Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mayor's Race Goes To The Dark Side: Biz Interests Nuke Front-runner Keller In TV Ad Over Sex Offender Vote; Who Is Helped If Keller Is Hurt? Plus: The Death Of Domenici; A Remembrance Of Things Past 

Tim Keller
Will it end up being the high level nuclear attack that slows mayoral front-runner Tim Keller and impacts the outcome of the race? Or will it be a dud, easily dismantled by Keller operatives?

That's the question in the wake of a very tough TV attack on the Democratic State Auditor who has had the pole position in this eight way contest ever since he announced his candidacy.

The attack in question is this TV ad released Wednesday by the "Make ABQ Safe" committee, a group financed by business interests who fear Keller's progressive politics. It centers on a controversial vote Keller took while serving as a state senator from the ABQ SE Heights. The ad transcript:

Tim Keller chose protecting sex offenders over our children, As a state senator  Tim Keller supported a bill taking away the city of Albuquerque's right to limit where child molesters can live, Not only was he against keeping child molesters from living close to schools and parks but Tim Keller wanted to make Albuquerque a safe haven to attract child molesters from around the country. What will he do as mayor? Is he the person to make our keep our community safe?

That bill was defeated on a 20-16 vote in the 2011 legislative session, but no matter. Keller's affirmative vote on the emotionally charged issue could become a mayoral campaign centerpiece, depending on how it's handled.

The spot is replete with scary images, including a petrified little girl with a hand muzzling her mouth and meant to signify a sex offender. The ad could force a TV response from the political committee separate from Keller's campaign and that last reported around $175,000 in cash on hand.

To get under Keller's skin further, the committee is posting the TV and radio ad at a site with the address "badtimmy.com"

Make ABQ Safe has not yet filed an expense report with the city so we don know the specific contributors to the committee, although it has been rumored that land developer Santolina is one of the interests behind the Keller attack. The spot comes as the new reporting period is starting and which runs until September 22. However, a spokesperson for the committee said it is purchasing $30,000 in initial air time.

The bill in question is Senate Bill 184. That bill said in part:

A city, county, home rule municipality or other political subdivision of the state is prohibited from adopting or continuing in effect any ordinance, rule, regulation, resolution or other law that imposes distance restrictions for a registered sex offender's place of residence or that creates an exclusionary zone from which all registered sex offenders are excluded.

Keller's campaign came with this response to the attack ad:

As a father of two young children, it is absolutely offensive to suggest that I would let anyone harm our kids, let alone make life easier for those who do. What the attacks don’t tell you is that as a Senator, I fought for and passed the nation’s strongest sex offender laws to date, and as Auditor have been a champion for public safety and tackling the rape kit backlog.

These are false, partisan political attacks, from well-connected right-wing special interests meant to distract from our real plans to attack crime and bring immediate relief to our families on day one.

The campaign added:

Tim cast a vote, along with many colleagues, in support of a proposal to allow restrictions on the residences of sex offenders in a manner that would ensure there is oversight, reduce recurrence, and provide proper parole and monitoring, instead of through other means where there is no real oversight or enforcement capability. The NM Attorney General and the Sex Offender Management Board both supported this position.


More mayoral campaign TV will start tomorrow when Republican Ricardo Chaves comes with this 30 second spot that calls the Mayor Berry ART project an "expensive boondoggle." The ad also cites the city's crime crisis and says "it's not just criminals running rampant, it's career politicians, too. A vote for Ricardo Chavez is a vote to crack down on crime because Ricardo Chaves is running for mayor to clean up ABQ."


Remember, we are now blogging the Mayor's race Monday they Thursday and on Friday if needed. So joins for our Monday blogs to stay in the loop on Election '17.


There's really not much I can add to the acres of reporting, blogging and analysis I have devoted to the career of Senator Pete Domenici over these many years, beginning with our reporting career in 1974 and continuing to today.

His death Wednesday at the age of 85 did evoke this thought: All that coverage was worth it. That can't be said of many political figures who bask briefly in the sun and then slip quickly into the night. Domenici mattered mightily to the history and development of modern New Mexico. (NYT obit here. WaPo obit here.)

The state has changed drastically--and not for the better--since that day 10 years ago when he announced he would not seek re-election in 2008, thus ending a 36 year career in the US Senate, the longest in state history.  If you were not around then it's difficult to impart the political pandemonium that decision set off and the emotional reaction it drew from generations of New Mexicans who had never known a US Senate without Domenici's presence.

I reviewed my blog coverage of those fateful days in October 2007 and thought it would be fitting to bring excerpts to you today to recapture the end of an era in state politics. So for a final time and with historic photos by Mark Bralley, we report on Pete V. Domenici, native son of New Mexico and whose many chapters in the never ending book of La Polticia are writ large.

The day the news broke:
    They say time waits for no man, but on rare occasions it does seem to stand still. Such a moment came for New Mexico at 2:32 p.m. on October 3, 2007 as news flashed that NM U.S. Senator Pete Domenici would not seek re-election to the exclusive club of 100 where he has served longer than any other New Mexican and from where he carved out an historic record of achievement that brought untold billions into the state since he was first elected in 1972.

    The news was particularly poignant as the AP reported in late night dispatches that the 75 year old ABQ native was suffering from a serious brain ailment that often leads to dementia. That revelation comes on the heels of a Survey USA poll that showed Pete's approval rating diving to 41%, increasing the promise of a hotly contested battle for re-election; a battle that would be played out under the klieg lights of television and put his frailty squarely in the faces of voters.

    By concluding his career now, Domenici will leave with his dignity intact and with accolades from across the political spectrum.

    "For more than three decades, Senator Domenici has been a respected and powerful champion for New Mexico’s interests in the US Senate." Said Big Bill.


    Domenici has been the state's political Godfather. He knew how to accumulate power and he knew how to use it. And he used it to distribute largess to federal installations without which many New Mexico towns would have dried up and blown away. He reached the pinnacle of his career in the 80's as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee when he became a serious prospect for the 1988 vice-presidential ticket with George Bush.

    He has been the personification of the NM Republican Party, so much so that his retirement news set off a scramble by top insiders to come up with notable candidates for offices that could be impacted by his departure.

    Until the US Attorney scandal, his age and the Iraq war sent his approval ratings tumbling, Domenici had demonstrated political appeal with Hispanics, Native Americans as well as Anglos, an impressive achievement for a Republican.

    His uniquely American life began humbly as the son of immigrant Italian parents in downtown Albuquerque. Today at 4 p.m. he returns to deliver a political valedictory in his neighborhood of birth at Saint Mary's High school where he graduated and where his sister is principal.

    Pete Domenici was a Tiger Woods of politics. He excelled when the pressure was on and when the stakes were highest. He could have made millions in the private sector, but chose La Politica and the joys and challenges of the public life. New Mexico went along for the ride and reaped benefits beyond its highest expectations.


    Monahan by Bralley (2007)
    Bralley snapped this pic of me doing a TV interview in the eye of the political storm set off by Pete's retirement announcement. The intensity of the moment is evident as it was taken immediately after Domenici had finished his speech carried statewide.

    This is an excerpt of our dispatch from St. Mary's High School in downtown ABQ on that day in October of 2007:

    The past was honored and Pete Domenici was venerated, but the birth pangs of the political future shared equal time Thursday on one of the most storied days in the history of La Politica. I was positioned just yards from the Senate legend as he uttered the words that will change the politics of our lifetime.

    "I come here today, to the site of the school I attended as a boy, to tell you that I will not run for re-election to the United States Senate." Domenici announced.

    The atmosphere was one of nostalgia and pride in the native son who went to the senate in 1973 and went on to become the state's longest-serving senator. In the crowd were the old warhorses of New Mexico politics who were with Pete at the beginning of his fabled run. They included former NM Congressman Manuel Lujan, attorney Billy Marchiondo, "Smokey" Sanchez Davis and businessman Bing Grady.

    Domenici, now frail at 75, kept his emotions in check and spoke of the work to come in his remaining 14 months, but the tears flowed freely among men as well as women. Members of his large family seemed to be bracing themselves as they stood erect behind the man who has insured that their name will be known as long as there is a place called New Mexico.


    Domenici and his wife, Nancy, seemed at peace. Introducing her, he described how she has recently been helping him to better pronounce his vowels and speak more forcefully on his weekly radio program. The humanity of the moment overwhelmed the audience.

    The great wave of history represented by the occasion was brought home as Domenici explained how in 1972 he became the first New Mexico Republican Senator elected since Bronson Cutting 38 years earlier, in 1935. I had heard him say it before, but on this day the statement had my head swirling with images of nearly a century of our state's politics and people, and I admit it sent a chill up my spine.


    Domenici chief-of staff Steve Bell described for me the phone call placed to the President by Senator Domenici to tell him of his plans to retire.

    "It was a five to seven minute conversation. I talked with the President's chief of staff the next day to find out what had been said on the President's end, but he told me the President had the room cleared while he talked with Senator Domenici. That's something special," said a wistful Bell.

    Domenici abandoned lofty rhetoric in summing up his acclaimed career.

    "We left the state in better shape than we started." He declared.

    Soon after, it was over. The Senator took no questions. He was in the arms of those who will now finally reclaim him from a lifetime on the political stage.

    I was there and that's the way it was. 

    This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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    Wednesday, September 13, 2017

    Jump Ball Mayor's Race Gets Sanderoff Polling Treatment This Weekend, A Review Of 1st Mayor TV Forum, Which Candidates Favored If Turnout Is Low, And: Santa Fe Mayor's Race; We've Got The First Polling  

    Late Breaking: Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, the longest serving US Senator in state history, died Wednesday. He was 85. AP obit here.
    The jump ball known as the ABQ mayoral race takes another bounce Sunday when the ABQ Journal comes with a poll showing where the eight contenders stand. Not only that but early in-person voting begins citywide today, the TV ads are starting to crowd the airwaves and the ethics complaints are flying left and right--all signs that the crucial stage of the campaign is underway. (Early voting locations here.)

    The newspaper poll will be taken this week and for the most part will not show the full impact of TV ads from Dan Lewis--who went on the air yesterday--or his fellow Republican Wayne Johnson who has had a light cable buy for a week and who will go up on the broadcast networks today. The third Republican--Ricardo Chaves--sent us a TV ad that is similar to Johnson's as it criticizes the ART project and then segues into the crime problem. The campaign said it would send details today on where the ad was airing.

    The insiders, Alligators and hangers-on are all holding their breath as that GOP vote takes sides and reveals whether the Johnson-Lewis split continues as it has in the early surveys. That could prevent either from advancing to a November 14 run-off featuring the top two vote-getters.

    Pollster Brian Sanderoff is known for pulling rabbits out of the hat when it comes to predicting the city and state electorate, but even he might need a second survey to determine where that GOP story line is headed. Still, his Sunday survey will be anticipated because it will confirm or reject the findings of two earlier polls that do not employ the rigorous screening standards Sanderoff's poll is known for.


    Here's Wayne Johnson's first ad. It is full of Republican red meat, including a dig at Mayor Berry's hyper-controversial ART transit project which Johnson says "nobody wanted." Bringing up ART makes sense because in polling Republican voters despise the project and it gives Johnson a different angle than simply all-crime-all-the-time that all the candidates are adhering to.

    Johnson narrates the spot himself as did his GOP rival Lewis in his first TV outing. Both Lewis and Johnson have solid appeal to base GOP voters. Maybe they end up going negative on one another in order to break away and get in that run-off?


    Speaking of negative ads, as we told you it would a couple of weeks ago, the business committee opposing Tim Keller's candidacy unveiled ads attacking the former Dem state Senator for a vote he took and which according to the spot would have made ABQ "a safe haven" for sex offenders. Here's the radio ad.

    We'll post the TV spot when we get it and, of course, any response from the Keller camp. Media Alligators report the buy for the anti-Keller TV on cable and broadcast is about $$30,000 for the next week.


    Seven of the eight mayoral candidates took part in the first live TV forum of the campaign Monday night on KASA-TV Channel 2. (Ricardo Chaves did not appear).

    The questions posed were okay but the format for the 90 minute broadcast did not allow for any rebuttal among the candidates or the chance for them to question each other about their answers to crime and education and other topics they fielded. It was a lost opportunity.

    KOB-TV will host a mayoral debate this Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. And even though handling seven or eight candidates can be unwieldy, how about if they let the contenders go after one another and give the public a lively and informative debate?

    The entire KASA-TV debate can be seen here.


    Early voting for the October 3 election kicks off today at voting centers across the city. They will be open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6. p.m. through September 29.

    Campaign operatives report that in the absentee voting so far about 1,500 votes have been cast. Our initial projection for turnout is 85,000 to 89,000--(about 23 percent of the registered voters) but that's not written in cement and depending on developments in the final weeks it could go higher or lower.

    History says we should be biased toward a lower turnout--not one over 90,000 of the 380,000 registered. One of the Alligators tied up in this contest comes with an analysis of what a low turnout could mean for the mayoral field as we continue to give you context and perspective on City Election '17:

    The early vote is low so far and I think low turnout helps Democrat Tim Keller. The progressives are motivated. I also think it helps Republican Dan Lewis. He has support from the churches whose membership is prone to vote.

    Keller demonstrated that he has a good ground game by getting the $5 contributions needed to qualify for public financing and Lewis has a good ground game with the churches. The 6,000 people who gave the Keller campaign $5 have already made an investment in Keller. I would expect Lewis to be at multiple services on Sunday and Wednesday.

    Early voting will also be lower than expected. It is only Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM.  There's no Saturday voting. That makes it difficult for people who have jobs to vote early. Well-off progressives in Nob Hill and around UNM have an easier time taking 30 minutes out of their day to vote.

    Lower turnout also gives a Republican a better chance to win if one of them makes the November runoff and if a two person race does not energize the voters. I am surprised that interest is so low with the amount of crime in the city. Maybe the voters have not voted because they do not know who to vote for. If that is true, we could see a large turnout on Election Day, if people need more time to make a choice. We also need to see if TV ads increase interest. If they do, we should see a spike in absentee ballots soon.


    Back on the TV front, Brian Colón comes with a new ad that highlights his bio, calling him a "respected lawyer" who ran two businesses to pay for his college education and which pledges that "no one will work harder for ABQ."

    As the candidate with the largest campaign kitty, Colón has the luxury of rolling out a variety of well-produced 30 second ads. He has also not yet been subjected to negative attacks which would divert his media to defense. That probably will come, but for at least the first two weeks of his ad campaign, Colón has been in the sweet spot.


    On the city council front, a body blow for Dem westside Council hopeful Javier Benavidez. The progressive Dem was slapped with a $1,900 fine by the city ethics board:

    An Albuquerque board found in favor of an ethics complaint alleging that City Council candidate Javier Benavidez improperly obtained public campaign financing and fined him $ 1,900, or $ 100 per violation found by investigators. The city Board of Ethics voted 6-0 in favor of the complaint filed by Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers on behalf of two voters who alleged that Benavidez failed to collect $5 donations from each of the 381 voters he need to qualify for about $ 38,000 in public financing.

    Benavidez and two other candidates are trying to oust veteran City Councilor and Democrat Ken Sanchez. This ethics slap is not going to help the Benvidez cause. The question remains whether Sanchez can be held below 50 percent of the vote and forced into a run-off with the likely foe being Benavidez. Even if Benavidez now does get into a run-off the ethics action will be fodder for Sanchez as he works to keep his seat for a third, four year term.


    ABQ isn't alone in having a race for Mayor. Santa Fe is going to select a new leader next March and in the first polling of the potential field a familiar name pops to the top. He's Alan Webber, the liberal Santa Fe businessman and sometimes political philosopher who made a run at the 2014 Dem gubernatorial nomination.

    In a survey conducted Sunday, September 10 by automatic phone calls to registered voters with land lines, Webber, who says he is considering a mayoral bid, garnered 17 percent of the vote to 14 percent for City Councilor Ron Trujillo who is already off and running.

    Incumbent Mayor Javier Gonzales is not seeking re-election. The other candidates in the poll were City Councilor and former Espanola Mayor Joe Maestas who came in with 6 percent; Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza who is mulling over a bid and received 4 percent; potential candidate and City Councilor Renee Villarreal garnered 5 percent and Ray Sandoval, known for promoting the burning of Zozobra, came with 3 percent. Undecided is a huge 50 percent, signaling a spirited contest ahead.

    The poll was paid for by Santa Fe's Jon Hendry who is head of the union that represents the state's film workers, but he says he commissioned the poll for his own knowledge.

    The poll was conducted by veteran Dem consultant and pollster Mark Fleisher and queried 351 registered voters. It has an MOE of 5.1 percent.


    Let's keep it in Santa Fe and finish up there this Wednesday with word abut popular radio talk show host Richard Eeds. He informs us that his long-running morning radio broadcast on KVSF-AM and FM is switching stations and headed to the afternoons. From Hutton Broadcasting:

    Beginning Monday, September 18, 1260 KTRC-AM, will add local talk shows to its lineup, including The Richard Eeds Show--The Voice of Santa Fe. Eeds has hosted a popular morning drive show on KVSF 101.5 since 2014.  The show's move to KTRC fro 1 to 5 p.m weekdays adds a local voice to bolster the station's national programming which includes top-rated hosts Stephanie Miller and Thom Hartmann.

    As a kicker, Eeds says he is considering a run for Mayor of Santa Fe. That ought to get them talking. . .

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    Tuesday, September 12, 2017

    Even Death Doesn't Thwart The Criminals in ABQ; And Where Does All The Stolen Stuff Go? Plus: ABQ Run-Off Election Set For Nov. 14, Defending Tim Keller, Lewis Readies TV Campaign And More Blogging For You In Campaign's Final Weeks  

    Where do you a fence a dead body? That's the latest challenging question for the city's criminal class as some of them carted off a U-Haul from a hotel parking lot that contained a corpse awaiting transport to its final resting place.

    Relatives of the dead man on their way to the Four Corners area had stopped at the Residence Inn at Yale and Gibson for an overnight break. Of course, the bizarre heist again splashed ABQ across the national headlines and made our state's status as the nation's #1 spot for auto theft even more notorious. Whatever happened to Rest in Peace? Not in crime ravaged ABQ. (The U-Haul and body were recovered.)

    ABQ hotel and motel parking lots have become such easy targets for the carjackers that   they treat them like they're browsing the lot at Rich Ford. The problem is no one is shooing them away--not APD and not the property owners.

    The best Mr. and Mrs. Albuquerque can can do now is to tell their undertakers not to tempt the criminals and instruct them to bury them in plain pine boxes, not some expensive bronze casket. Who says we can't fight the crime wave until our dying breath---and even into the afterlife?


    No question that this crime epidemic is one of the worst in the city's history. V.B. Price, an author who has written extensively of ABQ and NM for over half a century, raises an issue that has been mostly dormant and mentioned in our first paragraph today: Where is the stacks of stolen property and autos being fenced? Answer that, he asserts in his weekly Mercy Messenger, and the crime wave might start receding:

    When it comes to property crime, Albuquerque has a staggeringly awful record. A website called areavibes.com gives Albuquerque an F rating for crime, citing 34,000 incidents of property crime alone last year. The Albuquerque Journal estimates that 27 cars are stolen here each day, which amounts to almost 10,000 cars annually.

    What happens to all that loot? How do you get rid of 10,000 cars with almost no one finding out? A highly sophisticated system of stolen property fencing has been in place in our city for decades. TVs, stereos, smartphones, computers, guns, where do they go? They are fenced. The system must be huge and it seems invisible. But it has to be there. And yet how many times have you read or heard of a major fencing operation being broken up, or stolen property actually being returned? Almost never. It’s not a media issue. Crime solving is every bit as newsworthy as a gory accident. Crime organizations are making millions hand over fist selling stolen goods. It must be one of Albuquerque’s larger “industries.” A good strategy for serious “crime prevention” would be to create police task forces to focus on nothing but fences and making it as difficult as possible to profit from all forms of theft.

    Well, the fight against the fences will have to wait until the next mayoral administration because this one has simply lost control. That new mayor will be one of eight candidates running and who will take office December 1.


    City Clerk Natalie Howard tells us if no one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in the balloting October 3 the run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held Tuesday, November 14. We blogged on Aug. 29 the run-off would be on the traditional election day--the first Tuesday in November, but that's not how it works under our City Charter.

    We also asked the clerk about reader complaints that there is no early voting in the city election on Saturday. Her office points out there has never been Saturday early voting for any city election, unlike Bernalillo County elections.

    And what about Tim Keller, the one publicly financed candidate in the mayoral race? How much in taxpayer money would he get if he were to be in a run-off election? The clerk says he would get 33 cents for each registered voter. With about 380,000 registered voters, Keller would receive about $125,000 to run his run-off campaign. That's not very much when you consider what a privately financed candidate like Brian Colón could raise.


    Speaking of State Auditor Keller, he's being scorched over how he has handled cash donations to his publicly financed campaign, with mayoral candidate Wayne Johnson filing a complaint with the city ethics board. The press has been bad for Keller, including here on the blog. Reader and Keller supporter  Jeff McConaughy comes with a defense:

    Maybe I'm just new to the political finance "game," but I don't get the issue with Keller's in-kind donations. This seems like local news trying to sensationalize a non-issue to increase viewership and the Republican party smelling an opportunity to fling some mud at the front runner.

    1. In-kind donations are perfectly legal and legitimate. These are offers of services or materials, or offers to pay for services or materials instead of direct cash donations to the campaign. For example, if I offered to make copies of a flyer or information sheet on their behalf, took the template to Fedex and paid Fedex $100 to make 1000 copies for the campaign, that would be an in-kind donation of $100. The kerfuffle seems to center on checks people have written to Rio Solutions, the company that's managing Keller's campaign. They are providing a service, just like Fedex does in the above example. People are paying for that service. It's exactly the same thing and it seems perfectly legal and ethical to me.

    2. The campaign is held to approximately $38,000 in in-kind donations. That amount is tied to the number of eligible voters in Albuquerque the same as the amount of direct funding they receive, but with a different multiplier. Again, what they're doing is perfectly legal up to the $38K cap. They are tracking the in-kind donations and being completely transparent about them, exactly as they are supposed to. That's how KOB found out about the payments in question. As stated in the story, they looked at Keller's public finance reports. Nothing is being hidden, nothing had to be sleuthed out, because it's all legitimate and accurately reported according to the rules.

    What am I missing?

    And former APD officer and ABQ attorney Tom Grover writes:

    It's no surprise that the knives are coming out for Keller. He's the one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the rest to actually bring the train wreck known as Albuquerque not just to a stop, but turn it around. That obviously scares the opponents who fall in Keller's shadow in substance, skills, and success but also terrifies the appointees desperate seeking to preserve their jobs at the City. Only in NM will you find Republicans calling foul about campaign finance issues. Let's get real though, this race is about turning this City around and undoing the mess Berry has made of it and who is the best candidate to do that. It's not a time for amateurs, sycophants, or pseudo-proselytizers.


    On the Republican side of the tracks, we hear from the Dan Lewis campaign about his  first TV ad. Lewis joins Keller and Colon in focusing on the city crime crisis. He narrates it in a monotone that paints a gloomy picture of the city but says Lewis offers hope. Gothamesque? Kind of.

    How much will the westside city councilor spend on that ad? He didn't say but with about $200,000 in cash on hand for the final stretch political pros expect the buy to be around $100,000. That would probably include radio for ads like this one that Lewis released along with his TV spot.

    That kind of exposure seems likely to continue the polling gridlock between Lewis and his Republican rival and BernCo Commissioner Wayne Johnson. Both were at 8 percent in the most recent public poll. GOP voters are about to take sides between them them as they see the TV ads and mailers but if the pair continues this split of the R vote the likelihood of a Keller-Colon run-off will stay reasonably high. And if Ricardo Chaves, the other R in the race, makes a TV buy with conservative themes, you could get a three way split.


    We're back blogging to four days a week--Monday thru Thursday and Friday when need be--until the October 3 mayoral election. We don't want you to miss any of the major events so be sure to check us each week day for enhanced blogging of City Election '17.

    We put up a lengthy Monday blog on the Keller finance ontroversy and covered the latest polling in a Friday blog. You can read both by scrolling down.


    Readers asked who conducted the recent poll on the mayor's race and other city issues for KRQE-TV. Anchorman Dean Staley says:

    It's John Couvillon, JMC Analytics and Polling out of Louisiana. 

    This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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    Monday, September 11, 2017

    Keller's Rising Star Tarnished By Campaign Finance Charges; Foes Smell Blood And Strike: Will It Slow His Mo? And: Unpacking Packman; Dem Consultant At Center Of Keller Storm, Plus: Following The Money; What Latest Reports Say Where Mayoral Race Stands  

    Tim Keller
    Who ever would have thought State Auditor Tim Keller--known as a watchdog of New Mexican tax dollars--would be accused of money laundering? Well, welcome to the 2017 ABQ mayor's race where the heat on Keller is getting hotter than a Tucumcari parking lot in July. Here's how it's coming down. . .

    Keller's campaign stumbled when KOB-TV questioned cash contributions Keller had received, perhaps in violation of the city's public financing law.

    That law does not allow publicly financed hopefuls like Keller to take cash donations. "In-kind" contributions are permitted for goods given or services rendered. For example, a supporter donating office space to the campaign is a traditional in-kind donation.

    But in this case and what drew the charges of money laundering from his foes, is Keller's campaign labeling cash donations as in-kind and using them to pay the firm of Keller's political consultant---Rio Strategies--run by Alan Packman. The question du jour: Is paying Packman's heavy payroll an "in-kind" donation?

    In the six minute TV piece Keller's campaign manager was drilled repeatedly about the propriety of the in-kind cash donations for "professional services" but was never quite able to give a satisfying answer. All the while Packman stood off to the side--apparently unaware he was on camera and visibly upset by the line of questioning.

    It took all of a New York minute before the state Republican Party and GOP mayoral hopeful Wayne Johnson scrambled their jets and started a bombing raid on the Keller camp. The NM GOP said:

    The man who is supposed to keep New Mexico’s finances clean is breaking the very law that he helped write. Keller is accepting monetary contributions improperly designated as in-kind contributions in order to subvert the law that clearly states he is not allowed to accept cash contributions as a taxpayer-funded candidate. The Attorney General, the Secretary of State, and the Albuquerque City Clerk should investigate this illegal campaign finance scam and take immediate action against Keller and his campaign.

    The R's attorney weighed in by asserting that allowing donations to the consulting firm running Keller’s campaign--is the “laundering of money contributions."

    And it was Johnson who filed the official complaint against Keller with the City Ethics Board. That's politically smart because he wants to be seen as the chief GOP rival to polling front-runner Keller--not Dan Lewis. Only the two top vote-getters will be eligible for the November run-off election that will be held if none of the eight candidates in the race manages 50 percent of the vote.


    Chavez & Berry
    Keller's campaign, which could not get out of the corner in that TV interview, tried to regroup by later calling the complaints "frivolous" and saying past publicly financed campaigns have "used the exact same procedure." From the Keller camp:

    It’s no surprise that the Republican Party is filing a frivolous complaint against the leading candidate for Mayor. Tim Keller has always been committed to open and ethical government and our grassroots campaign is in full compliance with the law, including adhering to the $38,019.10 cap on such contributions. This is the exact same procedure used by the current mayor when he used public financing.

    The problem with the Keller statement is that Tim Keller is not former Mayor Chavez or current Mayor Berry. They are not known as watchdogs of the state treasury and enforcer of statewide ethics. Keller is. Or was, if his rivals get their wish.

    A consultant who worked on the 2009 mayoral campaign in which Chavez and Berry took public financing said his memory and check of the records from then does not support the conclusion that those candidates did the same as Keller. The consultant said the in-kind contributions were not as large as those that Keller received and, importantly, were not taken after the candidates received their initial distribution of public funds. Keller did receive in-kind donations after that distribution which appears to be prohibited.

    And the other question: What about paying your campaign consultant with donated money and calling it an in-kind donation? Is that a legitimate good or service? That, the consultant said, is a new definition and needs to be adjudicated.

    It appears Keller's team failed on basic campaign strategy when they failed to get clearance for the cash donations by simply getting an e-mail from the City Clerk approving them. We'll see how the investigation of all this plays out, but the political damage has been done.


    The hit on Keller's campaign could not have come at a worst time--just as he was going up on the air with his first TV ad in the hopes of slowing the momentum of fellow Dem contender Brian Colón who doubled his support in the polls with this first TV outing.

    The only saving grace for Keller is that the Thursday night TV report ran at about 11 p.m because of a late football game. But the GOP follow-up complaints drew heavy attention, garnering circulation on social media and--not surprisingly--a front pager in the ABQ Journal and an AP rewrite of that piece that was distributed nationally.

    Making matters more complicated for Keller--who is wildly popular with the Dem Party's progressive wing--is that this is the second time he has been in the barrel over his campaign finances. The newspaper last month came with a 1,300 word hit on the political committee that is supporting Keller's campaign and that has raised several hundred thousand dollars to advertise on his behalf. That raised questions about his commitment to public financing.

    The committee is led by a former campaign manager of Keller's--Neri Holguin--raising the question of whether his campaign would--in violation of campaign rules-- coordinate with the committee. His campaign says the entities are completely separate.

    Because publicly financed candidates get only $380,000 to run their campaigns Keller was warned when he undertook the mayoral race that publicly financing could cramp his style. Keller's chief foe--Dem Brian Colón--has raised $750,000 putting Keller at a disadvantage.

    Now Keller's opponents are having a field day painting an image of Keller as a manipulator of the law that is so popular with progressives and not a true believer in public financing.

    Will all of this slow Keller's momentum after he has taken the lead in the two public polls in the campaign? It could depend on how Keller fights back in the final weeks.
    For the rising star of Democratic politics this campaign has suddenly turned from a "don't worry, be happy" event to a guy in a street fight encircled by enemies with knives at his throat.


    Alan Packman
    The calls for an investigation of Keller's campaign financing opens up a can of Democratic worms, starting with Attorney General Balderas. He received a request for a criminal investigation of the matter from NM GOP attorney Blair Dunn, but because Balderas has openly endorsed Keller rival Colón--including a TV spot for him--Balderas can't investigate the allegations. He says he will refer the matter to the "proper authorities." He has yet to specify those authorities. It certainly can't be Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. . .

    Oliver is a client of Rio Strategies and Alan Packman and would also have to take a pass on the case. BernCo District Attorney Raul Torrez is another who is or has been a client of Packman and Rio. He also would be disqualified.

    Rio Strategies and Packman have emerged in recent years as the dominant political consulting group for prominent state Democrats. It's services don't come cheap. The firm charged Oliver $10,000 a month even when her primary election was months away.

    The firm's deep reach into Dem politics has been compared to that of McCleskey Media Strategies run by veteran consultant and Gov. Martinez adviser Jay McCleskey. He, too, has run into trouble navigating the campaign finance thicket, having been investigated by a federal grand jury, but escaping any criminal charges.

    While Packman and McCleskey have drawn comparisons in terms of their reach in their respective parties, the comparison stops there. McCleskey has had a highly successful track record, including electing Martinez twice, helping the R's gain control of the state House for two years and getting a Republican elected ABQ mayor in 2009 for the first time in 25 years. Rio's success is more modest. It includes electing Oliver but only after she first lost an SOS election to Republican Dianna Duran. The firm successfully consulted Keller in his run for auditor as well as Torrez for DA, but he was unopposed in the general election.

    Now Rio is following the path carved by McCleskey--trying to elect an ABQ mayor and governor. Their governor candidate is Democrat Jeff Apodaca who, like Olivier, is no doubt following very closely the developments with Keller and Rio.

    A self-described "Santa Fe Alligator" picks up on the impact that the Keller situation could have on other Dems:

    The other candidate that will get drawn into the shady (but still legal they claim) optics of Keller's in kind cash debacle is Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. She is under attack by the Koch brothers and will be vulnerable. She is also a client of Rio Strategies so any complaints to her office she'll need to recuse herself. The Keller debacle is happening at the same time she is pushing for more transparency in reporting. Unless she distances herself, Koch will soon be making the connection to Alan Packman's loose interpretation of campaign rules. The optics are just ugly. A

    And saying "it's technically legal" won't cut it from a candidate whose job as State Auditor is to double check taxpayer money. Not only has Keller endangered his mayoral run, he could potentially have damaged forever his squeaky clean image. Could he win auditor as a guy who lets his campaign do the dirty work? This is worse than Rio Strategies seems to think it is. Rio Strategies is tainted and any candidate on their slate is going to have issues.

    From the perspective of Keller and Packman it must all seem unfair and perhaps even ridiculous that a flap over in-kind donations could cause such a storm. What about Brian Colón's past involvement in campaign finance controversy and the role his law firm plays in city government with those hefty contracts? Fair questions. But this is not a race for auditor or state senate. When the stakes are higher, the punches thrown go lower. They may be unfair but they still hurt.


    The latest batch of mayoral campaign finance reports were released Friday. In short, they show Brian Colón the best prepared for the media battle that will play out in the final weeks; Keller is in okay shape but will need that independent political committee that has raised money for him; Republicans Dan Lewis and Wayne Johnson are essentially tied in financial resources and Ricardo Chaves has to make a move. Republican Chaves has given his political consultant Bob Cornelius $150,000 of his personal funds to spend and the clock is ticking. Will Ricardo open his wallet wide or not?

    All campaign reports can be found here.

    By our count since the start of the campaign Johnson has raised $293,000 and Lewis $272,000. And that tells much of the tale of this contest. If there were only one major GOP candidate in the race they would likely have raised over $700,000, if not more. But the R's are splitting their votes and the money.

    Colón reports $220,000 in cash on hand but he has already bought substantial TV time and prepaid for campaign mailers. We totaled about $220,000 he has bought for TV and $45,000 for its production. He pre-paid $45,000 for his mail and $12,000 for radio. He could add to that total if he needs to or hold back much of that $200,000 and hope to use it for an eventual run-off election.

    Keller has $118,000 in cash after making an $88,000 TV buy. The committee supporting him reports $174,000 in cash and has not yet bought any media.

    Insiders report a committee formed with deep business connections and opposing Keller called "Make ABQ Safe" will run a negative campaign against him but it won't approach the $200,000 area first speculated but more on the order of $100,000. That's still enough to make a dent and keep the committee promoting Keller on it its toes.

    This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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