Prominent political activists couple departing Santa Fe for D.C.

September 2, 2018

Around town, they are simply known as Carol and Morty.

But there is nothing simple about Carol Oppenheimer and Morty Simon, a husband-and-wife team that has played a major role in shaping Santa Fe’s progressive politics for years.

Both retired labor lawyers, they were instrumental in the passage of the city’s landmark Living Wage Ordinance, which made Santa Fe’s minimum wage one of the highest in the nation. No strangers to City Hall, they have the reputation as kingmakers, including the winning campaigns of Santa Fe’s last three mayors. Yet they also have stumbled, most notably with the defeat of a highly controversial soda tax.

After decades in Santa Fe, Oppenheimer and Simon, both 72, are leaving their 2,700-square-foot home on Upper Canyon Road later this month and moving to Washington, D.C., to be closer to their three adult children.

“It’s certainly the end of a chapter but the start of an amazing new adventure,” one of their sons, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, said Friday.

For some Santa Feans, their departure is more like an end of an era. Love or loathe their politics, one thing seems certain: The city’s political scene will be different without them.

“For those of us in the progressive political community, Carol and Morty are legendary figures who have inspired and mentored so many of us, and have been involved in some of the most pivotal changes in Santa Fe,” said Sandra Wechsler, a campaign consultant who worked with the couple last year on an unsuccessful proposal to tax sugary drinks to fund preschool programs in the city.

Oppenheimer, who largely grew up in a suburb of New York, and Simon, a New Jersey native, met in 1973 at a convention of the National Lawyers Guild, which Oppenheimer called “a leftist group of lawyers.”

“We became friends doing labor law,” Oppenheimer said in a recent joint interview with the couple.

In the early 1980s, they met again at another guild convention in Boston.

“Love struck the two of us,” Oppenheimer said.

When she moved to Santa Fe in 1986 to be with Simon, who had a law practice in the city, Oppenheimer took a job with the state. She was the head of New Mexico’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration program, where she worked for four years under former Gov. Toney Anaya.

Simon’s firm “did environmental work and labor work, union representation mostly,” he said, adding that it represented whistleblowers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as numerous labor groups.

The pair left the law practice in 1998 and started a nonprofit school to teach and train union workers “as a way to build the labor movement,” Simon said.

“We wanted to do something at the intersection of organizing and law,” he said.

As the couple and union leaders discussed a project to take on, the city passed a Living Wage Ordinance to establish minimum hourly rates. But the law applied only to city contractors and it wasn’t strictly enforced, they said.

“This is how we got into politics,” Simon said.

“We wanted a mayor who would enforce the law,” Oppenheimer added.

Enter David Coss, a longtime union supporter and a former president of a local chapter of Communications Workers of America. Coss, who had known the couple through the labor movement, asked Simon to be his campaign manager.

“You’ve never seen anybody work harder than Carol and Morty work,” said Coss, who won the race in 2006 and was re-elected four years later.

Their work ethic, observers say, is a key part of their magic. While they donate money to candidates and progressive causes, they are best known for their hands-on approach to campaigns — from making phone calls to knocking on doors to mobilizing volunteers.

Coss, who supported school board member Kate Noble in this year’s race for mayor, said he recalls Noble’s campaign volunteers “kind of grumbling” about what the Carol-and-Morty-supported Alan Webber campaign was doing.

“If you want to beat them, you have to work as hard as them because I know what they’re doing right now,” Coss recalled telling campaign workers. “We’re sitting here talking about Morty and Carol, and they’re making phone calls. They’re just working their tails off. If you want to work that hard and be that focused, then you win.”

Coss said this year’s mayoral race was the first time he had worked against them. But he said it didn’t affect their friendship.

“They’re just amazing folks, and Santa Fe is going to miss them,” he said.

In an effort to protect and preserve the Living Wage Ordinance, which was amended in 2007 to tie the minimum wage to annual increases in the Consumer Price Index for the Western region, Oppenheimer and Simon remained politically active after Coss was first elected mayor.

“In all their campaigns for the last three mayors, I think they had the sense that the consequences of somebody winning who would take apart the living wage and inflict suffering on the most vulnerable in Santa Fe was simply something they couldn’t ignore,” their son said.

In 2014, the couple led Javier Gonzales’ winning mayoral campaign.

“They are unstoppable on the battlefield for social justice, and their legacy of fighting for the marginalized and voiceless will live on for a very long time,” Gonzales said.

Earlier this year, as they worked behind the scenes on Webber’s successful bid for mayor, the couple said they purposely took a less visible role in the campaign after the crushing defeat of the soda tax.

“We didn’t want to be the issue in the campaign,” Oppenheimer said.

“I know that some people had cautioned him not to have us prominent in the campaign, but they needn’t do that because we felt that we should not become an issue,” Simon added.

In a statement, Webber called them “two strong and caring people who deserve our thanks and our best wishes for the next chapter of their lives.

“They say nobody’s irreplaceable,” Webber wrote. “Carol and Morty prove that’s not true. There is no one in our community who has done as much, given as much, cared as much or made as much of a difference.”

Former City Councilor Joseph Maestas, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Webber, said the failed soda tax is probably the couple’s “biggest misfire” and that it tarnished their reputation.

“For anyone to think they know what’s best for an entire community is disingenuous,” he said. “They really overreached.”

Simon called the loss of the soda tax proposal “a big defeat.”

“We feel badly about that, and we’ve thought about what it means,” he said, adding “there’s a lot of anger in Santa Fe.”

“There are racial tensions. There are class tensions,” he said. “And I think the opposition was able to marshal those forces and confuse the issue, and they ran a very good campaign, and we could’ve run a better campaign, but we didn’t.”

Although the soda tax left a spectacular loss on the couple’s record, Maestas also noted Simon and Oppenheimer have been highly influential.

“I think many communities don’t really have catalysts for change. People seemed to be resigned to the status quo and feel like their efforts can’t make a difference, but not Carol and Morty,” he said. “I didn’t always agree with them and some of the issues that they promoted and even some of the candidates that they backed, but I admire their will and their efforts to make Santa Fe better.”

Miles Conway, a former spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he would describe Oppenheimer and Simon “as folks who have given themselves over nearly completely to their community.”

“They’ve certainly taken on issues that either were or became controversial, but I really believe in my heart that every initiative they’ve gotten behind, it’s come from place, a deep belief — that they think this is going to make the city better,” he said. “For everyone.”

Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market policy organization that opposed the soda tax proposal, said in an email that Oppenheimer and Simon have been among the most influential “progressive” activists in Santa Fe for many years.

“We at the Rio Grande Foundation disagree strongly with them on their policies (like living wage) and those of the elected officials they have worked to put in office (like Javier Gonzales’ soda tax), but their work does show that two smart, hard-working, and well-funded people can have a tremendous impact on local politics, especially in a city like Santa Fe which is generally amenable to their political progressive agenda,” he wrote.

Carter Bundy, political and legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in New Mexico, called the couple the “heart of the labor movement” in Northern New Mexico, if not the state.

“They’ve been absolutely central to the labor movement itself and to workers generally throughout Santa Fe and throughout the state,” he said. “I can pretty much guarantee you that the living wage would either not exist or would be much lower had it not been for their efforts.”

Oppenheimer said some people will remember her as being difficult and too outspoken, but others “will think that I wanted to try to build something bigger than just me.

“I hope that I’ll be remembered as somebody that’s tried to make this community better for everybody, and I mean everybody — gay, straight, immigrant, non-immigrant, local Hispanics, non-locals, men, women — and that not only better substantively, but better in terms of more people being involved and seeing Santa Fe as a place of growth and hope,” she said.

“I don’t know if I can match that,” Simon said.

“Say, ‘I agree,’ ” Oppenheimer replied, laughing.

“Yeah,” Simon said, smiling at his wife. “I agree.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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