Albuquerque mayoral candidates say rules for public campaign fund are unfair

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – There’s a public fund that’s supposed to help the so-called “little guy” compete in Albuquerque’s political scene.

“Public financing” allows candidates to run for the Albuquerque City Council or Mayoral Office with public money. This year, roughly $380,000 is available for mayoral candidates who qualify.

PHOTOS: 2017 Albuquerque Mayoral Candidates

But the city’s qualifications now have some candidates saying Albuquerque’s public financing system needs to change. While some candidates have had success in meeting the requirements to use the fund, some feel the rules assure that political newcomers will fail to gain access to the public money that could mean a world of difference in small campaign.

Albuquerque’s 2017 mayoral race is already one of the most diverse in the city’s history. Fourteen candidates are now vying for a spot on the ballot. Candidates have until April 28 to collect 3,000 signatures from valid, registered, city of Albuquerque voters in order to appear on the ballot. By August, the Albuquerque City Clerks Office will have an official list of the candidates whose names have made the ballot.

Political analysts like University of New Mexico Professor Gabe Sanchez say the field of candidates in the non-partisan race is noticeably different from years past.

“I mean we’ve got more candidates vying for mayor than any time I can remember,” said Prof. Sanchez, who teaches political science at UNM.

The candidates includes both well-connected, big name politicians, and lesser known political outsiders who are aiming at grassroots efforts.

“A lot of these candidates… it’s their first run at this,” said Prof. Sanchez.

Among the “first timers” are Susan Wheeler-Deichsel and Elan Colello. While both tried to become publicly financed candidates, both found their efforts fell well short of the necessary requirements. They feel the strict rules played a part.

“Our current public financing system was not designed by the little guy,” said mayoral candidate Colello, who teaches film courses in Albuquerque, and owns a virtual reality company.

“I simply believe that it hasn’t been thought through very carefully,” said mayoral candidate Susan Wheeler Deichsel, a community activist and founder of the Albuquerque civic group “Urban ABQ.”

What is Public Financing?

Written in Albuquerque City Charter (the rules that govern how city government works), Article XVI – “Open and Ethical Elections Code” details the city’s public financing policy. The option is available to both city council and mayoral candidates, affording qualifying candidates $1 of public money for each of Albuquerque’s registered voters.

For the 2017 election, public financing allows for qualifying candidates to get about $380,000 to use in their campaigns.

Public financing is often intended to combat the idea that money runs politics. The Albuquerque fund was started in 2005, following former Mayor Marty Chavez’s mayoral campaign. Chavez raised $1.1 million in private donations.

“So in theory, you’re making [the electoral process] a little bit more wide open for candidates who don’t have access to big money, and probably more importantly, you’re removing the perception that money is driving political outcome,” said UNM Political Science Professor Gabe Sanchez.

If candidates choose public funding, they’re not able to take private donations from special interests.

In order to qualify for Albuquerque’s public financing, candidates have to meet some tough rules. Candidates have 44 days to get physical signatures and $5 “contributions” from 1% of the total number of Albuquerque city voters. All of the collected donations go into the city’s public financing fund.

For the 2017 race, publicly financed candidates had from Feb. 16 to March 31 to get 3,802 signatures and $5 contributions from each one of those voters. Most campaigns also expected they would have to collect well over 3,802 signatures and donations in case any came from invalid or unregistered voters.

Wheeler Deichsel says she’s been eyeing a mayoral run and a publicly financed campaign for about three years. She says she wanted to avoid the connections that can come with private money.

“I don’t have a lot of money myself, and even if I knew people, or were friends with people who had the money to finance something like a campaign, I didn’t want to feel the influence of that kind of situation,” said Wheeler Deichsel.

Colello told KRQE News 13 he also wanted to avoid influence.

“I thought OK, you know, I don’t need to go around and ask business owners and construction managers to donate the money to me, so I can support their ideas, their projects,” said Colello. “Instead, the people would be hiring me and paying for my campaign so that I could speak on their behalf.”

But both Wheeler Deichsel and Colello found the actual process of collecting signatures and $5 donations was far different than they had envisioned. Colello said he realized the task was going to be “impossible” shortly after he picked up the receipt books he needed to track donations to the public financing fund.

“I don’t think you realize how much work it is until you see the physical boxes, pick them up, feel how heavy they are, realize how many booklets are in there and… you realize right away you need a team of like 100 people to help you,” said Colello.

Colello says he didn’t collect a single donation before he returned the receipt books to the Albuquerque City Clerk’s Office, and changed his status to a privately funded candidate.

Wheeler Deichsel said she tried to collect the necessary signatures and qualifying contributions for about three weeks before she gave up. She says she was met by a lot skeptical voters who either didn’t know about the process, didn’t believe it was real or didn’t want to donate, thinking it was a private campaign contribution.

“People would ask, ‘Why is it that we have to pay to sign a petition? Why is it you want money from me to sign a petition?’ and then I’d launch into my explanation,” said Wheeler Deichsel. “Still, I left them confused, because they often didn’t understand that answer and still presumed that it was $5 going to me.

At the start of the race, 10 of the 14 mayoral candidates who are trying to get on the ballot said they would pursue public financing. At the end of the 44 day signature and donation collection window, only one candidate, Tim Keller, remained committed to a publicly financed campaign.

Keller is a well-known elected official who’s currently the New Mexico State Auditor. He met the requirements necessary, but said it “wasn’t easy” collecting it all.

“We turned in 6,000, $5 donations from folks all around the city and it took 100 events in the course of March to get that done,” said Keller.

Historically, only four mayoral candidates have ever qualified for public financing. In 2009, former state senator Richard Romero, then challenger Richard J. Berry, and then incumbent mayor Marty Chavez qualified for the public money. In 2013, Pete Dinelli qualified. At the time of their qualification, each candidate had experience in high level government positions.

Too much of a challenge?

Currently, each of the signatures and donations required for public financing need to be collected in person, in either cash, or through an electronic payment card. Candidates also have to record public contributions on paper receipts, recording the contributor’s name, address, occupation and signature.

Donations also have to be tallied and certified by a campaign treasurer, then turned in to the Albuquerque City Clerk’s Office every week.

In all, KRQE News 13 heard from seven candidates who had similar problems with Albuquerque’s public financing rules. Colello and Wheeler Deichsel both took issue with the 44 day window to collect 3,802 signatures and $5 donations.

“The time that you have to collect those $5 contributions is ridiculous, it’s borderline insanity,” said Colello.

That 44 day window for public financing is about a month shorter than the time candidates need to qualify for the ballot. Candidates have 72 days, from Feb. 16 to April 28 to collect 3,000 signatures to get their name on the ballot.

Wheeler Deichsel described the difference in time allowed to collect signatures for the ballot, and time allowed for public financing as “completely preposterous.”

“It seems designed to assure that candidates, for the most part, fail, or to only give opportunities to those who are previously already very, very well connected,” said Wheeler Deichsel.

Wheeler Deichsel also took issue with the lack of awareness she felt Albuquerque citizens have with the process.

“If we’re not teaching our children… and our adults in our midst, among our electorate, are confused about the process too, even those who are well educated individuals are confused about the rules of our process and therefore are reluctant to participate… we’re not getting the net result of a participatory electorate that we intended for all of this to result in,” said Wheeler Deichsel.

Another first time political candidate, Jacob Shull, said he experienced problems collecting signatures and donations because his name didn’t appear on the city’s website until a week before the public financing deadline. He said that made it hard for anyone to trust him, and he quickly saw he was running out of time.

“I’m not very well known in the political environment here,” said Shull. “It’s hard for someone that doesn’t have a name.”

Mayoral candidate Scott Madison called the process of gathering signatures and donations “abysmally difficult.”

“It is very clear you must already have a full political machine in place to achieve this goal,” said Madison on collecting 3,802 signatures and $5 donations.

Mayoral candidates Lamont Davis, Gus Pedrotty and Rachel Golden all told KRQE News 13 that they switched to private financing after realizing there was no way they could meet the signature and donation thresholds required to qualify in the amount of time they were given.

Time isn’t the only concern though. Colello said he found many people were reluctant to donate $5.

“They might not have $5 to donate,” said Colello.

Wheeler Deichsel agrees with the idea that a $5 donation is often too much to ask for.

“It excludes people who actually can’t afford to spend $5, so poor people aren’t quite as enfranchised in our elective process as those who have financial freedom,” said Wheeler Deichsel.

But some see the challenge of public financing as necessary. Former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego helped create Albuquerque’s public financing fund and the rules that go with it.

“It’s very, very tough to run for office, to be the chief executive of a major American city,” said Griego, who also ran in the 2005 Albuquerque mayoral race. “This is second most important office in New Mexico, after the Governor’s Office.”

While he acknowledged that the current system “isn’t perfect,” Griego said the signature and donation collection threshold and short timeline are there so that candidates can prove they’re serious about the job. The city of Albuquerque has a nearly $1 billion budget, more than 5,000 public employees and is the center of one of the largest metro areas in the country.

If you want public money to campaign, Griego remarked, “you’ve got to show me that you have the experience and enough people that 1% of the voters think you’re qualified and that 1% of the voters know and support you.”

Griego suggested that some of the first time candidates should also consider running for Albuquerque city council, or another publicly elected position.

Solutions to the problem?

Both Colello and Wheeler Deichsel are vocal about what they want to see changed with the city’s current public financing rules. They advocate for an extension in the amount of time candidates have to collect voters’ signatures and $5 donations to the public finance fund.

Wheeler Deichsel thinks the $5 donation should also be reduced in price, or that candidates should be able to secure other types of donations to the city’s election fund, other than only being allowed to collect $5 in-person donations from voters.

Colello also believes the city should allow qualifying contributions to be collected on a digital device, instead of on physical sheets of paper.

“Our current public financing system was not designed by the little guy, because if it was, people would know that the little guy can’t afford $5, they would know that the little guy doesn’t have a treasurer that they can pay every single week to do the filings for qualifying contributions for public financing, they would know that the little guy doesn’t have a huge team of people to go out and collect these and that they are going to need more time,” said Colello.

There’s also a concern that even with public financing, the amount of money available to candidates is not enough to compete with private fundraisers. In the last 10 years, the mayoral campaigns for both Richard Berry and Marty Chavez each raised close to, or more than $1 million.

Albuquerque City Council offered a change to the public financing process in 2016. The proposed resolution would have nearly doubled the amount of public finance money available for candidates (from $1 per voter to $1.75 per voter), and given more time for candidates to collect donations and signatures. The measure never made it to voters though, in part, because of the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners. The board voted to omit it from voter consideration due to limitations on the amount of printable space on the county’s physical ballot for the November 2016 election.

Albuquerque City Council also had the option to take the public finance revisions to voters during the Feb. 2017 election, but the measure didn’t appear on the ballot. Since then, councilors haven’t discussed the idea of renewing the proposed changes.

While candidates have their qualms with the system, UNM Political Science Professor Gabe Sanchez sees a clear message for any Albuquerque city political candidate who wants to use public financing for a campaign.

“It’s a wake-up call for a lot of candidates, if I want to go that route, I’m going to have to have things really mapped out, well before the clock starts, in terms of the 44 days to get the signatures,” said Prof. Sanchez.

“I think that it’s really showing candidates, look, if i want to go the public financing route in order to combat big money, I have to have people power, and really what some of those candidates have is, a ton of volunteers who are out there knocking on doors, trying to get those signatures.”

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