Eight years ago, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, cruised to re-election with almost 70% of the vote. Yet this year, with just three weeks left for a candidate to produce the 3,000 petition signatures necessary to get on the ballot, it seems likely there won’t be a registered Republican running for the job for the first time since 1974, when the city established its current system of government.
But that doesn’t mean prominent Republicans don’t have a candidate to promote. Jay McCleskey—a formidable GOP strategist—is working for Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, a Democrat aiming to unseat Mayor Tim Keller.
McCleskey shepherded both campaigns of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and served as her chief strategist. He won the Albuquerque mayoral seat for Berry, twice. And he’s run outside spending campaigns that ousted longtime Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez in 2016 and helped deliver Republicans their brief two-year tenure as the majority party in the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2014.
Megan McMillan, a ward chair for the Republican Party of Bernalillo County, works for the Gonzales campaign as well. About two thirds of Gonzales’s reported campaign expenditures have gone to McCleskey Media Strategies and McMillan, at $21,400 and $11,400 respectively.
Other prominent Albuquerque Republicans support Gonzales too. State representative Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, is treasurer for an outside political action committee that’s raised $120,000 so far to support Gonzales. Former city councilor Dan Lewis, who lost a run-off election against Keller in 2017 and is campaigning this year to rejoin the city council, is on board as well.
“We need a good, strong alternative to the current mayor, and I think Manny is a good candidate,” said Lewis, a Republican. “I think he has the right plans and the right experience to be able to truly lead and make a difference.”
Republican city councilor Brook Bassan, who represents a Northeast Heights district, also contributed $5 to help Gonzales qualify for public financing. “The donations I made were given from a personal standpoint,” wrote Bassan in an email, declining to comment further.
Data from the City Clerk’s office also shows contributions from Bernalillo County GOP Executive Director Geoffrey Snider and former Republican state representative Janice Arnold-Jones.
Keller’s campaign has been eager to highlight Gonzales’s Republican ties, noting Gonzales’s hiring of McCleskey and the prominent Republicans supporting his campaign.
“Sheriff Manny Gonzales can’t figure out what he stands for or who he stands with—and it’s the worst kind of political pandering,” said Neri Holguin, Keller’s campaign manager. “Manny is a two-faced political candidate and he will find no one trusts him.”
But Republican backers of Gonzales bet that despite the increasingly liberal bent of Albuquerque politics, they can pull off a similar cross-party strategy employed by former Democratic mayor Martin Chavez that swept him to power three times, in 1993, 2001, and 2005.
McCleskey pointed to Chavez’s campaigns as well as Berry’s win against a Democratic challenger in 2013 as precedents for how Gonzales might win.
“There is a long history in Albuquerque of mayoral candidates appealing across party lines from Marty Chavez winning over a lot of Republicans to Mayor Berry winning re-election with 69% of the vote by capturing a huge portion of the Democratic vote,” he said in an email.
According to veteran New Mexico pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff, the key to a Gonzales victory likely lies in following the playbook of Chavez: appealing to just enough Republican and independent voters to augment a slice of Democratic voters, while downplaying political labels. City elections are technically nonpartisan, so there are no primary elections and party affiliations do not appear on the ballot.
“Marty Chavez sometimes did not do all that well in the liberal parts of the city,” said Sanderoff. “Sometimes he would do better in Republican areas against Republican opponents… I think a lot of people didn’t even realize that Marty was a Democrat.”
With a lack of public polling in the race so far, it remains to be seen whether Gonzales can win against an incumbent mayor who in the 2017 run-off election gathered 62% percent of the vote. Complicating a cross-party strategy is the ongoing political transformation in Bernalillo County, one that has seen Republican strength evaporate over the course of the last several years.
Republican decline in Bernalillo County
Republicans have long been a minority party in Albuquerque, but they used to be able to hold their own in the state’s largest urban area.
When Richard Berry was elected mayor in 2009, he captured 44% of the vote against two Democratic rivals, making him the first Republican mayor of Albuquerque since Harry Kinney, who finished his second term in 1985. Voters would go on to raise the runoff threshold for city elections to 50%, but it wouldn’t matter; Berry exceeded that threshold by nearly 20 points when he was re-elected in 2013.
Chavez bested his closest Republican rival in 2001 by less than 3,000 votes, while Republican Heather Wilson held the Albuquerque-based first congressional district throughout the 2000s. Susana Martinez carried Bernalillo County in both the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial elections.
But the metropolitan area has experienced a marked political shift in recent years, part of a national trend in which Republicans increasingly find themselves shut out of urban politics.
The change over time can be observed by tracking the partisan makeup of 24 Albuquerque area state House districts since 2014.
In 2014, Republicans won 11 state house districts in the Albuquerque area, while Democrats carried 13. Over the course of 6 years, the GOP lost 9 of those seats, particularly in the Northeast Heights and on the West side.
Following the “blue wave” of 2018, Democrats held 22 of 24 house seats in the Albuquerque area. There is now just one Republican representing an urban Albuquerque district in the New Mexico House of Representatives: Rehm, who represents a far Northeast Heights district that President Biden won 51- 46. Rehm declined to comment for this story.
Sanderoff said that Republicans may have simply been dissuaded from entering the mayoral race once Gonzales announced his campaign. “Once Manny got in, it became even more difficult for a Republican candidate to consider the race, because the two of them would split the anti-Keller vote,” he said.
Last month, the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, Steve Pearce, told this reporter the state party was having difficulty convincing Republicans to jump into the race.
“We would like to have a candidate, but it’s a pretty big challenge,” said Pearce. “People look at the results of the last election and say wait, what’s going to change?” In 2017, Keller defeated Lewis by over 24 points.
“The fact that no one was willing to make that commitment–– and it is a big commitment–– tells you something,” said Sanderoff, explaining that parties can generally be counted upon to recruit candidates for competitive races. “Either that, or they saw Manny Gonzales as a good surrogate.”
Gonzales courts Republicans
Both Keller and Gonzales sought public financing from the city, which required each candidate to collect $5 contributions from at least 3,779 residents–– 1% of all Albuquerque registered voters–– in order to qualify for over $600,000 in taxpayer money.
The Albuquerque city clerk withheld public financing from Gonzales on July 9th, after Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin filed two ethics complaints alleging forged signatures and election fraud by the Gonzales campaign. Gonzales’s campaign has been appealing the decision and has also filed suit against the city. It remains unclear whether or not the campaign will receive the funding. Representing Gonzales is Carter B. Harrison IV, who has also worked as an attorney for the Republican Party of New Mexico. A decision is expected on Tuesday.
With the important caveat that a small number of contributions may be fraudulent, New Mexico in Depth analyzed the over 8,000 qualifying contributions made in the mayoral race by ZIP code to better understand from where Gonzales and Keller gathered public financing support.
Just over half of Keller’s roughly 4,100 contributions came from five zip codes concentrated in the city’s urban core, including the neighborhoods surrounding the University of New Mexico, Old Town, uptown, the North Valley, and portions of the Northeast Heights. These are reliably Democratic areas of the city.
Meanwhile, most of Gonzales’s nearly 4,200 qualifying contributions came from five zip codes in primarily the Northeast Heights or the West Side. These are neighborhoods where Republicans have lost significant ground in the last half-decade, but traditionally have been the base of Republican support in the metro area.
Serving as county sheriff since 2015, Gonzales is described by those who’ve worked with him as generally uninterested in party politics. But in recent years the sheriff began aligning himself with Republicans, prompting backlash from liberal groups.
In 2019, the sheriff appeared on the now-defunct NRA-TV to promote his endorsement of the “Second Amendment Sanctuary County” movement, which advocates for local law enforcement officials to not enforce gun control measures. In early 2020, he was appointed to a commission on law enforcement created by President Donald Trump. He later traveled to the White House in the midst of the pandemic as part of Trump’s rollout of Operation Legend, which saw the deployment of federal law enforcement officers to Albuquerque.
In December, Gonzales announced he would not enforce New Mexico’s “stay at home” order in Bernalillo County, declaring, “I sympathize with the families, business owners, children, and houses of worship to the point that they believe their civil liberties are being compromised.”
Now embarking on a mayoral campaign against a Democratic incumbent in a decidedly Democratic city, messaging by the Gonzales campaign shows an attempt to appeal to the priorities of both parties, leaning in especially on crime.
Republicans suffered an embarrassing loss last month when Mark Moores, the only Republican state senator left from Albuquerque, lost a special election in the Albuquerque-based first congressional district to Democratic state representative Melanie Stansbury.
Moores had made crime and policing in Albuquerque central to his campaign, repeatedly calling attention to the “BREATHE Act”–– a policy proposal that effectively calls for defunding police departments–– that Stansbury endorsed at a candidate forum hosted by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative.
Initially caught off-guard by the line of attack, Stansbury slightly walked back her position and went on to win the June 1 election by 24 points. Moores took just 35% of the vote, the second-weakest showing by a Republican congressional candidate in the district since the state first drew boundaries in 1968.
Nonetheless, the Gonzales campaign is betting on crime as a winning issue.
“Nobody will work harder for working families, or making our neighborhoods safe,” declares Gonzales in a campaign announcement video emphasizing the city’s crime issues.
“The majority of the public – across party lines and including Keller’s own former police chief – believes Mayor Keller has failed miserably on the crime issue and that’s clearly the issue that will be driving the vote,” said McCleskey.
But while crime may be a potent issue, Sanderoff says that voters will want to know more about how the sheriff would govern the city. “Manny Gonzales cannot win by being a single-issue candidate,” he said. “He needs to be, you know, talking about strategies to address our high unemployment rate and workforce shortage.”
Gonzales has been more vague when it comes to policy matters. “We’re going to give the people back their city, and we’re going to give the people back what they want,” he told KOB 4 on the day he announced his campaign, sounding a populist note. “They want a successful city, and just like we created success in the county, we’re going to bring the same success to the city.”
Following his trip to the White House last summer, KRQE asked the sheriff whether he was a Democrat. Gonzales answered affirmatively, but then declined to identify any Democratic policies he supported.
“Well, that–– you know, I’m going to go back a little bit here,” he said. “I’m not a legislator.”
Though identified as a “fiscal conservative” in his announcement press release, he declined to elaborate on which of Keller’s policies he would repeal. “I don’t need to go into detail on this, but this is what I’ll tell you–– we’ll review policies that are unconstitutional,” he told KOB.
The Gonzales campaign has sent out at least one email with recognizably Democratic messages; one entitled “Fighting for Working Families” highlights that the Sheriff is a “lifelong Democrat” while featuring a photo of him with former President Barack Obama.
But other campaign emails reveal appeals he’s making to Republicans, which include attacks on New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“With you on my side, MLG and her radical liberal friends don’t stand a chance at maintaining their broken status quo,” one reads. “Please consider making a $5 qualifying contribution to my campaign so that I can stand up to the flood of leftist money that is opposing my campaign.”
“From making Albuquerque a Sanctuary City to voicing support for Defund the Police efforts, Mayor Keller has put leftwing ideology ahead of our public safety,” reads another. “The leftwing special interest groups that support Defunding the Police and Sanctuary City Laws will likely spend over $1 million to keep Tim Keller in office.”
Despite his efforts, intra-party feuding could preclude the Republican Party from backing the sheriff more forcefully; McCleskey continues to be viewed unfavorably by many in the state GOP. Asked whether the party would back a candidate in the race, Republican Party of New Mexico spokesman Mike Curtis declined to comment, accusing this reporter of being a “mouthpiece” for McCleskey due to prior reporting.
As he’s courted Republicans, Democrats and liberal groups have harshly condemned Gonzales.
“The Sheriff is inviting the President’s stormtroopers into Albuquerque,” said Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich in a press release calling for the sheriff’s resignation last summer. “The President is currently using federal law enforcement agents like a domestic paramilitary force. That’s precisely how fascism begins and none of us should ever encourage or accept it.”
And groups within the Democratic Party of New Mexico–– including the Adelante Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Young Democrats of New Mexico (YDNM)–– condemned the sheriff’s candidacy the week he announced his campaign. “He is no Democrat and does not stand for the Democratic values that we fight for, and we cannot support his candidacy for mayor,” wrote YDNM President Brianna Gallegos in an op-ed.
“Our sheriff has lots of party support for mayor… just not from our Democratic Party,” wrote city councilor Pat Davis on Twitter last week.
Because the race pits two Democratic candidates against one another, the state party will not become involved outside of get-out-the-vote efforts, a spokeswoman confirmed to New Mexico in Depth.