Mayor Tim Keller’s election victory last week in Albuquerque was, indeed, a mandate. Sixty-two percent of city voters cast their ballot for an energy-neutral city; for an immigrant-friendly city; for women’s equality; for a politician not at odds with dominant scientific opinion on climate; and for someone who believes in decent, competent law enforcement. They also cast their ballot against mean-mouthed potty politics, Orwellian attack ads and right-wing doublespeak.
All in all, election day was a great day for Albuquerque’s future. The general state of optimism, if not euphoria reminiscent of the high hopes the city held for Mayor David Rusk in the 1970s, was solidified late last week when Mayor Keller appointed the four co-chairs of his transition team. He’s assembled as upstanding and intelligent a group of people as we’ve seen at City Hall in quite a while.
Dede Feldman is one of the co-chairs; as are Fred Mondragon and James Lewis. All have impeccable reputations. Dede Feldman is surely among the most trustworthy and insightful observers of government in New Mexico over at least the last 20 years. The chances are overwhelming that if Feldman thinks something is bunk, it is bunk. James Lewis, former twice-elected New Mexico State Treasurer, is a pillar of integrity and acuity, and certainly among the most experienced and trusted public servants in the state. And Fred Mondragon, former Secretary of Economic Development under Gov. Bill Richardson, whose substantial job growth record dwarfs the current governor’s eight years of almost complete economic development failure. Sarita Nair, an attorney in Albuquerque, has extensive investigative and management experience in the State Auditor’s office. And we’ve heard that Lawrence Rael, another deeply experienced public servant, is also involved in the transition. Rael is a former chief administrative officer of the city and the former director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. No wonder many of us are breathing a sigh of relief.
But, of course, other realities always come along to fray our euphoria. Earlier this month, the Albuquerque City Council voted unanimously for something euphemistically called a “pedestrian safety” ordinance. It’s really an anti-panhandling law, one with real teeth, teeth so long and sharp they even stab the good-hearted if they perform an act of charity. It’s now illegal to help someone out at an intersection or if they are standing in a median. If it’s the bedraggled and out of luck who are the pedestrians we are protecting, then the ordinance is really a license to fleece them of income to keep enough of them safe enough to go hungry, perhaps even die.
Mayor Keller had nothing do with this ordinance, as far as I know. And he won’t be able to repeal it, since it passed with a unanimous vote. But it’s a shameful thing, and reeks of the nastiest kind of social Darwinism in which the poor and desperate are seen as a danger to society, not, as they truly are, victims of society’s prejudices, blind spots, steam roller pressures and irrational aversions. The ordinance is anti-vet, as many people making a living on the streets have served honorably in the military, and it is ageist, as many are old, battered, beaten up, and consigned indefinitely to the frayed economic fringes of our culture.
Most panhandlers in my experience want to work. Perhaps finding them jobs would be a good place for Keller’s economic development efforts to start. It would be wonderful if Albuquerque became a city in which anyone who wants to work can make a modest living serving the public by performing any one of the hundreds of tasks a city needs to keep itself clean, healthy, and on the move.
When Keller speaks of “an energy neutral future for the city,” he says on his website that he means by “leveraging city properties and solar and renewable energy financing packages, Albuquerque can achieve 100% energy neutrality in terms of our electricity bill in a surprisingly short amount of time.” He commits himself on his site “to standing with mayors from around the country in opposing the Trump administration’s anti-science efforts.”
Among the many hopeful statements that inspired me to support Keller was his vision of Albuquerque as “a national leader for multicultural cities” that champions “our diversity.” Getting down to brass tacks, he intends to keep Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents “out of APD patrols… ensuring that no city resources are put to use identifying immigrant communities for federal action.”
There’s no telling exactly how many refugees and immigrants must resort to asking for hand-outs on the streets, but to be a truly immigrant friendly — and people friendly — city, the anti-panhandling ordinance needs to be scrapped as soon as possible.
Some panhandlers are hostile and aggressive. We’ve been tested by them. But from my experience most people getting food money from passers-by are not bums and parasites. I look at them as bottom-line entrepreneurs in a broken economy and a jagged and savage social system. Many of the people you see at intersections and freeway off-ramps are women, cold, bedraggled, in mortal danger perhaps, pleading for the milk of human kindness. Vets often have signs that apologize for having to beg. One cardboard sign said, “this sucks.” The people I see giving change from their cars, hundreds of them, are part of the spirit of what makes Albuquerque a great place to live. It’s more important to them to be of help than it is to keep the traffic flowing as fast it wants.
Why do we have so many people begging on the streets? It’s obvious. We are about to be done with a governor who over two terms in office destroyed New Mexico’s behavioral health system. Making a living wage in Albuquerque is a very tough row to hoe. We have either the first or the second highest unemployment rate in the country, alternating with Alaska. The Albuquerque Journal reported in October last year that the state had lost 4,300 jobs in September 2016. Homelessness is rampant in the city, with as many as 2,000 people or more seeking shelter here or living on the hard streets. Couple that with the opioid epidemic, the crisis in mental health care in general, and the thugs who prey on the destitute, and you can see panhandling in Albuquerque for what it really is — a form of victimless self-help that thrives on ingenuity, tenacity, physical prowess (you try standing out there all day in a high wet wind) and just plain moxie.
How can you make homeless vets, hard-luck women, and teenagers with long stories into criminals and the people who try to help them into partners in crime? It’s just plain sick, and, I have to say, sickening. Maybe this landslide victory for Keller will act as an emetic and help our urban conscience purge the impulse to demonize the poor.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from photo by Derek Mindler)