Santa Fe Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, fresh from the populist coup in March that swept her and a progressive city council into office, still has that I-just-won-the-lottery euphoria about her this morning.
She's waving hello to
diners at a downtown restaurant, shaking hands (-We did it, didn't
we!') and getting needled a bit by husband
"She's been trying to
decide who should play her in the movie version of the election,"
teases Mike, between bites of a breakfast
Debbie waits a beat, Letterman-like.
"I'm thinking a fiery, sexy actress," the mayor says with a grin.
"You know, a Sonia Braga type."
into giggles - it's sort of you-had-to-be-there humor. They're
joking, but Hollywood seems a likely place for this unlikely
political miracle, and Braga, the fiery Brazilian, would be perfect
as the volatile heroine who saves Santa Fe from becoming an outdoor
mall for Dallas yuppies.
Here's the plot:
Lagging 12 points in opinion polls just two days before the March 1
election and outspent 3-to-1 by a Chamber of Commerce front man,
Jaramillo waged a classic grass-roots campaign that relied upon $5
and $10 donations, a legion of multicultural volunteers of all ages
and a decisive stealth vote of "undecideds' who tricked the
She not only beat 11 opponents (a
plurality, not a majority, is required), but also a collection of
movers and shakers called Santa Fe Tomorrow, which rallied the
business community against her.
filmmaker Roger Morris, writing in Santa Fe's muckraking journal,
Puntos de Vista, described a record 59 percent turnout election in
which stooped grandmothers resembling "etched and fragile dolls'
packed grade-school gyms and cafeterias to
"As never before," wrote
Morris, "they came together, affluent and impoverished, educated
and unschooled, barrio and subdivision. For a brief moment in that
little booth, they transcended all the contrived divisions and
distractions that keep them weak, overcame the cynicism that
Gloria Mendoza, a Jaramillo
supporter and neighborhood activist, said she picked up her
79-year-old neighbor at 7 a.m. and spent all of election day
driving through Santa Fe's barrios with a loudspeaker.
"My neighbor taped a picture
of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the windshield," Mendoza said, "then we
told people in Spanish: "Wake up. Get dressed. Turn off the TV and
go vote for Debbie!" "
Having often fought with
developers and Santa Fe's tourism industry throughout her six years
on the city council, Jaramillo's victory sent tremors through the
segment of this community that thrives on inflated real estate,
resort hotels and coyote kitsch. Her main opponent was so
devastated, he has yet to congratulate her.
"The real politics is not
about money, or about power," she told an election-night gathering
amid tears and shouts of joy. "It's about people. This town is not
for sale. It belongs to the community."
Hispanic supporters who had almost quit coming downtown because of
the tourist onslaught made their way proudly to Jaramillo's
election-night celebration at La Fonda hotel. Jubilant and awed at
their new-found power, they would politely approach their champion,
embrace her and cry.
meant so much to them," Jaramillo would say later of the viejos,
the old ones. "They have watched the town they love slowly
disintegrate from greed and misuse of power. Some of them had given
For some, Jaramillo's upset victory
had historic parallels. "As I listened to the returns," said
74-year-old Santa Fe resident Stewart Udall, former Secretary of
the Interior under Kennedy and Johnson, "it was like the Truman
election. Her victory upset the political cliché that whoever
has the most money wins.
was a clarion call, the retaking of the city by the Spanish," Udall
said. "I haven't been this excited about an election since John
Udall's right. There was an air
of a cultural crusade that Saturday morning, for Jaramillo's
victory capped a year of vigorous local democracy, a fascinatingly
introspective campaign that forced this town of 62,000 to confront
the worst of itself - in countless public forums and guest
editorials - like the family of an alcoholic. Hundreds of
impassioned letters came to the daily New Mexican and the Santa Fe
Reporter, an alternative weekly, filled with rage and anguish over
the town's transformation into a second-home city for the idle
"The people who are
coming here have corrupted the rest of the world," lifelong
resident Joaquim (Jake) Montoya wrote in the New Mexican last year.
"These people, they don't like Hispanics. It's so sad sometimes I
feel like crying."
Emotions like these
guaranteed that the election, which drew a record 18,700 voters,
would not be decided on personality or political records alone, but
would become a referendum on class and economics.
Jaramillo promised an end to city government
playing footsy with every shopping, hotel and upscale housing
project to come down the pike. She used to say that calling the
speculators who had carved up Santa Fe "developers' was akin to
calling a butcher a meat developer.
industry's riches, she said, must be spread around to benefit all
the community and should be used, along with taxes on new
construction, to help fund more affordable housing - a campaign
mantra for every candidate. (The median price of a Santa Fe home
rose above $200,000 last year, while the average income in the
county remains below
"Our children," she
once told me, "face a future of waiting on tables and cleaning
toilets. There won't be a middle class anymore, and they won't be
able to afford to live here."
opponent, city councilor Peso Chavez, who was funded heavily by
real estate agents, builders and retailers, had done little to
offend his backers during eight undistinguished years on the
council. Chavez had at least one apparent conflict of interest in
his private business - his security and investigations firm had a
contract with Santa Fe's most controversial upscale development,
Las Campanas, until the relationship became such a political
liability that he backed out of it.
portrayed himself as a champion of affordable housing and
neighborhood integrity, he failed to impress many who had watched
his career take shape. Former Mayor Sam Pick, himself the head
cheerleader for "Aspenization," once said, "I'm surprised Peso can
walk. He must have a sore crotch from sitting on the fence all the
One of Chavez's print-campaign ads
featured a comfortable, middle-aged Anglo couple in their stylish
living room saying: "Peso Chavez will do something about crime. He
has a great plan." Many in the community, not just Hispanics, found
the ad to have a divisive racial message underlying
Jaramillo's campaign tapped a volcano of
resentment among many longtime Santa Feans. Their cherished
downtown Plaza, a national historic landmark that was once the
cultural heart of daily Hispanic life in Santa Fe, has become a
gentrified landscape of galleries, overpriced cafes and souvenir
shops. Dismay spread in the 1980s as rising property taxes forced
sixth- and seventh-generation natives to leave their modest adobes
to make way for Californians and Texans, who fancied a dozen
exclusive gated communities.
fortresses became symbolic monuments to the paranoia that wealthy
newcomers had brought with them. In the typical exchange of
rhetoric, the new residents, shocked by the resentment they met in
the Land of Enchantment, replied that, on the contrary, they adored
Hispanic culture - -See our ristras!' - and claimed that their
security gates were needed only to prevent burglaries. Open
hostility simmered, and by last March's election Jaramillo had
become the darling of one camp, and the Antichrist to the
After Jaramillo won, the Santa Fe
Reporter shouted in two-inch type on the cover: "Hang On, It's
Debbie." Even the mayor had to chuckle. She enjoys the image of
being dangerous to the status quo. The 41-year-old mother of three
sons has had heated battles with the former mayor - -I hope Sam
Pick rots in hell," she once told reporters - and has a
longstanding feud with the editorial page editor of the New
Mexican; a paper she once termed "racist and parochial." Even her
telephone's answering machine message has been changed regularly to
reflect her latest objects of scorn, be they reporters, developers
pulled any punches," Jaramillo says. "Nothing will take the fight
out of me, even being mayor. Sam Pick says the position will mellow
me because I'll have to be promoting the city. We'll see."
To the joy of reporters, when she talks as
frankly as she did as a Brown Beret Chicana activist in the 1970s,
she doesn't apologize for it the next day.
"The more you piss off
Debbie," explains her husband, Mike, "the more to the left she
moves." During the campaign Jaramillo went months without making
any new unnecessary enemies - ah, she's becoming a savvy
politician, some observed - until last November when, in an
interview with the San Diego Tribune, she off-handedly remarked
that people would stop coming to Santa Fe in droves if they
understood the possibility that "... someone will burn their house
down or put a gun to their head."
dismissed it as unfortunate hyperbole, and some supporters called
it reckless. In retrospect, she says, she meant that some Santa Fe
residents are so angry and alienated that they would consider
violence against newcomers. That is no doubt true, though there's
been no such violence so far.
The Santa Fe
establishment howled. "It would appear," one citizen wrote the New
Mexican, "that (Jaramillo) intends to divide and conquer, rather
than unify and heal our community." Reportedly, Jaramillo's
campaign donations abruptly dropped off, and a more mainstream
liberal entered the race and diverted some of Jaramillo's
The Santa Fe Reporter rode to
Jaramillo's defense with an article by staff writer Josh Kurtz that
effectively dismantled the Jaramillo "fear factor" and argued
persuasively that Santa Fe needed to vote its conscience.
"A lot of money started
coming back in after the article in the Reporter," recounts
Jaramillo, estimating that 80 percent ignored racial lines and came
from Anglo donors.
Jaramillo can be funny,
charming and disarmingly honest, until you cross her. Those who
know her see her as articulate and thoughtful, but it's not hard to
imagine how intensely she could work to undo her enemies. She comes
across as a passionate streetfighter, joined by an activist
husband, who can motivate the masses but will have to master
consensus-building to keep from flaming out as some kind of
political martyr. She'll be tested soon when she tries to push
through two of her priorities - naming a new police chief and
streamlining a bloated and inefficient city hall. Having a majority
of the city council aligned with her should ease that job
Santa Fe since she was two, Jaramillo is one of seven children
raised in a devoutly Catholic home where exposure to the world
outside Hispanic New Mexico was mandatory.
mother handled the cultural education, bringing in foreign exchange
students and pushing Debbie through 10 years of classical piano. If
pressed, she can still lay down some Bach and Brahms. Spanish was
infrequently spoken in their home, and even now she is a bit
self-conscious speaking what some incorrectly assume was her first
language. Her dad provided the political influence by fighting city
"Thirty years ago,"
she recalls, "he fought the paving of Alameda (a major Santa Fe
street), and here I am fighting the widening of it."
She attended Catholic schools until the eighth
grade, then Santa Fe High, and married Mike at 20, equipped with
little more than a diploma and some secretarial skills. "I didn't
have high aspirations," she said. "My dad may have been
She encourages low-income
high-school girls to get involved and look beyond boyfriends and
babies. But she says she is less concerned that people think of her
as a feminist role model, the city's first woman mayor, the
alcaldesa, than that they think of her as a reform
Her first months as mayor, a position
grossly underpaid at $14,000 and laughingly called part-time, have
been, to no one's surprise, interesting. First there was the matter
of former Mayor Sam Pick's old "Western living-room" furniture,
which she replaced with what she jokingly calls "ethnic" upholstery
that looks vaguely Indian.
She fired the police
chief. There's talk of a moratorium on hotel construction. And she
began putting allies in key departmental posts, most notably naming
her brother, Ike Pino, to be the city manager. Because Pino had
already served as Pick's city manager, the appearance of raw
nepotism was defused.
Already some builders are
getting their comeuppance at city hall. One offered $40,000 to the
city's affordable-housing efforts if the council would overlook his
violation of the building height ordinance. He was voted down
7-to-1, and the mayor's aide, Richard Polese, said later that every
district in town had called to urge a "no" vote.
Several mornings, Jaramillo has had to wade
past a group of supplicants milling outside her modest city hall
offices. Jaramillo's calendar is sprinkled with meetings with
developers, builders and real estate agents - the very people who
worked to defeat her. For the time being, they seem to have gotten
the gospel about rapacious growth and affordable
"I had 40 Realtors
saying they were ready to donate a percentage of their commissions
to affordable housing," Jaramillo says, in a tone one might reserve
for UFO sightings. "I couldn't believe what they were saying. But
now developers are coming out and saying I was right all along."
She laughs and rubs her fingers together to
explain the motivation of the real estate agents. Now, months
later, most of the pledges have proven to be empty gestures, but
Jaramillo still seems to enjoy watching the vanquished try to
position themselves on the side of good.
"I am suspicious of these
overtures," she says, sounding more mayoral by the minute. "Six
years of getting beaten down by these people won't change
overnight, but I'll at least listen to them."
She can't afford not to. Santa Fe stands on a shaky foundation of
tourism, construction and state government jobs. Jaramillo would
like to see that foundation diversified.
who can most quickly alter the priorities of the city are the very
ones who have profited most from the profligate ride. Jaramillo is
not so naive that she thinks she can change their basic ideology -
great fondness for money - but she knows they're thinking they will
be left in the cold for her four-year term unless they make some
demonstration of good faith. How to extract the greatest amount of
good from those people is what keeps Jaramillo up at night.
Development, the right kind of development, she
says, is the only way to dilute the haves-versus-have-nots culture
that permeates Santa Fe. Much as she might like to, she can't
bulldoze the million-dollar mansions off the surrounding ridgetops,
nor can she make the Plaza humble again. How can she, or anyone in
government, ever hope to reclaim what's been lost in Santa
To her credit she has not tried to move
mountains yet. She anticipates enabling popular symbolic moves here
and there - a defeat of a shopping center or the widening of a road
- but knows lasting change will come incrementally.
Foremost, she sees the need for simple
restoration of commonweal in a community that has fed upon and
fought itself for so long. For the first time in years, she says,
people in Santa Fe are encouraged about changing direction. They
have a bounce in their step, and everyone's overdosing on the
that's my greatest fear," Jaramillo says. "Not that I would lose
votes, like most politicians, but that I would let those people
down who now have hope." n
Bruce Selcraig writes in Austin,