ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Albuquerque’s struggle with violent crime and escalating homelessness took center stage Monday as the three candidates running for mayor in New Mexico’s largest city faced off during a forum sponsored by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative.
Crime has been among the top issues for voters as the city deals with record homicides this year. Incumbent Tim Keller, a Democrat, has been facing heat for not being able to contain the problem during his tenure.
Keller tried to defend his record during the forum, saying his administration is addressing the root causes — addiction and poverty — through community policing efforts, a new public safety office and other initiatives. He said the Albuquerque police force is adequately funded and that more money needs to be spent on social workers and support programs.
He also took swipes at Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, saying that crime was his problem too.
Gonzales, a Democrat, accused Keller of politicizing law enforcement and not supporting the city's officers. He described the city at “a crossroads of total anarchy,” where people no longer feel safe and families are choosing to move away.
Republican candidate Eddy Aragon, a radio station owner and talk show host, said the city is in crisis.
“We need to do what we can to go ahead and turn this city around,” he said, pointing to growing economic insecurity, drug addiction and mental health issues.
Keller said the challenges are big but that only meaningful solutions will move the needle on crime and homelessness. He acknowledged that homelessness has become worse in recent years, with the number of those living on the streets more than doubling. He blamed economic fallout from the pandemic.
The questions for the candidates were gathered from the public and advocacy groups that included New Mexico Common Cause, Indivisible Albuquerque and the Albuquerque Black Economic Security and Solidarity Fund. They touched on everything from the racial and gender makeup of the police department to the city's housing shortage and policies related to immigrants and refugees.
Keller said the city is prepared to accept 300 refugees. Aragon questioned that, saying Albuquerque can't even accommodate its existing homeless population.
Legal wrangling over public financing in the mayoral contest has taken much of the attention in recent weeks, with Gonzales ultimately losing his bid for public funds. Even though questions also were raised about some of the signatures and $5 donations collected by Keller's campaign, the incumbent has significantly more money in his coffers than his challengers thanks to the pot of public money, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
Aragon, who entered the race in August, is running a privately funded campaign. He stressed the need to attract more residents and businesses and said he would not support any pandemic related mandates.
A labor union-backed political action committee is supportive of Keller’s reelection bid. A separate committee fueled by the New Mexico United soccer team has been campaigning on behalf of one of Keller’s key initiatives — a multimillion-dollar stadium that would be used by the team.
A question specifically for Keller challenged whether the city's $50 million share would be better spent on education, addressing crime or dealing with homelessness. He called the proposed stadium a long-term investment for families and said the four potential locations for the venue were chosen because “they're just empty space.”
Some neighborhoods have voiced concerns about residents being displaced, gentrification, traffic and noise. Keller said the city won't decide on a final location without a community benefits agreement in place.
The candidates were scheduled to appear at another forum Tuesday night sponsored by the local chamber of commerce.
This story has been corrected to show the mayor referred to the possible locations for the stadium as “empty space,” not open space; and that the committee backed by the New Mexico United soccer team did not contribute to Keller's reelection bid, but is campaigning on behalf of a multimillion-dollar stadium project that is among the mayor’s top initiatives.