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Newcomers Challenge Entrenched Albuquerque City Councilors

When unknown political newcomers go up against a sitting city councilor with good name recognition, the politician who people know will usually win. Four Albuquerque City Council seats were on the ballot Tuesday, Nov. 5, and there was a big field of challengers for their seats. In two cases, the people in power did keep their positions, but longtime Councilor Isaac Benton is facing a runoff.

At 10 a.m. on Election Day, Diana Dorn-Jones was in the East San Jose neighborhood tacking up a bright yellow campaign sign for Robert Blanquera Nelson.

"When you do the fieldwork, you have to be creative!" Dorn-Jones laughed, using a kitchen spoon and a garden marker to fasten the sign onto a metal pole. 

Dorn-Jones has long advocated for residents in the South Broadway area to have more say in how their neighborhood develops. She said Isaac Benton has never done enough to listen and respond to her community’s concerns, so she was glad to see him challenged by younger candidates who are all people of color.

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Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
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Diana Dorn-Jones speaks with a fellow campaign volunteer Tuesday morning outside the Herman Sanchez Community Center.

"I think they’re all pretty good," Dorn-Jones said. "I think we could get behind any of them, but Robert is my choice, because I think Robert has taken the time to be a student of these neighborhoods. He’s gone door-to-door. I think there’s nothing like shoe leather."

It was a crowded race in the city-center district that stretches into the North Valley and areas where industry has mixed in with residential pockets near the highways. Besides Nelson, the challengers were Connie Vigil, Joseph Griego, Steven Baca and Zackary Quintero

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Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
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Tony Quintero on Election Day 2019

KUNM ran into Quintero’s dad, Tony, who was holding a sign for his son on Election Day outside a middle school. "We’re going to march the streets until voting ends," he said, "and we’re looking for a great, great victory." 

Zackary Quintero pulled down a little over 20 percent of the vote. With four other challengers breaking off pieces, too, Councilor Benton didn’t corner enough votes to win. Under city code, the winner has to get at least half the ballots, otherwise a runoff is triggered. 

Downtown resident Doug Montoya came out Tuesday afternoon to wave a Benton sign near the University of New Mexico. Montoya runs a performance space called The Box downtown, and said he’s seen nothing but growth in the area under Benton’s leadership these last 14 years.

"I’m very pleased with his support of the arts, so I thought I’d just come out and show some support," Montoya said, "and I hope he’ll win re-election because I think what he’s doing is great, and I think he should just keep doing it."

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Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
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Doug Montoya on Election Day 2019

Next month’s runoff between Benton and Quintero will be another chance for voters to approve or reject the status quo in District 2.

Robert Blanquera Nelson watched results come in at Lindy's Diner downtown with a small crowd of supporters, friends and family. He came in third with nearly 15 percent of the District 2 votes. 

In the race for Albuquerque's District 6, which includes the University area, Nob Hill and the International District, Councilor Pat Davis squared up against neighborhood coalition leader Gina Naomi Dennis.

 
Jean Crawford was casting her ballot at Highland High School on Tuesday. She said she felt complicated about the Council race there in "You know, I never vote for somebody just because they’re an incumbent," Crawford said, "unless I feel really strongly that they’ve done a good job for representing my values and taking care of the needs of the community.

During his term on the Council, Davis helped decriminalize marijuana in Albuquerque and pass a sanctuary city policy. His opponent, Dennis, campaigned on public health, improving street lighting, and helping people experiencing homelessness find homes. In the end, Councilor Davis kept his post with a 13-point margin.

Local politicians can be pretty hard to unseat once they’re in office. Talking about that dynamic generally, Crawford says sometimes people just hold power too long.

"Experience and seniority and such things matter," said Crawford. "There is also entrenchment and complacency. There’s just a point where we need fresh ideas, fresh voices, a fresh look at old problems."

Jean Rohr was voting at Eldorado High School in the Northeast Heights, District 8, which saw three-term City Councilor Trudy Jones running on a public safety platform.

"I know nothing about [Jones]," said Rohr. "I never hear from her except during elections. So if she’s doing a good job, I couldn’t tell you. If she’s doing a bad job, I have no idea."

Jones was facing a challenge from Maurreen Skowran, a U.S. Marine who advocates for evidence-based policies.

"I did hear from the challenger," said Jean Rohr. "She knocked on my door and asked me to vote for her. So I did." 

Rohr never misses an election—no matter how big or small. And she says without good term limits, people in local office can be hard to get rid of. "Politics is a business. It’s forever once you get in. I don’t think that’s correct. I’m not crazy about politics at this time," Rohr said.

After the votes were counted, Councilor Jones retained her position with a 13-point lead. 

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You can find all of Bernalillo County's 2019 local election results here. 

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Note: This story was updated with photos and details about results on Wednesday afternoon.

Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and from KUNM listeners like you.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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