Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

With Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales having officially qualified for public financing, it looks like Mayor Tim Keller is in for a serious challenge in his bid for a second term as Albuquerque’s mayor. Albuquerque’s mayoral race is officially nonpartisan, but both Keller’s and Gonzales’ campaigns have been anything but nonpartisan. Gonzales has been working to build a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans to defeat Keller’s bid for a second term. Keller hopes that his record as mayor will continue to resonate with his progressive base as he makes a case for his reelection.

The Crime-Fighting Sheriff

Although officially a registered Democrat, Gonzales has been highly critical of Keller’s “liberal” agenda and has positioned himself as the “crime-fighting” candidate. Gonzales used this strategy in his election for Bernalillo County Sheriff in 2014 and his successful reelection in 2018, where he positioned himself as a tough-on-crime Democrat. He hopes that his focus on crime will attract voters concerned primarily with rising crime in the city. Crime continues to be a focal point for many Republican and conservative voters. But will it be enough?

Gerges Scott is a longtime Republican strategist and policy expert at conservative think-tank Heartland Institute. He’s optimistic that Gonzales can mount a serious challenge to Keller and sees crime as the major attraction to moderate and conservative voters. “Crime has been a big problem for the residents of the city for some time,” Scott said. “I think a lot of residents will feel that the current administration may not be doing enough to address the crime, and not just the violent crime, but property crimes as well.” 

The only registered Republican to enter the race, Patrick Sais, failed to collect enough campaign contributions to qualify for public funding. It now looks like Gonzales, with his tough-on-crime platform and more conservative views, is the most viable option for Republican voters. 

“In this race you have two Democrats, one who you could argue is a conservative Democrat. There’s not a Republican in the race for the first time in a long time, and it could hurt Manny if Republicans don’t come out and vote,” Scott said.

The Gonzales campaign hasn’t shied away from highlighting his praise and collaboration with the Trump administration last year. Gonzales’ campaign finance reports show that he has hired Jay McClesky, former Gov. Susana Martinez’s campaign manager, and Go Big Media, which is run by GOP strategist and Trump supporter Phillip Stutts. In an interview on MSNBC, Stutts said “Trump was the best negotiator that ever lived.” In a recent email to supporters, the Gonzales campaign highlighted that relationship: “That’s why I partnered with the Trump administration to bring much-needed federal resources to Albuquerque to go after our most violent offenders.” Gonzales is also campaigning on promises to end Albuquerque’s sanctuary city policy, which the City Council and Keller have touted as making the city a safe “immigrant-friendly” place to live.

Scott sees the campaign’s enthusiastic alignment with Trump as potentially harmful to Gonzales’ bid, but he believes that the issue of crime may be enough. “One issue candidacies are always difficult. I think, though, that crime just affects everyone. It’s like the weather. It affects everyone in different ways in the city, in this city in particular, so I don’t think that’s going to hurt him. The fact that he’s already a recognized crime fighter or law enforcement bodes well for him,” Scott said. 

Scott did raise concerns for the campaign if Republicans fail to turn out and vote. Scott says he believes Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s recent victory over Republican Mark Moores was because of voter apathy among Republican voters. “What happened in CD-1 is that there wasn’t a big turnout. Mark would’ve probably lost anyway, but there was such a disparity in the vote because of the low turnout for Republicans,” Scott said. 

The Incumbent

Incumbent Tim Keller is faced with a far different, if not broader, challenge than Gonzales. Former Democratic State Senator Dede Feldman believes that for Keller to be reelected, he will have to communicate to voters—especially moderate Democrats Gonzales is targeting—that the city is headed in the right direction and that progress has been made. He must also effectively communicate that the campaign promises he ran on in 2017 have been fulfilled or addressed to some degree. 

Feldman is confident that voters will see the progress Keller had made in his three years as mayor. She noted that Keller’s administration has addressed systemic issues in policing, crime and homelessness in Albuquerque, which Keller promised to address in 2017. Feldman sees that the significant challenge Keller will have to overcome is communicating his administration’s competence during the pandemic and against other unprecedented challenges. 

“It’s generally recognized that he has handled the pandemic well. His task now is to educate people on how these issues of crime and homelessness are very deep-seated issues that are not solved in a three-year period,” Feldman said. Progressive Democrats have criticized Keller for not fulfilling some of his campaign promises from 2017, which include stronger police reforms and a more ambitious plan to combat climate change.

She observed that Moores’ single-issue campaign in the CD-1 special election was a good sign for Keller’s campaign. “The results of the race were good news for Tim Keller, because it shows that voters are not going to fall for the law and order line easily,” Feldman said.

In a city that trends blue and has resoundingly rejected tough-on-crime candidates in recent elections, Feldman believes that Gonzales’ lack of experience in city government will be a huge boost to Keller’s message as a competent and innovative incumbent. “Being a mayor is much more than being a police chief or sheriff. It is being a CEO, it is working well with the City Council, it is also running a huge city government,” she said. 

Both Tim Keller and Manny Gonzales have qualified for public financing, having collected the minimum 3,779 $5 campaign contributions to do so.

Bernalillo County residents can register to vote for the upcoming election by visiting the Secretary of State’s website (bit.ly/3cRO2oB) or in person by visiting the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office. The Regular Local Election will take place on Tuesday, November 2.