On Sunday, Oct. 24, the three Albuquerque mayoral candidates gathered at the Congregation Albert synagogue for their final debate before the election takes place on Nov. 2. The participants, current Mayor Tim Keller, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzalez and conservative talk show host Eddy Aragon, answered questions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, crime and homelessness.

In the opening statements, Keller talked about how he has handled the pandemic and his prioritization of the health of local citizens. He said he would want to craft a path forward to continue the work he has started in his first term if chosen as mayor again.

“During the pandemic, we faced a challenge like we've never seen before,” Keller said. “We made tough decisions to save lives and save livelihoods."

Meanwhile, Gonzalez brought up crime in the city, characterizing it as out of control and said it needs to be solved, which Aragon reiterated. Aragon blamed the poor state of Albuquerque on Keller and Gonzales.

"Both of my opponents in this race are responsible for what is happening here in the city of Albuquerque … We have to start addressing these issues,” Aragon said.

When asked about the pandemic, Keller said he wants to focus on administering booster shots for adults and, once approved by the FDA, vaccinations for children between 5 and 11 years old. While the mayoral office can’t enforce a vaccine mandate in Albuquerque, he said they dealt with the pandemic challenges with action despite adversity, and poured $300 million into infrastructure to continue building the city and keep people working.

"Leadership during a pandemic is about actually taking action to keep everyone safe,” Keller said. “That's what you have got to do, even if you don't believe in it, even if it's hard, even if it makes other people uncomfortable or upset, and that's what we did."

Gonzalez said there could be no across-the-board mandates for the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, but he would ensure all essential staff are provided with personal protective equipment, and would focus on the individual needs of people.

Aragon said he is proudly unvaccinated, and claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine is a form of gene therapy, although the CDC's website says that the vaccine does not alter a recipient's genes. He said being kicked out of places for not wearing a mask is unconstitutional, referring to incidents where he has been kicked out of restaurants.

When the topic switched to the handling of hate crimes, Keller spoke about the actions he has taken to stop them, referencing the work that the Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Office of Civil Rights — which were both created under Keller’s term — do to support both immigrants and refugees. He also talked about his standing with protestors who are against racism.

Gonzalez discussed his experience in working with outside groups, specifically the FBI, as well as how he’s dedicated his life as sheriff and a Marine to protecting others.

Aragon talked about working with the FBI as well, and brought up issues of the vandalism of the Oñate statue and the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk being unsolved; he promised to commit more resources to solving these issues. Aragon also said Keller enabled damage in downtown Albuquerque last summer by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Mayor Keller, in spite of how intelligent and smart and well intentioned he is, has participated in activism as mayor of our city, particularly with the Black Lives Matter … Keller, in his participation, enabled a group of people to embark upon lawlessness in our downtown, so we have to be careful,” Gonzales said.

Moving onto crime in the city, Keller brought up the hiring of 100 new Albuquerque Police Department officers every year he’s been in office, with more promised to be on the way. He also talked about the city granting APD the largest raise it has seen in its history, and is committed to continue working with the Department of Justice to follow through on their reform plan.

Gonzalez also said there should be a large focus on staffing, which would mean committing more officers to be out and on the streets. He brought up the issues of anti-police policies and enforcement laws, warning that officers will quit if he isn’t elected.

Aragon blamed both Keller and Gonzalez for the city’s high crime rates. He said he would fight any potential lawsuits leveled against APD, and attacked the standards the department has to operate in, which draws some of its guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“If (Gonzalez’s) department is fully staffed, why is it that the last three years crime in Bernalillo (County) has continued to go up?" Aragon said.

The discussion turned to response times for 911 calls as well as how long it takes for APD to arrive at a scene, which was approximately 48 minutes in 2020. Keller discussed the six different levels of urgency for 911 calls, and said there are roughly 10,000 calls per year that don’t require APD to be involved, which is where his recently launched emergency response group, the Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) Department, comes in to help reduce the police caseload.

However, Aragon claimed that ACS is putting social workers at risk by having them on the street. In addition, he said APD is bogged down with heavy paperwork. 

Gonzalez said every 911 call should be tied to an officer in some way so that when people “call for service, an officer shows up.”

When asked about homelessness in the city, Aragon argued that mobilizing street teams is too expensive, and that Gonzalez would only focus on auditing nonprofits if elected. Aragon said that while the rate of homelessness increased under Keller — which Keller rebuked — he himself understands the homeless population because he had a schizophrenic grandmother.

In opposition, Gonzalez was in favor of street mobilization and voucher programs. He said there aren’t enough services for the homeless population. As it stands, Keller said his work with the Gateway Center, a planned shelter to aid those experiencing homelessness, and ACS serve as tools for alleviating the issues surrounding homelessness in the city.

The voting polls on Nov. 2 will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and absentee ballots are due by 7 p.m. that day to the Bernalillo County Clerk’s Office.

Dan Pennington is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @DanDangerously