Alan Webber’s mother had a rule.
“You should only read about yourself in the newspaper three times: when you are born, when you are married and when you die,” Joie Webber told her youngest son.
It’s an edict Webber, 74, admits he’s violated just about every day since he was elected mayor of Santa Fe in 2018.
Then again, it’s that kind of job. The mayor makes headlines — good and bad. How voters interpret that reality may decide his electoral fate in November.
Embroiled in a hotly contested, three-person race alongside environmental engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson and City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, Webber has changed the way a Santa Fe mayor operates during his 3½ years in office, focusing on big initiatives and even bigger, attention-grabbing aspirations.
Part of that is the function of being the city’s first chief executive in a “strong mayor” system. But some of Webber’s drive simply comes from his personality and politics — a wish to address long-simmering economic and social issues with ideas and innovation.
He talks about the big picture easily: weathering the coronavirus pandemic; bolstering the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund by $3 million; funding and breaking ground on a teen center on the south side; the creation of an Alternative Response Unit; and the formation of CHART — the Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth process — to address long-simmering cultural issues within the city.
All have put Webber in bold type, and in the political crosshairs of his rivals, who say his administration’s problems — the stunning toppling of the Plaza obelisk last October, a contentious relationship with the city’s largest public employees union and complaints about the city’s approach to basic services — deserve a harsh look.
Perhaps the kind his mother was trying to warn him about.
In any case, Webber — an entrepreneur who co-founded the business magazine Fast Company — clearly feels he’s the right candidate to lead Santa Fe in the next four years, betting on his business acumen and vision to move the city forward.
”I can sit down with businesses in Santa Fe or outside of Santa Fe who we would like to have a footprint in Santa Fe,” Webber says. “There are not a lot of mayors in the United States who started Fast Company and ran the Harvard Business Review.”
”I think the idea — that the city government has to have that same commitment to public engagement and individual opportunities — is still core to my value systems,” he says.
If he has learned anything from his time in the business sector, Webber says, it’s to be willing to learn and to put the best people in the best positions to succeed.
But not everything in the world of business is transferable to the public sector. That, too, is a lesson he learned very quickly in his first term.
Lesson No. 1? “You have to be careful with what you say,” he notes.
“Things that are meant in casual conversation or in fun, or in the spirit of good fellowship or good colleagueship, they don’t always translate to the public sector.”
Lesson No. 2? Be prepared to lose much of your private life.
Webber has faced a storm of criticism, some of it angry and personal, after a group of Native American activists and their allies toppled the 152-year-old Soldiers’ Monument on the Plaza last year amid a nationwide outcry over culturally insensitive monuments. He also was criticized by some Hispanics for his decision to move the statue of conquistador Diego de Vargas from its spot in Cathedral Park.
Shortly after announcing his bid for reelection, Webber in an interview said if he could do his first term over again, he would have expedited a citywide discussion about controversial monuments that had been coming in the months before the obelisk’s destruction.
“If you didn’t grow up in this world of elected officials all the time, or being in a family of it, you fall down and skin your knees a couple of times and then you learn,” Webber says.
Born in St. Louis in a Jewish household, the second of two children, Webber describes his parents, Joie and Joseph Webber, and his maternal grandfather, Jacob Chasnoff, as three of the most influential people in his life — setting an example of hard work, education and commitment to public service.
Those values, he adds, have guided him through his first term in office and set the groundwork for a potential second term.
“Part of the idea is you have an obligation to help others and to make the world a better place,” Webber says. “Not just to be for yourself, but be for others as well in the community.”
He went to school at Amherst College, where he worked on the campus newspaper, during the tumultuous 1960s. There, his attention to social inequities grew. He says his first job after graduation was washing dishes at a local restaurant, where he met Oregon journalist Phil Stanford, who asked him to help him start the alternative weekly Oregon Times in a small, donated office in 1971.
From there, he moved into the governmental realm, working for City Councilor, and later Mayor, Neil Goldschmidt for a period before returning to journalism — working for another Portland paper, Willamette Week, alongside a friend from college.
Goldschmidt, who was elected mayor of Portland in 1972, was found to have raped a teenage girl during his first term in office. Webber, who at times described Goldschmidt as a mentor, has since disavowed him.
While working for Goldschmidt, Webber met his wife of almost 45 years, Frances Diemoz, a woodworker who was employed at the time by an architecture company in Portland.
He said the pair, who now have two adult children, went door-knocking for city-county consolidation as their first date.
”Frances is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Webber says with a chuckle.
During a business trip to Santa Fe for Fast Company, he and his wife, a Colorado native, fell in love with the city and purchased a home on Upper Canyon Road. He made Santa Fe his permanent residence in 2003.
In 2014, Webber took his first stab at elected office, running for governor as a Democrat. Almost four years later, buoyed by a record fundraising effort, he easily defeated four rivals in the city’s first ranked-choice election.
That, of course, was 3½ years ago, and much has happened since. Some of it gave rise to the serious challenge he faces from Vigil Coppler and Martinez Johnson — spurring, perhaps, another eye-popping performance from Webber’s donors. The mayor last week reported approximately $360,000 in contributions in his first fundraising report, more than triple his nearest rival, Vigil Coppler.
Money aside, Webber says he is committed to the issues facing Santa Fe. He says he believes city government can be a lubricant for effective problem-solving and attention to underserved communities. He recently touted his administration’s participation in the national Mayors for a Guaranteed Income pilot program with Santa Fe Community College.
The program grants 100 Santa Fe Community College students with children $400 a month to help with their monthly expenses.
”It’s kind of bringing the pieces together around the public enterprises of government with the personal value system of making people’s lives better,” Webber says. “Giving them more choices and giving them more opportunity to raise their families like I was raised, with an education and a shot of doing what they want to do when they grow up.”
When Webber grew up, he was a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan. He’s not about settling for a single when there’s a double to be legged out.
Whether he can hit a home run Nov. 2 remains to be seen.
Either way, it’ll be in the headlines.