Money matters in Santa Fe mayoral race | Local News
Everyone knows in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, money matters.
The question, at least in terms of the upcoming Santa Fe mayoral election, is this:
The race between incumbent Alan Webber, Santa Fe City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler and onetime congressional candidate Alexis Martinez Johnson is continuing to take shape, but Webber’s proven ability to raise money — or his opponents’ ability to negate that advantage — may be the telltale factor come this fall.
Though the best-known candidates in the three-person contest brush aside the importance of money in the race, many observers are watching their fundraising efforts as much as their positions on issues facing the city.
“Money is information,” said University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson. “Money is speech. How can it not be an important factor?”
Still, the two leading candidates — Martinez Johnson declined to be interviewed — downplay the issue, preferring to talk about their ability to connect to voters.
Webber demurred on the subject of fundraising, in part because he said he sees the race coming down to relationships and the issues facing Santa Feans.
“I know the popular notion is [money] is what it all revolves around, but I think campaigns are about ideas,” Webber said. “In my case, I have been committed to a conversation with the community about the issues they are concerned about.”
Vigil Coppler said she’s been “very successful” on the campaign trail since announcing her bid for mayor. She thinks values — not money — matter most.
“What is important to me is the ground game and talking to people and getting voter support,” Vigil Coppler said. “Finding out what the issues are. It’s not all about the money.”
Webber displayed his fundraising prowess during a June 6 reception held at the home of Cathy Allen, founder of the cybersecurity firm The Santa Fe Group, and her husband, Paul Rooker. The event featured Letitia Chambers — the first woman to head the staff of a major standing committee of the U.S. Senate — and her husband, former Vermont Congressman Peter Smith.
Local philanthropists JoAnn and Bob Balzer also hosted the event, alongside businessman and author Michael French and his wife, real estate agent Pat French.
According to a campaign flyer, donation levels ranged from $250 to $2,500 to attend.
Webber, who has consistently said he intends to build a “big tent” of supporters, said he was unaware of the makeup of his donations.
“We have people who have given me $5, people who have committed to a monthly contribution,” Webber said. “All contributions are a statement of support and a statement of engagement that people care enough and are committed enough to make a small contribution of any size.”
Webber said he intends to have fundraisers of different sizes in the near future.
Vigil Coppler said she intends to have similar campaign events but at potentially lower donation levels than Webber.
“I don’t want to give the impression that only high-dollar people are welcome,” Vigil Coppler said.
“That is the way millionaires think,” she added, a statement that could be interpreted as a dig at Webber, a wealthy entrepreneur before he got into politics.
Still, she said it’s more difficult to ask for smaller donations.
“A lot of people don’t have $5 to give,” Vigil Coppler said. “That $5 means a lot to them.”
The first campaign finance documents aren’t due to the City Clerk’s Office until Sept. 23.
Heather Ferguson, executive director of the political watchdog group Common Cause New Mexico, said the coronavirus pandemic has affected campaign finance, particularly at the smaller-dollar levels. People who are willing to give larger donations typically have that wiggle room built into their budgets, she said.
“How many single mothers do you know that can spare a $50 check today?” Ferguson asked.
Ferguson also said there is a downside to pulling in large dollars, in part because Americans are becoming increasingly wary of money in politics, particularly its impact on local races. She added candidates might have to defend their contributions more vigorously, compared to previous elections.
“The public’s trust has been so greatly eroded in our systems,” Ferguson said. “Every candidate should be ready to address concerns from the public about who their largest contributors are.”
Webber said he doesn’t think too much about labels in the race and intends to stick to the issues.
“It’s about promises made and promises met,” Webber said.
Vigil Coppler said she thinks the race will come down to the issues and who is the better candidate.
“I think the emphasis has to be not just on money,” Vigil Coppler said. “But on what is the record of each candidate and what has been accomplished by the city. I think that responsibility falls more on an incumbent.”
Still, if recent Santa Fe history has demonstrated anything, it’s that the candidate who pulls in the most money usually wins.
In 2006, David Coss won the mayor’s race with $146,000 in campaign contributions. His nearest competitor, David Schutz, pulled in $130,000. In 2010, Coss won reelection; he also led the field in contributions.
But Webber’s proficiency in fundraising set a new standard.
In the 2018 mayoral race, Webber raised $315,000. His nearest competitor, Santa Fe school board President Kate Noble, raised $113,000 but finished third in a five-person race. Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo was the only candidate to take public financing in that race. He finished second.
The 2018 election was the city’s first ranked-choice election and its first after the city charter had been modified to create a “strong-mayor” system.
Some have argued the amount of money pumped into the mayoral race has effectively made the city’s public financing system — which provides up to $60,000 to eligible mayoral candidates — insufficient.
Ferguson said a large war chest can discourage candidates from challenging an incumbent.
“The unfortunate side of this is when you have an individual who has blown the ceiling out, it intimidates other candidates who believe they can’t viably [compete],” Ferguson said.
Vigil Coppler, who used public financing when she won her City Council seat in 2018, said she opted not to use that method for the mayoral race so she will be able to “compete with my opponent,” referring to Webber.
She said she didn’t remember money being so important in an election until the 2018 mayoral election.
“Going directly to the people was important,” she said. “It was more important to demonstrate what your values are as a candidate and what you can do for your city. Money was a way to get you there.”
Webber said he sees the donations as a sign that donors believe in his platform.
“It doesn’t work if you don’t work at it,” he said. “Being proficient at fundraising, it’s about caring enough about the city and being mayor to put in the work to run a hardworking campaign.”