interest in city hall.
Brian Egolf, speaker of the state House of Representatives, said he’s endorsing City Councilor Signe Lindell. She is seeking a third term.
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told me he might make more endorsements in the city election, including for mayor.
You might have noticed Egolf’s law firm represented Webber in all the recent ethics complaints. Egolf’s rooting interest in the mayoral election isn’t exactly a mystery.
Politics are pervasive in the nonpartisan city government. If it’s any consolation, the good old days weren’t any better.