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Success in Santa Fe: score on for the revolution from below.

In the struggle between rich and poor, folks like Valentin Valdez usually end up holding the short end of the stick. But not in Santa Fe.

Valdez is a retired janitor who, since childhood, has climbed in the mountains that surround New Mexico's historic, picturesque, and increasingly trendy capital city. Several years ago, as he hiked on Atalaya Mountain, Valdez came across a parcel of land that had traditionally been known as a place of great spiritual significance to members of Santa Fe's large Hispanic community.

Now, however, what Valdez had always thought of as public space was being divided into lots where developers planned to build $500,000-and-up homes for wealthy emigres from California.

"I realized that greed was destroying our community," says Valdez, a soft-spoken man of seventy-one. "I realized that if we did not fight back, the rich people would just roll over the poor people - like they have for a thousand years."

The fight back that Valdez describes has evolved into a remarkable story of municipal transformation that, in less than two years, has seen Santa Fe's City Hall wrenched from the hands of a conservative, pro-development establishment and handed over to one of the most progressive local governments in America.

Where Santa Fe's mayor and city council once could be expected to rubber-stamp extravagant development proposals and then march off to drink cocktails with their rich contributors, local officials are now voting for development moratoriums and then heading out for union rallies or Green Party meetings.

In Santa Fe, where class issues were once ignored, local pols now speak candidly about economic disparity. "People know class differences exist, but politicians in most places never talk about it," Mayor Debbie Jaramillo declares. "Well, here in Santa Fe we do talk about it. How can we avoid the subject? It's so blatantly obvious what's going on - you have rich people forcing poor people out of their homes, their communities. This isn't something I'm making up. This is something we see every day. And this is what people elected us to do something about."

The new mayor and council have also appointed openly gay and lesbian officials for the first time, placed Greens on planning bodies, and so shaken up the status quo that discussions of local government are now spiced with phrases like "populist coup" and "revolution."

"Compared to the history of politics at this City Hall, our taking over could be viewed as a revolution," admits Jaramillo, who began her political journey as a militant neighborhood activist in 1986 and seven years later was sworn in as mayor. "I think that those who saw the election as a revolution did so because the shift that was made was from a good-old-boys club, real pro-development-type government to one that was led by a woman - and a Hispanic woman at that - who was talking about putting the interests of working people and poor people first."

So marked has the shift been that national observers are beginning to point to Santa Fe as a model for progressives nationally. It illustrates the possibility of building coalitions involving Greens, unions, the elderly, minorities, and the white working class, and it highlights the issues that can help sustain such coalitions.

"I think the left has to start thinking about putting development and affordable-housing issues to use as tools for coalition-building and for getting important things done. And Santa Fe shows how that can happen," says Steve Cobble, a former official in the Presidential campaigns of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. "If the left is serious about environmental issues and issues of wealth and poverty, this shows a way to build coalitions and to succeed."

Former New Mexico Governor Toney Anaya, a Santa Fe resident who was one of the most progressive governors in the nation during his tenure in the 1980s, shares Cobble's view. "The model from Santa Fe could go to other places. In fact, it should go to other places," says Anaya. "The model of building coalitions around issues such as development is something that progressives need to understand if we're going to really start winning at the local level and, eventually, at the national level."

While left coalitions have won control of a number of cities around the country over the years - from Burlington, Vermont, to Berkeley, California - the Santa Fe example is unique, not only in the makeup of the coalition, but in the distinct emphasis on class issues. Then again, everything about Santa Fe is unique.

With roots that stretch back more than seven centuries, to the time when the Pueblo Indians established a village on the site of the current city, Santa Fe is one of the oldest and most distinct communities in North America. So appealing was the site that the Spanish conquistadors fought the Indians for the turf - eventually establishing a thriving commercial center that boomed as the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail in the Nineteenth Century. Shortly after the beginning of the Twentieth, it was named as New Mexico's capital.

A town of gentle adobe architecture perched on a 7,000-foot-high plateau, with a pure blue mountain stream running through its center, Santa Fe has long been portrayed as a sort of Eden by artists and writers. "In the 1920s, author D.H. Lawrence wrote, "The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul and I started to attend."

Despite the rave reviews of Lawrence and his contemporaries, however, Santa Fe remained a relatively quiet, culturally diverse state-government town until the 1970s. when improved transportation links and a rowing reputation as a "new-age" center began to draw increasing numbers of newcomers - particularly wealthy Californians - to what locals refer to as "the city different." Like Lawrence, many were so drawn to the scenery and the relaxed lifestyle that they decided to stay. Santa Fe's population has boomed from around 40,000 in the 1970s to more than 60,000 today - with another 45,000 living in the surrounding county. And for the first time in three centuries, the 1990 census showed there were more Anglos than Hispanics living in the community.

"Suddenly, you started to see mansions in the hills," explains Valentin Valdez, whose family has lived in Santa Fe for generations. "And in the neighborhoods, over the last few years, you started to see the houses being bought up not by the children of people from Santa Fe but by people from Hollywood with big checkbooks."

Indeed, housing values skyrocketed in Santa Fe during the 1980s. The median price for a home rose 28 percent between 1990 and 1993. And simple adobe homes in once humble neighborhoods near the city center now sell for $300,000, just as one-room apartments can go for as much as $1.500 a month. "The whole city has experienced the most incredible process of gentrification in the last twenty years." says City Councilor Cris Moore, a Green Party activist who was elected along with Jaramillo in March 1994. "A lot of wealthy people came as tourists and then decided to retire here. The problem is that, while they have driven up housing prices and taxes, there has been no parallel increase in wages. So the natives - the people who have always lived here - are under intense pressure to sell their homes to millionaires from California."

Longtime residents such as Valdez. who built his adobe home on the city's east side more than forty years ago. now find themselves property rich but cash poor. As home values rise. property-tax bills have jumped so quickly that people like Valdez - who lives on Social Security and a small pension - must take out loans simply to afford to stay in their homes.

In a matter of a few years. Valdez saw his Apodaca Hill community turn from a homey, low- to middle-income enclave into what the local newspaper. The New Mexican, now refers to as "a million-dollar neighborhood."

"As the assessed values of homes went through the roof, little houses in nice, quaint historic neighborhoods that were built for $10.000 or $20,000 were suddenly going for $300.000." explains Councilor Moore, whose district includes Valdez's neighborhood. "That meant the assessments went up, and you had senior citizens who were being billed $1,000 a year in property taxes. The real-estate market provided the carrot - people knew they could sell for a lot of money - and the taxes became the stick. There is tremendous pressure on natives to sell out to some rich buyer."

The problem as the 1990s dawned was that Valdez did not want to sell out and move - as many of his neighbors have - to affordable areas thirty and forty miles from town. An even bigger problem was that the prospects for the children and grandchildren of working-class people like him buying their own homes were rapidly disappearing.

"I was afraid that one of these days it would just get to be too much, and I would lose my home, my land - where my roots have been all my life," explains Valdez. "I felt so sad; the native people were being forced out of their own home town. We had to respond or this wasn't going to be our town anymore."

The fight back was slow to develop.

Santa Feans had always been taught to appreciate tourism, and the live-and-let-live atmosphere of the community - reflected in shop signs that read, "Shoplifting is Bad Karma" - was traditionally quite welcoming to newcomers.

"In the 1980s, particularly, Santa Fe became very tourist-oriented, very tourist-hungry - to a fault," says Anaya. "Santa Fe was very pro-development - the city council never met a development it didn't like."

What older residents began to realize, however, was that the tourism boom and the development frenzy were turning their city into a place they could no longer afford. It was Debbie Jaramillo who, as a young housewife and mother, took the lead in 1986 in one of the first high-profile anti-development campaigns. She led a petition drive to prevent a road project that would have torn up an existing neighborhood in order to promote development of surrounding areas. Jaramillo was so vocal, and so effective, that in 1988 she was elected to the city council as a lonely - but seldom silent - foe of the direction in which Santa Fe was then headed.

Though she lost on a lot of issues by a 7-1 margin, the councilor succeeded in putting development issues on the public agenda, and in making a name for herself. To call Jaramillo's council tenure controversial would be an understatement. Speaking to The New York Times about wealthy newcomers, she said, "These are conquerors who did not need arms to take over our town. They have come instead with their big money and their higher education."

In 1993, she told a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper - which was doing a feature on wealthy Californians moving to the Santa Fe area - that Hispanics in northern New Mexico were considering burning down million-dollar houses in order to fight what they saw as a white invasion of their region. Jamarillo's in-your-face approach shocked the traditional power establishment in Santa Fe - a mixture of wealthy Hispanics and Anglos that in the late 1980s and early 1990s was led by Mayor Sam Pick. An ardently prodevelopment official, Pick was backed by a like-minded majority on the city council.

Jaramillo challenged Pick for mayor in 1990, winning almost 30 percent of the vote. But when she ran again in 1994, she was written off by many local pundits who portrayed her as too strident. She was even accused of being a racist - since she was so impassioned in her criticism of newcomers, the vast majority of whom happened to be Anglos.

In fact, Jaramillo worked hard to combat racism, building broad-based coalitions around shared economic concerns. But her opponents ignored this work.

"I think a lot of times they figured that if they could turn it around, turn the discussion onto another topic, then they wouldn't have to deal with the real issues," says the forty-three-year-old mayor. "They figured they had an easy one - call her a racist and pretty soon people will be talking about racism, not economics. It was a way to get away from the real issue that was at hand. I saw it as kind of a tactic to skirt what needed to be addressed."

In the 1994 campaign, however, Jaramillo would not be deterred. Though the pro-development front runner, Councilor Peso Chavez, outspent her three-to-one, and though she was undercut by a third candidate who ran on a somewhat more moderate anti-development platform, Jaramillo forged a coalition that is all too rare these days.

"I think her victory was not so much due to practical organization as to the impression that she was the anti-establishment candidate, and people knew that the establishment had let them down," says Moore, who supported Jaramillo. "She got a good deal of Hispanic support-particularly from senior citizens - and she also attracted a lot of Anglo support from liberals, anti-development folks, union members, Greens, and whatever exists of the left."

Running on the defiant slogan, "Es Tiempo" ("It's Time"), Jaramillo purchased newspaper ads that declared, "What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular," and said, "It's time City Hall turns its attention to the needs of its citizens, instead of focusing attention on the needs of developers, politicians, and special interests."

Jaramillo made issues of economic disparity a vital part of her campaign, saying, "It's time to reverse the trend that's adding to the economic and ethnic split of our city. We must quit neglecting less affluent neighborhoods and uplift pockets of deterioration."

While other candidates harped on crime and gang issues, Jaramillo noted that she had been in a gang as a youth, and said, "Social conditions such as poverty, poor housing, and lack of economic opportunity are major contributors to crime. We must address crime by addressing the root causes."

Former Governor Anaya thinks that Jaramillo's progressive positions on economics were a powerful tool in the underfinanced candidate's political war chest. "The awareness of class is very real here," said Anaya. "There is more of an open discussion of class in Santa Fe than you'll find elsewhere. Why? Part of the reason is that everything is so very apparent. You have your $800,000 houses on the ridge tops - rich people, many of them newcomers, looking down on the rest of us. It's not hidden - it's obvious. On the other side you have your local families, families that have been here for generations, having to sell out because they can't afford property taxes that were driven up by the arrival of the out-of-staters. Debbie simply let people know that she saw what they saw - and they responded."

The last polls before the election showed Jaramillo trailing by twelve points, but when the votes were counted she had won easily with 39 percent of the vote in a twelve-candidate field. In addition, the election swept in an anti-development, progressive majority on the eight-member council, which meant the new mayor could turn her bold words to action. That prospect chilled local developers - who had poured money into her leading opponent's campaign in the final days before the election.

Newspaper editorials warned the mayor that she would have to be careful lest her election might "scare" business. But Jaramillo doesn't really think "scare" is the proper word.

"Scare is just a term they like to use - I think the reality is that the election angered a lot of powerful people," she says. "There was a combination of things that I saw happen whenever I spoke to the truth, when I said what needed to be said. The reactions were varied. I saw some people get real defensive and try to turn on me - call me 'racist' and all that - but I knew that was because I talked about the real issues. There is a genuine understanding of what's really going on in this country - who's better off, who's not, who's getting the short end of the stick. But to hear it in a political context is rare in itself. So when I say it, period, I think people are taken aback by it - they just don't expect politicians to talk seriously about wealth and poverty."

So far, Jaramillo has shown little willingness to trim her sails. She filled the council seat she had to give up to become mayor with an openly lesbian community activist, and - though Jaramillo is "a Jesse Jackson Democrat" - she showed few qualms about appointing members of Santa Fe's well-organized Green party to local commissions.

The new council has funded an innovative tenant hot line, passed resolutions calling for environmental-impact studies of projects at the nearby Los Alamos nuclear facility, and endorsed union organizing in the local private sector.

The mayor and council are currently considering a bold city charter proposal, which would impose limits on campaign spending and expand direct democracy with initiatives, recalls, and referendums. It also would bar the passage of any city ordinance, resolution, referendum, or policy that "discriminates on the basis of race, age, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental handicap, or medical condition."

On the key development front, Jaramillo and the council have moved quickly - although not always as quickly as some local activists would like. The city has launched a number of projects aimed at providing affordable housing. A forty-six-unit resort-condominium development that failed was acquired from the Resolution Trust Company, with the goal of making units available for low- and moderate-income families. The city is also purchasing plots of land where affordable housing can be built.

Jaramillo has proposed a plan that would require all developers to set aside a certain proportion of future developments to include affordable-housing units - which by law would have to be mixed in with more expensive units. In fact, the debate now is not about whether this is a good idea, but on where to set the standard of affordability - Santa Fe planners identify a $120,000 home as affordable, but Moore thinks the figure should be closer to $80,000.

In order to more effectively direct growth - which often follows patterns of available water - the city also is purchasing the private Sangre de Cristo Water Co.

In the boldest act so far, city and county officials voted in June to impose strict limits on development in the mountains east of Santa Fe, the very area where Valentin Valdez saw treasured open spaces being claimed by developers just a few years ago. Calling it the most important piece of local legislation in decades, Councilor Frank Montano declared that the growth-control ordinance would "protect the mountains not just for those that live today, but for those that live after us, and after them."

Following the vote, Valdez approached Moore, the Green councilor who had taken the lead on the growth-control initiative, and as the two men hugged, Valdez whispered, "You've done well, my friend." Moore, who has emphasized the need to build community coalitions to support the new council's bold initiatives, replied, "No, we've done well."

The question of whether the Santa Fe progressives can really alter patterns of development - and of economic disparity - remains unanswered. Some local activists say Jaramillo and the new council have not been as hard as they should be on land speculators. Others say there is simply no way to do enough.

"I think we're moving in the right direction. We're getting some balance. But it may be the old theory of locking the barn door after the horses got away," says Anaya. "There's still too much development, still too much pressure for development. We've lost a lot of the Santa Fe I'd like to have seen retained. And I'm not sure we can reverse the influx of outsider hordes pushing the brown people out of town."

Still, a genuine confidence radiates among many activists after passage of the growth-control legislation.

"You can make a difference here," observes David Arbin, a local architect and neighborhood activist who has been involved in several land-use fights. "At this level you can make a swing. Maybe it's not everything that everyone would want, but what we're doing here matters."

And Arbin thinks it will ultimately matter to progressives in communities across America. "Remember," he says, "the Populists started in little towns in Oklahoma and Kansas back in the 1890s, and they ended up writing the agendas that Bob LaFollette and Franklin Roosevelt and others eventually instituted. Why shouldn't a little city in New Mexico be the place where the next set of progressive agendas gets written?"

A Green Future

If the Greens have a future in American politics, it may well take the form of people like Cris Moore.

The pony-tailed complex-systems researcher at the Santa Fe Institute became the first Green Party activist elected to public office in New Mexico when he won a seat on the Santa Fe city council last year, and he has rapidly established himself as an environmentalist who recognizes few of the false boundaries of contemporary politics.

"Environmental activists need to connect with social and economic issues," says Moore, who has played an important role in shaping the agenda of New Mexico's burgeoning Green movement. "The left needs to out-populist the right. We need to deliver a powerful message that the status quo isn't working, and Greens are in a position to do that more effectively than Democrats ever will be."

For Moore, that translates into active involvement as a Green in union organizing drives, and in an effort to establish a higher minimum wage in Santa Fe - perhaps to $7 an hour. It also means reaching out to small-business owners - who can play a vital role in developing sustainable economies.

"We've made a big mistake by allowing the Reagan Republicans to suck small business in with big business," says Moore, who is organizing a series of meetings between Greens and local business owners. "There's no reason that these people shouldn't be on our side. The left just hasn't spent enough time talking to them."

Moore's combination of Green idealism and the practical politics of coalition building and community outreach have made him a critical player in Santa Fe's rapidly evolving political scene. Though Mayor Debbie Jaramillo, a Democrat, is only half joking when she says, "Cris drives me crazy," she adds that, "He brings an intellectual energy to the process that can be really exciting. He's driven to find workable solutions that are not compromises."

Moore's success is all the more amazing because he is an Anglo newcomer representing a part of town with a large Hispanic population that does not easily place its faith in outsiders. Moore won the support of the community not by spouting philosophical maxims but by rolling up his sleeves and joining local battles for affordable housing and tax relief - issues that he easily relates to Green concerns about land use and development controls.

Coming to Santa Fe at age twenty-three - after receiving his Ph.D in physics from Cornell, where he was active in campus Green politics - Moore threw himself into street-level organizing for property-tax relief. That put him into the homes of elderly citizens, who took to the boyish activist. When someone suggested that he run for city council, Moore initially rejected the idea. After talking with a number of older Hispanics on Santa Fe's east side, however, he decided to enter the non-partisan race.

Running with support from the Greens, the Sierra Club, and a number of local labor unions, Moore raised $12,000 and put together a highly sophisticated yet unyielding campaign. He defeated better-known and better-financed candidates by promising to battle for strict growth control, neighborhood preservation, and progressive taxation.

Since his election, Moore has been an effective advocate for the council's most progressive initiatives - including support for city workers in contract negotiations and the establishment of tough limits on development in the mountains surrounding Santa Fe.

At the same time, he maintains a frenzied schedule of participation in neighborhood, environmental, and union organizing.

"Even when you get into office you still have to do community organizing. One of the problems with the left in other places is that when they get into office they give up on outreach," says Moore. "That's death. That's just a recipe for a one-term tenure that alienates everyone. I want us to be a movement party - I want the Greens to prove that you can work from within and still be a revolutionary party."

John Nichols is an editorial writer for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes about electrical politics for The Pregressive.
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Title Annotation:fight against land developers in New Mexico; includes related article on environmental movement
Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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