Reforming the Impossible

Justin Weddell arrived in New York City as a newly minted graduate of the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts Class of 1908. No Aggie hayseed, Weddell sprang from Chicago and came of age in the rowdy Progressive Era replete with yellow journalism and muckrakers stirring up scandal and busting monopolistic and rapacious corporations.

NMCA&MA Class of 1908. Justin Weddell far right second from top.

NMCA&MA Class of 1908. Justin Weddell far right second from top. (The Round Up, June 2, 1908, New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections.)

At the time New Yorkers read about 20 daily newspapers, not all in English. Feuding news barons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled for readership creating their own headlines and perhaps their own wars, if you credit Hearst’s Morning Journal and its million-a-day circulation with pushing the McKinley administration into the Spanish-American War.

Weddell took all that in as he wrote back to A&M Professor Elmer Ottis Wooton in June 1908 describing his new surroundings:

I find everything and everyone in the East concerned in some form of reform. I’ve read so much of it, and heard so much of it that almost am I persuaded to be an ardent foe of any reform movement. One can’t turn around without encountering a new graft and its attendant muckrake. I prefer the spotless Southwest–where reform is almost impossible. — Justin R. Weddell, Ballston Spa, N.Y., June 15, 1908. Courtesy Hobson-Huntington University Archives, New Mexico State University.

A lot has changed in New York City since then. Too bad the same can’t be said for New Mexico.

Muck, in case you don’t know, refers to manure, and a muck rake is a farm implement. Historians credit President Teddy Roosevelt with applying the term to the newspaper and magazine journalists uncovering scandal and crusading for public reforms like cleaning up the meatpacking industry and breaking apart the Standard Oil monopoly.

Even in Albuquerque significant reform occurred in 1917 as a Socialist city alderman managed to place before the voters the then-radical idea of a commission-manager form of government. The voters jumped at the chance for professional municipal management separating public servants from the patronage of political machines. Albuquerque soon welcomed an outsider, 1911 Notre Dame engineering graduate A. R. Hebenstreit, as its first city manager.

That radical concept in governance guided Albuquerque into the 1970s when it backslid like some poor ex-junkie into the grip of a mayor calling the shots and controlling City Hall through political appointees while an often hapless council watches from the sidelines. Officially the mayor and councilors run in nonpartisan elections, a thin veneer peeled away years ago.

Running for the Exits

So, here we are, a century after Weddell hit New York City, as New Mexico wallows in the muck of its own making. Chris Cervini, an ex-journalist turned public-policy consultant and strategist, struck a nerve when he tried to explain why, after great resistance, he is joining a stampede of professional friends in giving up on New Mexico for greener pastures elsewhere.

There was a period of about 20 years when it seemed like something big was going to pop here. There was growth, hope and an influx of new people and new ideas. Innovators, job makers, thinkers, creators – they all came to this quirky place from the mid 80s on.

The high-water mark was somewhere around 2004 when Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class listed Albuquerque — of all places – as a top destination and incubator of the creative class.

But it wouldn’t last.

One by one, people started to move away. The promise did not match the reality. People began bumping up into the age-old New Mexican syndrome of endless handwringing and naysaying about how things can’t be done, rather than what might be possible.

Cervini goes on about the state relying almost solely on extractive industries–the boom and bust of oil, gas and mining–plus government and military contracting to the point there’s not much private economy or motivation to develop one. He doesn’t single out either Republicans or Democrats for the stagnation but notes any tick of an upturn brings out politicians claiming victory before going back to business as usual.

But where to begin the diagnosis? Or is this a post-mortem?

It’s no secret New Mexico remains stalled as its neighbors share in the recovery from the Great Recession. Numbers gathered by a moving company show more people leaving the state than moving in last year. We rank high in poverty and at the bottom in child welfare despite the governor’s Human Services cabinet secretary saying there is no hunger here. (That would be the same cabinet secretary who trashed the state behavioral-health system over so-far unproven allegations of fraud and replaced 15 local operators with an Arizona contractor.) High school and college graduation rates lag amid questions of whether our young workforce is prepared for the jobs we’re trying to attract rather than the call-center and chain-restaurant jobs that come our way.

Oh, yeah, and then there are the families caring for mentally ill members afraid when trouble arises to call the Albuquerque Police Department for fear an officer’s response will be to shoot their loved one. With some notable exceptions (among them Journal reporter Jeff Proctor now moved to KRQE-TV) a passive news media took APD at its word on scores of police shootings, beatings and Taser blasts, as did Albuquerque’s mayor and the business class that supports him. (See the Journal’s special section on the shootings and the fallout.)

Don’t Worry; Be Happy

If nothing else, you can tell it’s an election year, or, as a former TV news colleague used to call it, the silly season.

susana martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican up for reelection, is on the air with a feel-good spot about her and the state acting as if all is sweetness and light. Meanwhile her political hit squad, abetted by a helpful Albuquerque TV station touting a terrorist connection, targets a potential Democratic opponent because a graying and long-apologetic 1960s radical turned community-college math instructor supports his campaign. Yeah, New Mexico politics has always been blood sport, but what century are she and her political consultant living in? Maybe a good ol’ fashioned witch trial would distract us from the economic and societal collapse occurring under her watch.

Martinez still doesn’t have a cabinet secretary of public education, just her designate who lacks the basic requirements for the job specified in state law but came with good party credentials from Florida. She also raised another last-century boogeyman of “union bosses” when she went after teacher and public employee unions perhaps forgetting those would be our neighbors doing the heavy lifting of trying to keep New Mexico functioning.

And, after child-abuse deaths too horrific to ignore, Martinez discovered her Children, Youth and Families Department was near collapse and short on caseworkers while returning unspent millions to the state treasury. The Albuquerque Journal helpfully labeled her response “massive reforms” although critics see little more than token changes.

Albuquerque’s Body Count

Over at Albuquerque City Hall nonpartisan Mayor Richard J. Berry surrounded himself with Anglo, male Republicans, some connected to Martinez through the political consultant he and she share. With his public safety director resigned under a cloud, his police chief retired and his interim pick as chief skedaddled to a job in Texas, Berry last month chose another connected and Anglo man to run APD. This in a city of 555,000 where Hispanic, Black and other minority residents outnumber we gringos.

Mayor Richard J. Berry.

Mayor Richard J. Berry.

Then came the widespread outrage over the videotaped killing of James Boyd on March 21. Boyd, a homeless and mentally ill man camping illegally in the Sandia Mountains foothills, appeared to be surrendering before officers hurled a flash-bang grenade and police dog at him. That roused Berry, and, like Martinez, he made a sudden discovery: APD under his watch shoots and kills civilians at an alarming rate.

Berry’s newly appointed reform police chief, fresh from Martinez’s cabinet, quickly justified the shooting but soon backpedaled calling his comments premature. The new assistant chief, chosen to implement reform mandates expected from the federal Department of Justice, is APD’s retired former SWAT commander, coincidentally another white guy and longtime friend of the new chief.

The ever-helpful Journal and TV media played up Berry’s call for quick action by the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been investigating community complaints about APD since late 2012. Others saw it as the second-term mayor grasping for a position in front of the investigation he resisted and then downplayed.

The DOJ soon hammered APD finding it engages in a “pattern and practice” of excessive force, excessive deadly force and unconstitutional behavior. At a later news conference, Berry called the findings “difficult” and distanced himself from past comments saying he knows more now than he did then, which makes one wonder where he was as the bodies piled up and taxpayer payouts in lawsuit settlements and judgments passed $20 million. Now we’ll see how cooperative the mayor is when it comes to negotiating the agreement that sets reforms in motion under the intrusive eye of a federal monitor.

Yes, there are a lot of good and honorable cops, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said at the DOJ news conference. But, she noted, a review of more than 200 use-of-force reports showed excesses in a majority with cops escalating situations and killing people presenting threats to no one except perhaps themselves. The majority of the 20 fatal shootings from 2009 through 2012 violated the Constitution, according to the DOJ, which also criticized accountability within APD and the lack of serious civilian oversight. That the district attorney, using a narrowly focused special grand jury, found every shooting justified was not part of the DOJ investigation. (To read the DOJ’s findings letter to the mayor, click here for the 46-page PDF.)

Since the Boyd shooting, APD officers have shot and killed two people. The first barely a week later and before the DOJ released its report involved a man seen holding a handgun to his head outside his home. Then two days ago a 19-year-old woman and car-theft suspect police say was fleeing died on a city street when she pointed a pistol at an officer. It’s uncertain from officers’ lapel-camera video what happened in the first shooting. In the second the officer, for reasons not yet clear, didn’t capture the shooting on his lapel camera. They are the 23rd and 24th persons shot and killed by APD officers since 2010.

Taking to the Streets

The killing of James Boyd, which seems destined to land an officer or two under federal criminal indictment, brought hundreds of people into the streets drawing national and negative attention to Albuquerque. Tear gas drifted across old Route 66 for the first time since George W. Bush bombed Baghdad. Things quieted down quickly, but where is that passion among business leaders, civic leaders and would-be political leaders for addressing the rest of our ills?

Here’s more of Cervini’s take:

Politicians nibble at the edges. Republicans cut some taxes and say they’ve saved the economy; Democrats throw a bone to the film industry and say they’ve helped diversify the economy. Neither side gets it.

The media is obsessed with stabbings, shootings, gore and, of course, pooh-poohing any unconventional idea that might shake things up.

The business community – so weak – panders to whoever is in charge. I was in the prior administration – they pandered to Richardson and now they pander to Martinez.

This is partly because we don’t have a strong private sector that can stand on its own, and partly a failing of leadership in the business community.

Meanwhile a federal rolling average shows an 8 percent drop in Albuquerque’s median income, a figure disputed by local statisticians who say recent numbers show a bit of growth. The most recent state report shows New Mexico lost 1,900 jobs in the last year, a drop of 0.2 percent while all of our neighbors logged increases from 1 percent to 3 percent. Economic developers in and out of government salivate over the prospect of Tesla Motors maybe, perhaps, just possibly locating a $6 billion battery factory here, but that would be manna from heaven, not a result of New Mexico salesmanship trumping our negatives. At least we can drown our sorrows as the nation’s No. 1 beer city.

And the religious community? Many believers prodigiously try to help the downtrodden, raise their own kids right and play straight in their business and personal dealings. Still, there is no unified effort in the faith community to raise the level of public discourse and citizen action, or if there is, the media ignore it. Instead you’re more likely to see the same old public fights over abortion and gay rights, or in the case of one large evangelical church, who ought to be sheriff of Bernalillo County.

A Game of Bullies

Politics is worthy of its own treatise on how factions appearing more like barnacles on the state budget look out only for themselves and not the greater good. Despite office seekers running with decent intentions, good ideas wither when they threaten another’s base or funders or might give credit to someone else. We’re absolutely lousy at making things happen, but, damn, we are brilliant at slapping down the other guy if we can’t have our way.

Our previous governor, Democrat Big Bill Richardson, added a new level of bullyboy politics to the state with his minions making it clear you were either 100 percent with him or were the enemy. Oh, and you better contribute to the campaign. At least he displayed an enthusiasm for progress, seemed to like meeting people and managed to get a lot done albeit while his office racked up huge debt and, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, corrupted the placement of state investments to benefit favored brokers.

Martinez cuddled up to tough-guy Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to the point pundits continue to comment favorably on a Christie-Martinez ticket saving the Republicans in the next presidential election. That, however, was mostly before a nasty political payback closed part of the George Washington Bridge blowing up in Christie’s face, denting his aura and dimming his chances.

It also doesn’t help us one whit that the money and energy fueling industrial-level political machines and front groups nationally and out of Santa Fe aim not at improving citizens’ lives but at slicing and dicing us into ever-smaller demographic groups ripe for manipulation. Once parsed that way, those fixers play upon our hopes and fears–mostly our fears–until it’s no wonder we can’t get along, cooperate on moving ahead or study what’s being done in our name.

In fairness, Berry and Martinez didn’t create the political systems within which they operate. They do, however, run those systems as the top elected leaders of the state and its largest city and are left holding the bag as the lights come on. They also rarely appear outside controlled situations and instead of being beacons of hope for the diverse populations they represent come across as fixated on narrow, monied interests.  Perhaps all the good that can be said about political progress in the state is that we’ve advanced from the day when an angry territorial legislator gunned down the chief justice of the state Supreme Court in the lobby of La Fonda.

Justin Weddell called it like he saw it a century ago. When I met him shortly before his death I didn’t know about his letter to Professor Wooten or have an appreciation of our state and its fine people developed over my ensuing decades in journalism. So we only talked about the old days at what is now New Mexico State University. If I could ask him today what he thinks of the current state of New Mexico, he’d probably just cry.

An earlier version of this post relying on memory cited Weddell’s 1908 letter as being written to Professor Fabian Garcia, considered the father of New Mexico’s chile industry. I have since found the correct reference and received a copy of Weddell’s letter to Professor Elmer Ottis Wooten, a member of the new faculty when Las Cruces College became the state “Agricultural College and Experiment Station” in 1890. My thanks to the staff at the New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections, Hobson-Huntington University Archives for locating the letter and for their extra effort in searching for Weddell’s letter among the Garcia files, where, of course, it would not be found..

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