2021 ABQ Mayoral Race

Point-Counterpoint: The Conservative New Mexican VS Joe Monahan On The Politics of Scandal

Did Mayor Tim Keller make an unnecessary misstep in bringing up the allegations of infidelity and city hall cover-ups alleged by Sheriff Manny Gonzales?

Political commentator Joe Monahan says yes, writing, “Rattled by a Tweet from political consultant James Hallinan that claimed the woman involved with the Mayor is Nyika Allen, 31, Director of the ABQ Sunport, Keller blinked.

“City Attorney Esteban Aguilar fired off a letter to Hallinan alleging he was sexually harassing Allen and warning him that further Tweets could result in him being barred from city property and even criminally charged.

The political community reeled. Why was Keller relitigating the salacious allegations with only days left in the campaign and especially with a commanding lead that shows no signs of eroding under the weight of Gonzales’ allegations?”

— New Mexico Politics With Joe Monahan

Monahan brings in Greg Payne to explain:

It was not a good move. In fact it was a dumb move. The Mayor has been on easy street and now he diverts the car to these tabloid charges that are not believed by the public. By bringing them back they could cause damage in the final days. No one’s life is in danger here. This is social media trolling gone haywire. Keep it in perspective. The public at large is not in on this. They couldn’t wait until after the election to respond? This is a rank amateur decision. Keller is still on his way to winning with over 50 percent but this reeks of panic and revenge — not calm and cool strategy. And it doesn’t bode well for his political future.”

The mayor’s “easy street” has comprised near-daily attacks from his opponents, who call out rising crime and homelessness in the city. Keller’s job approval has plummeted 10% in a year, and anyone who has left their house since 2017 knows the city is a mess.

For a political campaign, this is hard to defend. “Don’t believe your lying eyes, Keller has done great” is not an easy sell.

But then in comes Gonzales with his left-field allegations that Keller had an affair with a subordinate, that he covered it up (along with a related domestic incident and a drunk driving crash involving a top-ranked city official).

These would be damning allegations if Gonzales had the evidence. His campaign claims it’s in the public records, which the city won’t hand over. Yet several local news agencies (The JournalKOB, and possibly ABQ RAW) have all submitted and received responses to public records requests for the incidents in question. They turned up nothing.

For a mayor with a record on crime as bad as Keller’s, Gonzales’ allegations were a blessing, and his campaign capitalized on it. The cease and desist order wasn’t sent as a preamble to future litigation. It was a counter-punch meant to keep the story alive, and it landed.

Monahan writes, “Now what? 

“The Gonzales campaign says the proof of the affair and an alleged domestic violence incident between the Mayor and his wife is in city records and they have filed a records request. The Keller camp stresses there are no such records. This will not be resolved before the election.”

There’s the kicker. Not only will it “not be resolved before the election” — it won’t be resolved after the election, either. Because after the election it won’t matter. 

“That unproven allegations of personal misconduct have snaked their way into the mainstream of a campaign is reprehensible,” Monahan writes. “That Keller appears to have taken the bait thrown his way is disappointing to many of his supporters.

“If the response was indeed an overreaction and not prompted by a legitimate need to immediately respond to a city employee done wrong, it was a very human one. In the new world of anything goes our political world of yore is often unrecognizable. It is not sentimental or nostalgic to say that the old world is missed.”

There are no coincidences in politics. The response was neither an overreaction nor a legitimate need to respond to “a city employee done wrong.” 

The campaign made a simple political calculation: Does keeping the allegations in the news cycle do more harm to Keller or to Gonzales?

The answer depends on the evidence, and in this case there isn’t any.

The Keller campaign knows crime is the beleaguered incumbent’s biggest weakness. They believe their most formidable opponent is Gonzales, a sheriff running as a law-and-order candidate who would bring his 30-year career in law enforcement to set city hall straight. And they made the decision to re-enforce, on legal letterhead no less, the fact that there is no proof (as yet) to their opponents’ claims.

It serves three purposes: it garners sympathy among Progressives who needed a reminder (strengthened by the weight of the city attorney) that the claims are baseless; it detracts from the mayor’s record on crime; and it tarnishes Gonzales’ reputation, making him look petty for resorting to personal attacks and unproven “rumors” instead of campaigning on the issues.

There is no legal basis for the cease and desist order. Hallinan has not committed any crime. And because there is no legal authority to ban people from city property, especially for social media posts that were anything but harassing, the city attorney’s letter to silence him will not go anywhere.

To serve the purposes outlined above — sympathy, detraction from Keller’s weak crime record, tarnishing the reputation of his opponent — it doesn’t have to go anywhere.

In fact, that’s the point.

None of this is to say the “scandal” couldn’t have been more damaging to Keller, if it had been handled differently. If the Gonzales campaign had brought forward the “two high-ranking members of the Albuquerque Police Department” who the campaign claims have “direct knowledge of the domestic incident stemming from the sexual harassment scandal,” Keller not only would have been a fool to bring it up again; he would be ending his political career, if not his life as a free man.

But that’s not what happened.

After Gonzales accused the mayor of an affair and a cover-up, Keller responded by calling the attack “disgusting” and “defamatory” — a “pathetic” stunt to generate campaign donations. KOB4 gave Gonzales an opportunity to respond, but his retort fell flat. His campaign didn’t prepare him for the kill shot.

Instead of muttering meekly, “All I asked was a simple question,” Gonzales could have hit back with the same passion Keller showed in his denial. If he indeed has the testimonies of two high-ranking members of the police force, he should have detailed those testimonies, decried the abuse of power, and told the citizens of Albuquerque on live television that depositions have been taken, public records are being obtained, and Keller will eat his words when he has to admit under oath that he not only lied to voters but conspired with city officials to cover up his personal scandals.

“We will see you in court” is a much stronger finish than, “All I asked was a simple question” — because it wasn’t a simple question. It was a serious allegation about a highly criminal conspiracy, and it deserved to be treated as such.

And that is why Keller’s team decided to keep the ball rolling.

Gonzales botched his delivery and bungled his closing argument. Nobody believed the allegations — even Monahan writes that “the sheriff was widely derided for going in the gutter — and because the media had already investigated the claims and turned up nothing, that’s what was reported in the news after the debate.

No political consultant worth their wage would allow a story that hurts their opponent’s credibility and detracts from their own candidate’s weaknesses to fall into the circular file.

And they didn’t.

Campaigns move as quickly as the news cycle, so it’s easy to forget that the cease and desist order defending Nyika Allen wasn’t the first attempt by the Keller campaign to keep this story alive.

The day after the debate, the campaign fed a story to local media that the mayor was considering a defamation suit against Gonzales for his unsubstantiated claims. Both KOB4 and KOAT ran that story, and it said everything the campaign could have wanted.

It reminded voters what happened at the debate, the desperate politicking of a struggling opponent, the “rumors” alleged and how several media outlets already investigated the claims and found nothing. The coverage re-enforced the fact that Gonzales has not provided any evidence since the debate, and KOB’s coverage even threw in charges that Gonzales may have violated debate rules by reading from prepared remarks— all while keeping the new cycle off Keller’s crime problem.

It’s such a “calm and cool strategy” that even seasoned politicos missed it.

Instead of talking policy, they’re once again talking politics — the strategy, the odds, the wisdom or folly of this or that political maneuver — instead of talking about all the people who’ve been killed this year on the streets of Albuquerque.

Keller may be a flawed candidate with an ineffective platform, but you cannot assume that keeping the “scandal” alive was a mistake the campaign managed to make twice.

It was a feature, not a bug.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s