Monday, September 28, 2009

Madcap Mayor's Race: Contest Reshapes As Poll Stunner Is Absorbed; Only One Week To Win; Pressure Builds On Trio Of Hopefuls, Complete Blog Coverage 

What was to have been a mayoral race that was nearly a foregone conclusion jumped to life this weekend as the ABQ Journal dropped a bombshell poll showing incumbent Mayor Marty Chavez sharing space on the endangered species list with the silvery minnow, and causing the denizens of affluent areas of Albuquerque to rattle their jewelry in unison as Republican Richard "RJ" Berry charged into the lead. Meanwhile, ABQ liberals surprised themselves by vaulting Democrat Richard Romero into a solid third place showing, just two points behind the near-legendary Chavez, sometimes called--either with derision on delight--"Mayor for Life."

So what's next? Well, the short answer is everything. There are now so may possible combinations to victory for this trio that Willie Sutton would have a hard time figuring them out. But there is something that separates Berry from his brethren--his best chance to take the prize appears to be right here, right now. But before we get to that, let's point out one of the defining features of this race and why Chavez is in deeper trouble than might be expected. We have two candidates with strong support among Hispanics--and one Anglo. Hispanics are splitting between Chavez and Romero. Berry is by far the top choice among Anglos. Ethnic politics lives.


If Berry, 46, doesn't score 40 percent next Tuesday night and is thrown into a run-off with either Chavez or Romero, the Democratic nature of the city could make his quest more difficult than Sisyphus. The Journal poll says he has 31 percent in the bank. That's nine more to go, but it has the analysts, pundits, and Alligators---you know, the ones who were so spot-on in saying this thing was in the bag for Chavez (Not)!)--scratching their collective hides in bewilderment. Berry has successfully consolidated much of the Republican base--about a third of the vote--but what does he do from here? Probably more of the same--cultivating more R's and continued jabs at Marty.


Berry did a slick job tying together loose ends left from that attack piece from Chavez that questioned his credentials as a "successful businessman." None other than Heather Wilson was trotted out via the US mail to help extinguish that blaze that may have actually sent flames back on the face of Mayor Marty. (Part of that response featuring Marty as Pinocchio is posted here. Will Marty now go after RJ's moustache?) Well, there's nothing like a Dem like Chavez attacking an R to reawaken tribal loyalties. And pulling out the fire extinguishers to help the state's newest GOP star, isn't going to do any damage to Heather if she decides to seek the 2010 GOP Guv nomination.

Campaign insiders say Berry will close out the week with heavy radio and mail. He has been hitting the same TV spot since the beginning and its been working--at least with R's and many independents.

For RJ, a run-off appears to be a done deal. The R's and assorted conservatives appear to have guaranteed that. He will not try to make a turn to the center now, preserving that option for any run-off. For the Oct. 6 round he will run the get-out-the-vote play and hope for a low-turnout election in which Republican votes are magnified, thereby eking out the 40 percent. Many of the undecided voters (19 percent) are in the conservative far NE Heights. An outright win with mainly R's and indys can be done, but if it isn't, Berry's chances of becoming mayor become more complicated in a one-on-one against an Hispanic Dem.

RJ has himself in the thick of the action, but instead of clarity, things look murkier. That's what tends to happen as the keys to City Hall and the brightly lit stage of statewide La Politica are about to handed out. No one is giving them away.


Marty Chavez has had those keys in his possession for three mayoral terms. Maybe they are a little tarnished after his 26 percent, second place showing in the Journal poll taken Sept. 22 to 24, but they are still his. Can he keep them?

Chavez, never one to waste time, was already working the circuit Sunday night, only hours after the survey's release. He saw what you saw--he is getting clobbered with independent voters--and he reacted by hitting Berry for failing to release his tax return while he and Romero have both agreed. It is an issue sensitive for independent voters and one of many Chavez hits to expect on Berry-and probably Romero--in the final week of this campaign.

Historical side note: The Journal survey marks the most precipitous change in an ABQ mayoral election since the 1993 mayoral run-off. That's when Dave Cargo caught fire and closed to within 600 votes of Chavez, giving us the closest city hall contest in history.

Chavez still has money left from the $328,000 kitty in public financing each candidate qualified for. That will give him some extra ammo to fire at his newly muscular foes. Chavez, to his detriment, has thus far decided to completely ignore the repeated mail attacks from Romero.

Another of those hits hit the mailboxes this weekend, asking if it isn't time "we make ethics a priority at city hall." It's just what the liberals, progressives--or whatever moniker is in vogue this week--love. That lib vote is gone for Chavez, but analysts inform us there there is a bevy of undecided Democrats--usually ones in Chavez's corner--who have been put in the undecided column because of the hit pieces. Chavez needs to reclaim them and the independents that have been bleeding to RJ if he is to get back to his traditional base of support of around 35%. That would likely place him in a run-off, assuming Romero is capped at below 30 percent.


The Alligators say Chavez needs to reclaim the center in his fight for survival. The election, they analyze, has become polarized between left and right with Chavez sagging in the middle. His campaign, said one, "needs vitality." Chavez would probably agree. His media is largely stay the course and has done little to inoculate him against "Chavez Fatigue"--that's the ailment a portion of the electorate has caught after 20 years of exposure to Marty, starting with his state senate career in 1989.

Chavez's plight is made explicit by the Journal's survey showing that 58 percent of the city--despite some serious economic woes--say the city is headed in the right direction. But the guy who heads the city isn't headed in the right direction? Therein lies the impact of Chavez Fatigue, the Chavez personality and the Chavez dark side explored in those Bode surveillance tapes spread on the Net.


In the final week, Chavez may want to remind voters that much of what they like about ABQ, he built. He started on that tack Sunday night by e-mailing supporters the Journal's endorsement of his candidacy, also made Sunday, but diluted by the news making power of the mayoral poll. He may also think about that "trolley" that isn't built but is becoming a yoke around his neck thanks to RJ's TV spot. There may be populist resentment building around it that is keeping those independent and conservative Dems from coming home to the mayor's camp.

Chavez will likely rework his personal message to voters with new TV and media, but with everything now on the line, he will also bring out the cannons and fire repeatedly. He is playing for the run-off now. The 40 percent is out there, but you need a pair of glasses with lenses as thick as Coke bottles to spot it.


He's been the least talked about candidate in this race, in part because he has not been on television, and in modern politics you don't seem to exist unless you are on the tube. We've been among the doubters of the no-TV strategy, but Romero, 62, has gained admittance to the contest without it, so more power to him. And he won't be forgotten now--not by Marty Chavez.

His drumbeat of negative mail against Chavez on topics ranging from a downtown arena to the mayor's foreign travels have garnered him 24 percent of the vote and third place in the Journal poll. But he needs first or second to make the run-off. His best bet, say our analysts, may not rest solely with growing his base vote--like Berry he has much of it harvested--but in continuing to hammer Chavez and keeping the mayor from growing much.

Romero's get out the vote drive is critical because his voters may tend to be younger. He shook up his campaign earlier this year and questions remained about his GOTV. They are about to be answered.

Romero will now be accused of pulling a Manny Aragon redux. In 2001, as an ABQ state senator, he ousted fellow Democrat Manny from the top leadership post of the senate and formed a coalition with R's that put him in power. Now, the Chavez camp is already blasting that Romero is putting the city on a path to getting its first Republican mayor since Harry Kinney was elected in 1981. But it's Romero's job to win, not to play footsie over intra-party politics. Besides, according to him, with 99 percent name ID and only 26 percent support in the poll, Chavez "is done."

Top Dems can be expected to stay clear of this contest in the final days. If and when it is a Dem vs. a Republican in a run-off, the race will quickly become partisan. But for now Romero can argue that he is the real Dem in the race, not out chasing R votes as Chavez has throughout his political career. Maybe he turns that into a rallying cry in the final days as he tries to pull undecided Dems off the fence and push him into a run-off.


With the animal sprits released by this poll, will there be "third party" spending popping up in the final hours? The ethics watchdogs will be looking for it. Third party spending against or for a candidate is supposed to result in matching funds for the other candidate, but if the hit comes over the weekend, those matching funds are about as good as monopoly money. It's one of the loopholes in the public financing system. We'll see if anyone tries to jump through it.


Sen. Griego
ABQ Dem state Senator Eric Griego who ran second behind Chavez in the 2005 mayoral contest gave the universal response when we asked how he reacted to the mayoral poll. "Surprised, very surprised," he declared. He called the race a "free-for-all" and noted the psychology has changed which could prompt some of the mayor's supporters to look for a different horse to ride.

Griego a former city councilor, agreed with the majority of analysts that Chavez is still in the game despite being in second. He said independents are key to Chavez's comeback. And Griego, who will guest with us Monday at 5 p.m. on our election pre-game show on KANW 89.1 FM FM, predicted there "will absolutely be a run-off" election. If he is right, that contest would be held Tuesday, November 24.

Former ABQ Mayor Jim Baca, another longtime political foe of Chavez, was also thrown for a loop by pollster Brian Sanderoff's survey and agreed with Sanderoff that Chavez getting slammed from both the left and right is what has slowed him.

Jim says forget about final week strategy--(What? And ignore this entire column?) He says it is now about getting out the vote, that Chavez is not going to change many minds, but that he has a formidable organization that he is going to have to ignite in order to save his career. (We still think there is time for much issue shaping. A week is a lifetime in politics.) Baca also says a run-off is very likely. We will line up Baca for Election Night comments on KANW 89.1 FM. That coverage, with Dem analyst John Wertheim and R analyst and State Rep. Larry Larranaga, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Do you think those fellas will have anything to talk about?


Former ABQ mayor and land commissioner Baca reports ex-Attorney General Patricia Madrid is not running for the Dem nomination for land commissioner. He said that news came in a recent phone call he had with Patsy. So far, Dems Sandy Jones and Ray Powell are the two declared candidates. Insiders say EspaƱola Mayor Joe Maestas and Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya are also weighing bids. On the R side, GOP activist Bob Cornelius and retired DEA agent Errol Chavez are the two announced contenders.

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