Can Anyone Explain Local Santa Fe Politics?

Date March 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Alan M. Webber



A bunch of us were sitting around shortly after the New Mexico caucus, talking about the state of Presidential politics.

Making sense of high-stakes national politics was relatively easy.

McCain: war hero, authentic guy, tells you what he thinks.

Obama: inspiring young leader, great speaker, full of hope, gives people reasons to aspire to more.

Clinton: first serious woman candidate for President, determined competitor, long years of political experience, loads of political i-owe-you's from party regulars.

We went through the strengths and weaknesses of each of the candidates who'd dropped out, analyzed what they'd brought to the campaign, and explained in detail why they hadn't connected with voters.

We were like the political analysts on MSNBC; we were pros, we were funny and insightful, we knew how to play the game at the highest level of politics, where running for office is a contact sport.

Then we turned to the local campaigns for the city. You know, the Santa Fe races? They just finished, you know.

The room got silent. Nobody could explain who was running, why they were running, what difference it made. When it came to Santa Fe politics, this room of would-be Carvilles and Matalins, Russerts and Matthewses had no idea, no clue, no insight. No nothing.

Which brings me to the question: Can anyone explain local Santa Fe politics?

I started asking around and got these different explanations. Feel free to add your own; who knows-you could be the only one in town who actually understands how our political heart actually beats.

Explanation #1: It doesn't really matter.

Here's how this was explained to me. People have always come to Santa Fe for personal reasons. They come to get away from whatever they hoped to leave behind. They come to start over. They come to reinvent themselves. They come to invent a new future.

They don't come for civic involvement. Civic involvement is often the last thing they want.

And historically it's the last thing the town asked for. It's always been small enough, nice enough, friendly enough, easy-going enough that politics didn't much matter. It's been a real live-and-let-live kind of place.

The issues haven't been that monumental, the choices haven't been that dire, the conflicts haven't been that big a deal.

Isn't that the kind of place you want to live in? Where living comes first and politics is an after thought?

Well, that's Santa Fe. Or so this explanation goes.

Explanation #2: There are only two political parties-no-growth advocates and developers/realtors.

If you want to understand who's running for local office and what's at stake, here's all you need to know. Some people want to keep Santa Fe exactly the way it is-pull up the drawbridge and keep Santa Fe Santa Fe. Some people think Santa Fe is destined to grow-there's no drawbridge and the local economy is built on people moving here. So if you want to make a living here, you have to build more housing, keep selling the existing housing stock, and make Santa Fe attractive not only to tourists, but also to people who might be drawn to town as permanent residents.

If you look at every issue that comes up in town, you can pretty much track Santa Fe politics through this lens.

Short-term rentals-pro and con.

Affordable housing-pro and con.

The possibility of a transaction tax added on to high-end housing sales-pro and con.

A downtown plan with more density and housing-pro and con.

Essentially, according to this theory, it all boils down to what you see when you look out your front window: Is Santa Fe going to stay the way it is now, or will it grow and add people-pro and con.

Explanation #3: Socialists versus Capitalists

Ok, labeling this theory that way is a little over the top, but you get the idea.

Here's how this one was explained to me.

Santa Fe is populated by a lot of people who either never had much money, and think that capitalism needs to be "fixed"€ to share the wealth more equitably, and a lot of people who made way too much money and now feel so guilty that they want to share the wealth with those who don't have as much.

The result is a funny kind of alliance between limousine liberals and entitlement-spoiled socialists who think the laws of economics can be bent (if not broken) in Santa Fe, since it is, after all, the City Different.

That's how you get things like Santa Fe deciding that it needs its own minimum wage (oops, I mean livable wage) law, its own affordable housing set-aside, and a variety of income redistribution laws.

The other side of the political coin belongs to a bunch of disaffected business types who are notable mostly for how ineffectual they are. Rather than actually mount a political campaign, I'm told, these business types take each other to lunch and grumble about things, complaining about how hard the town makes it for them to keep open the businesses that bring the tourists to town. They'd like a city administration that recognizes the need that real businesses have to generate real profits to stay in business. They wish that someone would explain to local elected officials how a real capitalist economy works. You know, with things like supply and demand, a balance sheet that shows up in red ink or black ink. That kind of thing.

This is what they complain about, and what they wish was somehow possible in Santa Fe. This is what they talk about over lunch.

Then the check comes, they pay it, and go back to minding their own businesses.

Explanation #4: Hispanics versus Anglos.

This is the one where the people who are explaining it to me usually drop their voices and make sure nobody's listening, since the prevailing wisdom about The City Different is that we all get along, all races, creeds, and colors and that Santa Fe is the only example of true Neapolitan ice cream operating as a civic combo in the United States. (You know, brown, white, and red, all the flavors in Neapolitan ice cream.)

Nevertheless, I've gotten it from Hispanics and Anglos both, that buried underneath the layers of explanations of money or growth or anything else, it all boils down to this: Who runs the town, us or them? (It doesn't matter which one is us and which is them, it's the same question.)

Scratch the surface, and Santa Fe isn't quite as easy-going as it's supposed to be. Elections here, like most places, are about jobs and power, influence and tribe. The difference between Santa Fe and, say, Boston, is that in a place like Boston, it's all out in the open. The Irish line up against the Italians, the Italians keep an eye on the African-Americans, and the WASPS figure it's all theirs no matter what, since they've always run things any way. The tribalism, the competition for patronage and city contracts, the memories shaped by history and the fight for the future are all out in the open. It's more of a sport than anything-the same way full-contact steel cage fighting is a sport.

But in Santa Fe, it's the political truth that dare not speak its name, or so I was told.

Which tribe gets to run things? Who has bragging rights? Who's on top-at least for the short term? That's what's really at stake in local elections, I'm told, and it explains the candidates and the unofficial slates that are drawn up, who runs in which district, and who supports whom.

Anyway, those are the four explanations I've heard.

None of them is, I'm sure, completely right. But then again, none is probably completely wrong.

Got a better answer? How do you explain local Santa Fe politics?