Glitz and growth take a major hit in Santa Fe

  • Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mayor Debbie Jaramillo: on the job

    Sandra Tatum
  • Old Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

    Sandra Tatum
  • Shoppers peruse Native American arts in the Palace of the Governors

    Sandra Tatum
  • Debbie Jaramillo

    Sandra Tatum
  • Santa Fe's Plaza, peaceful in the 1930s, before the boom

    Museum of New Mexico
  • Navajo Richie Anderson, of Arizona, sells spears and crafts at the Plaza


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 Mike.

"She's been trying to decide who should play her in the movie version of the election," teases Mike, between bites of a breakfast burrito.

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."

They collapse 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 pollsters.

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.

Author and 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 vote.

"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 cripples change."

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."

Elderly 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.

"It 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 up hope."

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.

"This 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 Kennedy won."

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 wealthy.

"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.

The tourism 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 $16,000.)

"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."

Her principal 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.

Though he 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 time."

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 it.

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.

These stylish 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 other.

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 or politicians.

"I've never 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."

Many 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 support.

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 considerably.

Living in 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.

Her 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 hall whenever possible.

"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 disappointed."

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 mayor.

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 housing.

"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.

Those 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 Fe?

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 e-word: empowerment.

"And 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."

Bruce Selcraig writes in Austin, Texas.

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