In 1994, Lee Garcia attended Boys State, an annual camp geared to teaching high schoolers about the inner workings of government, elections, politics.
During the week at Boys State, a kid can run for any office. Garcia, then a student at Pojoaque Valley High, decided he’d try for a seat on a fictitious county commission.
“I thought I had it in the bag,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I talked to a few people. Needless to say, I lost. I swore I was never going to run for anything ever again.”
The bruise to his ego apparently wasn’t permanent; Garcia earlier this year declared his candidacy for the Santa Fe City Council in District 3 on the city’s south side. But most observers — including this one — figured he was headed to Boys State II, another beating it might take years to forget.
Shows how much I know. Garcia’s upset of incumbent City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta in last week’s election is one of those aspirational tales future hopefuls, long shots and dreamers will use as they steel themselves for an unlikely try at elected office. Hey, I don’t know if I have a chance. But you never know. Remember Lee Garcia? ...
From a distance, there was no way Garcia should’ve won a seat on the council. Abeyta is a longtime political pro — seasoned not just as a politician but someone who understands how the levers of government really work at the ground level, and not just at council meetings. He wasn’t a perfect candidate (there is no such thing), but on paper it looked like a mismatch: government insider/incumbent vs. self-employed tire store owner.
To most outside the south side, Garcia was a virtual unknown.
Turns out, there was a lot more to Garcia than the optics. For one thing, he’s not exactly a government neophyte: He’d spent four years on the Planning Commission and absolutely understands the difference between bull and hokum. Add that to his connections on the south side and maybe a sense Abeyta wasn’t as strong or entrenched as a lot of us thought, and you have the kernels of an upset.
Besides, Garcia didn’t have a ton to lose. He got into the race simply because he didn’t want the district to go without a choice in candidates. When he picked up an election packet to investigate whether to run, he even called Abeyta to talk about the race and the issues in District 3.
“We both agreed that having a dialogue and having the voters the opportunity to voice their opinions and a reason to get out there and vote was a good thing,” Garcia said.
Publicly financed, Garcia said he knew that on a limited budget he’d have to do it the old-fashioned way — talking to people throughout the campaign, finding some hardcore volunteers willing to help, even standing for hours outside polling locations on Election Day with signs that read “¡Lee, para tí!”
Voters spoke loudly almost from the outset. The early numbers released by the County Clerk’s Office showed Garcia ahead, and they never really moved much through the evening. The big Abeyta rally many thought would eventually come never arrived.
By midnight, it was clear Garcia had pulled the biggest surprise of the election, far bigger than Mayor Alan Webber’s unexpectedly easy win over JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Alexis Martinez Johnson. Garcia defeated Abeyta by 100 votes in a district where turnout was cotton-ball light, only 1,700 votes.
Which reveals this point one more time: The south side can often complain with legitimacy about being the forgotten quadrant in Santa Fe. But if fewer than 2,000 people actually vote for their own representative, is that really a surprise?
A few days after the election was over, even Garcia acknowledged turnout was but a whisper.
“We obviously want more participation; we always want that,” he said. “I think the challenge and the drive in the future is to communicate more to the community and hopefully get out the vote. That’s their voice.”
And Garcia’s voice? Well, that’s the interesting part. Abeyta was Webber’s biggest ally on the council and perhaps one of his best friends and advisers when the meetings were gaveled to a close. It’s possible their close ties hurt Abeyta on the south side as Vigil Coppler campaigned against the mayor, though I think too much could be made of that. What really made the difference was turnout.
In a race where only 1,700 people vote, you don’t need a ton of money or luck to win. Maybe all you need is a little moxie. And a little steel.
Since Tuesday night, Garcia’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. The councilors are calling; Webber, too. He’s been on the phone with county commissioners, state and local government officials, all offering their congratulations and offers of support.
“It’s been very busy, to say the least,” he said.
Funny how life works. The kid who couldn’t get elected at Boys State became the center of attention 27 years later on a Tuesday night in Santa Fe.