Santa Fe City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler found herself at a crossroads.
As the end of her first term on the Santa Fe City Council inched closer, Vigil Coppler says, she realized she had three options: get out of politics, take a shot at becoming mayor or run for reelection.
The last of those options was a nonstarter for Vigil Coppler, who says she would rather lose her spot on the council than spend another four years working behind the current administration.
“I would be spinning my wheels for another four years,” Vigil Coppler says. “This mayor has not treated me well, in many ways. I don’t want four more years of that for me. In a council seat? No.”
Vigil Coppler’s frustration with Mayor Alan Webber, a regular feature of City Council meetings even early in both of their terms, is unmistakably evident as the mayor’s race nears its climax in November. The race is becoming increasingly bitter — framed by charges and countercharges, negative ads, and comments that reveal a depth of enmity, not just disagreement.
For her part, Vigil Coppler, 64, has accused the mayor of blocking her out of city discussions, taking credit for council- and state-level decisions and fomenting tensions between herself and the administration. At the same time, she says she sees herself as a stronger manager — a skill set she believes is sorely needed under the city’s relatively new “strong mayor” system of government. Webber is Santa Fe’s first strong mayor.
Vigil Coppler says she believes her 25 years in various public service roles make her uniquely qualified to serve as the city’s next chief executive, happy to offer her résumé to anyone who asks.
It’s a long one: Prior to retiring as court director/clerk for the First Judicial District Court, she also worked as a human resources director for the city of Santa Fe, Los Alamos County, and the state Taxation and Revenue Department.
She also served on the transition team for two New Mexico governors — she likes to remind people she offered current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham her job as the director of the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department under then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
After her career in government came to a close, Vigil Coppler worked in real estate and also served in a variety of other roles, including chairwoman of the labor relations board for Northern New Mexico College.
She says she ran for the City Council to put her diverse skills to good use.
Vigil Coppler says she wants to return “trust” back to City Hall, including mending fences between the city and the union that represents most city employees. It’s a task she sees herself as ideally suited to handle based on her human resources background.
But in a city where many voters gauge candidates by their ties to the land beneath their boots, Vigil Coppler has tethered her campaign and message to Santa Feans not on policy, but on emotion and roots.
A former Santa Fe Fiesta princess, Vigil Coppler was one of five siblings, raised in Santa Fe primarily by her mother, Margaret Vigil.
Her mother, who worked as director of the state’s barber board, and her father, Benito Vigil, who worked at the nonprofit HELP New Mexico, divorced when she was in eighth grade.
She recalls a relative quiet upbringing, filled with plenty of friends and long walks along local arroyos. But when she was 15, her family experienced a tragedy when her younger brother, Gerry, was struck and killed by a motorist outside E.J. Martinez Elementary School on the last day of school. He was 12.
“I will never forget that,” she says.
The motorist was never apprehended.
Vigil Coppler graduated from Santa Fe High School in 1972 and attended Eastern New Mexico University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Vigil Coppler says she quickly learned as she was studying for her psychology degree she likely would need to go for her master’s degree.
That wasn’t in the cards at the time, so she returned to Santa Fe. She initially struggled to get work, but she ultimately found a position exploring human rights abuses through the Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.
As she started working in human resources, she learned her degree in psychology could still be put to good use.
“It really helped; it helps me today,” she says. “Coupled with communications — I also minored in communications — those two things together helped me work really well with people.”
While working in Los Alamos, she went back to school, eventually receiving her master’s degree in public administration from the University of New Mexico.
Divorced, Vigil Coppler has an adult son who works as a firefighter for the city.
Though she acknowledges the romanticism about a Santa Fe some people remember, she also notes the city cannot remain stuck in the past and has to start laying the groundwork for the future.
Like rivals Webber and Alexis Martinez Johnson, Vigil Coppler says the city must address its affordable housing problem. At a recent candidates forum, Vigil Coppler called the city’s land use code “antiquated” and unsupportive of organized growth.
“We have to have housing for everyone,” Vigil Coppler says. “It’s the right thing to do, and people do need to live in our city.”
But affordable housing doesn’t always mean rental properties, and Vigil Coppler has taken some flack for comments surrounding the difference between homes for purchase and rental housing.
As the city discussed a resolution that would pave the way to donate a vacant city-owned lot for housing development, Vigil Coppler referred to purchased homes as “real homes.”
Webber slammed the comment during the City Council meeting and in campaign correspondence the day after.
Vigil Coppler says the comment was taken out of context and that she was attempting to note homeownership, as opposed to renting, was “the American Dream.”
She also has taken some heat recently for her decision to vote no on a citywide mask ordinance early in the COVID-19 crisis.
Vigil Coppler says she was never against masks — she says she had to wear them in the 1990s as she fought a battle against cancer — but against unenforceable rules.
She says she wants to bring the “fun” back to government, not a common description for the sometimes molasses-like pace of city meetings. She fondly recalls meetings run by former Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick, who has endorsed Webber in the race. She described Pick as a master of running government business with a bit of humor.
“I really believe in having some levity in what we do because government work, government meetings, it can be very dry,” she says.
Vigil Coppler’s smile turns to a glare as she notes some of the overarching issues she says face Santa Fe and its residents — income inequality; a lack of attention to general services; and the elephant in the room: cultural unrest swirling around the destruction of the obelisk last year and the formation of the Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth process.
She’s remained critical of a decision by Webber and state officials to attempt to remove the obelisk from the Plaza under the cover of night in June 2020, and she’s been even more critical of a decision to have police stand down as protesters used a rope and chain to pull down the obelisk from its base on Indigenous Peoples Day last year.
At a recent forum, Vigil Coppler claimed Webber asked police to stand down. It’s a charge Webber has adamantly denied, calling it a police decision.
Vigil Coppler said she received her information from an officer within the police department, but she has not provided any proof. Still, she has not backed away from the contention.
“When there is destruction of public property, you don’t stand down,” she says.
As the race nears its conclusion, Vigil Coppler faces another crossroads, though this one is out of her hands. Voters will make the decision about her electoral fate. But she remains direct, confident.
“I know I can do a better job,” Vigil Coppler said. “So why not me?”