New mayor breaks barriers in Espanola
ESPANOLA, N.M. (AP) — At the beginning of his first City Council meeting in March, newly elected Mayor Javier Sanchez said he would normally turn to textbooks, literature and poetry to try to make sense of such a momentous occasion.
“At times like these . I try to find out where I fit in this world. But from my own experiences, I know that this time is different,” the 44-year-old Yale University graduate, who also has a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, told the small audience gathered at City Hall on a stormy night.
“I stopped looking at books. I started to look inside my heart,” he said. “This city is different. This time is different. And I am different.”
The new mayor of Espanola — a Democratic stronghold notorious for its patron-style system of politics — is a gay Republican from Texas.
Labels apparently didn’t matter to voters, who elected Sanchez, a restaurateur making his first run for public office, with nearly 54 percent of the vote in a three-way race against two city councilors.
“I think what it says about the electorate is that they’re really tired of the status quo,” said Joseph Maestas, a former Santa Fe city councilor who served as mayor of Espanola from 2006-10.
“You also have four newcomers on the council, so I think that even amplifies the electorate’s desire for real change,” Maestas added. “No more recycled politicians. No more business as usual. (Sanchez) has a license to be bold.”
QUESTIONS OF RESIDENCY
Sanchez began by making bold decisions.
Among his first actions after taking office, he showed the city manager and police chief the door.
But even as Sanchez tries to deliver on a campaign promise of a “new direction” for Espanola, he faces troubles of his own.
Sanchez, who has lived in the Espanola Valley for about 20 years, is being dogged with questions about his residency.
A complaint filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by the husband of losing mayoral candidate Adrianna Ortiz, who finished third in the race, alleges that Sanchez lives in Lower San Pedro, outside city limits, disqualifying him from serving as mayor.
“There’s no allegations,” said Nathan Ortiz, who filed the complaint.
“It’s plain and simple,” he said. “He lives out of the city limits. He lied about his address. He’s using his significant other’s grandmother’s address to claim that he lives in the city so he could run for mayor. Bottom line.”
Ortiz, who said he used to be friends with Sanchez, said Sanchez ran on a platform of integrity.
“When you lie about where you live, I think that’s zero integrity,” Ortiz said. “Espanola is a small town. You go anywhere in town and ask where Javier Sanchez and (his partner) Phillip Maestas live and they’re going to tell you. I know their neighbor very well, and he said, ‘Yeah, they’ve lived here forever,’ and it’s out of the city limits.”
For Sanchez, explaining his residency is a complicated matter.
“I have my physical residence here in the city limits, but I also take care of my mother-in-law at the home in Lower San Pedro,” which is outside the city, he said. “It’s not an easy transition for me to say, ‘I can spend every single night at my home in the city.’ ”
Asked where he goes home at night, Sanchez replied, “I go to both.”
When he filed his candidacy, Sanchez listed his address at what used to be the home of his partner’s now deceased grandmother. The home is located next to the old La Cocina Restaurant. Both are within city limits.
“At one point, she cut the property into two and sold (one of the parcels) to us,” he said.
After she died a few years ago, Sanchez said he and his partner moved into her home with the intent of buying it and combining the two parcels once again. But the home had a reverse mortgage, which “has created a lot of problems,” he said.
“If this deal falls through where I cannot move into that (home) permanently, because the bank hasn’t gotten back to us for a very long period of time, I have another home that I would be able to move to as well within the city limits,” he said.
Sanchez said his attorney has assured him he meets the residency requirements.
“It’s about intent, so our intent is to make that one property and . live there permanently. Whether that’s tomorrow, next month or five years from now, the statute is that of intent,” he said. “Residency is not defined by the number of nights that you sleep in that house. It is not defined by whether or not your utilities are in your name or not. It is defined simply by the intent.”
Sanchez considers the residency question a small distraction that he predicts will eventually go away — or so he hopes.
Sanchez, after all, has a city to lead.
‘LIKE THE ENERGIZER BUNNY’
Even some of his opponents say Sanchez has gotten off to a good start.
Newly elected City Councilor John Ramon Vigil, who was part of a slate of candidates that supported City Councilor Robert Seeds for mayor (he placed second), said Sanchez is working to be transparent.
“He ran on a campaign of change, and apparently that’s what the people of Espanola wanted,” said Vigil, 22, the youngest person ever elected to the Espanola City Council.
Vigil lauded the new mayor for getting rid of the police chief, saying Raymond Romero was an “extremely controversial” figure who “brought a lot of lawsuits to the city.” Vigil was less enthusiastic about Sanchez’s decision to oust Mark Trujillo as city manager, though he ultimately voted to ratify the termination.
The shake-up, as well as the lingering questions about Sanchez’s residency, are part of the normal “ups and downs” that any other community goes through, Vigil said.
“I don’t see a city in chaos,” he said. “What I see is a community that continues to hurt and needs leadership and direction. You know, my community suffers from a negative perception from the outside, and I think people need to see that we are a community of people that are strong-willed.”
City Councilor Dennis Tim Salazar, who supported Sanchez for mayor, said Sanchez is the right man to turn the city around.
“He’s hit the ground running,” Salazar said “This guy is like the Energizer Bunny. He’s very, very active, and he’s looking for ways already to help the city — working with city councilors, working with staff and finding ways to improve the city.”
Salazar said the biggest change so far under a new administration is an open line of communication.
“To put it bluntly, I was left in the dark by the previous mayor,” he said, referring to former Mayor Alice Lucero.
Espanola is overwhelmingly Democrat. Of the city’s 4,542 registered voters, nearly 76 percent are registered Democrats, compared with just over 10 percent Republicans.
Salazar said voters were hungry for change and didn’t let party affiliation factor into their decision in a nonpartisan race.
“I think it was more of a referendum for change at the top spot, maybe a fresh new approach, maybe somebody from the outside looking in,” he said.
At least one of the candidates — Seeds — also had a lot of baggage. Seeds’ wife, Laura, and a former campaign assistant have been charged with multiple felony counts related to allegations of voter fraud during the 2016 municipal election. The other candidate, Ortiz, had been endorsed by Lucero, the former mayor.
‘THIS IS MY HOME’
Sanchez’s ties to New Mexico can be traced to his family roots.
Sanchez said his father was an adventurer who had visited northern New Mexico long ago. Sanchez, the youngest of three sons, said his family would later travel together to the area, including Espanola.
“We would come up here because it was cooler than El Paso, temperature-wise and otherwise, for me, at least,” he said.
“We certainly were not rich, but what I truly remember the most was that I never felt like I was poor,” he said.
After Sanchez graduated from Yale, he and one of his best friends traveled to New Mexico. When they stopped in Santa Fe, he said, Sanchez walked into Davis Selected Advisers unannounced, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and landed a job with the investment management firm.
“I don’t know the day of the week but I think I started the next Monday,” he said.
Soon after, he met Phillip Maestas, whose family started La Cocina nearly 50 years ago. The couple have been together 22 years.
Sanchez worked as a research analyst for Davis Selected Advisers for four years before leaving his job to work full-time managing La Cocina. In 2001, he left New Mexico to attend Notre Dame. After receiving his master’s degree, he returned to New Mexico, where he has been since.
Sanchez calls Espanola his hometown — a place where he says he hasn’t given second thoughts about being a gay Republican from Texas.
“This is my home, and people know me, so they either accept me or they don’t,” he said.
“But clearly I have enough acceptance to have garnered what some would call an overwhelming majority. You ask, ‘Why Republican or why this or why that?’ In the end, it didn’t matter because I was the opportunity that people see, regardless of anything else.
“So, if there’s hope for me, there’s certainly hope for any and everybody, and that’s a great lesson to teach, right? If anybody can do that, if anybody can come here and achieve that success, then the American dream is real.”
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com