POLITICS : Mayor Moves to Shake Up Santa Fe : Debbie Jaramillo is lauded, lambasted in her bid to reclaim ‘true soul’ of enclave


Contentious, independent and fiercely protective of this city’s vanishing Latino culture and traditions, Mayor Debbie Jaramillo is not for those who like their civic leaders warm and fuzzy.

Jaramillo, 42, was elected in March on a pledge to reverse trends that in less than a decade had transformed this 384-year-old former Spanish settlement on the southern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into an enclave for wealthy tourists and transplants.

Now, in what some view as a bold experiment to spark cultural regeneration through legislation, this self-described “Chicana infiltrator” is trying to reshape a government that for years stoked the tourism and development furnace with no regard for its effect on average-income residents.


Jaramillo’s first nine months in office have brought significant changes to this city of 62,000 people--and negative reviews from critics who contend she is “anti-Anglo,” an enemy of tourism and vindictive toward anyone who disagrees with her philosophy.

The fact that many Latino supporters have cloaked Jaramillo in a folk-hero myth adds additional pressure on her to deliver.

“I realize that many people are expecting more out of me than just being a mayor. I’m a role model for women and Hispanics too,” Jaramillo said. “All I want to do is help people who’ve been neglected for years, and they happen to be mostly Hispanic.

“And when I’m done four years from now,” she added, “the term community is going to mean something again around here.”

Her critics’ sentiments are reflected in a sign tacked above the bar at the Bull Ring, a watering hole where Santa Fe’s powerbrokers gather for green chili stew, beer and gossip. It says: “Debbie Happens.”

There, debates continue about Jaramillo’s recent decision to cancel $30,000 worth of city advertising in the local daily newspaper, the New Mexican, in response to articles that criticized her failure to take a public stand against recent downtown muggings and rapes.

Some say her silence about the crimes only confirms suspicions that she is anti-tourist and raises fears that Santa Fe could suffer from the kind of bad publicity that has hurt Florida tourism.

Some even find fault with her aim to foster growth of cottage industries in a place where high-rollers and movie stars cruise through town in $50,000 Range Rovers and walk down the narrow streets wearing the latest creations of European fashion designers.

“Cottage industries? That’s not who we are,” grumbled Jaramillo’s predecessor, Sam Pick. “Tourists come to this town for the art galleries, the food and the opera--not for homemade earrings and other stuff they could buy on a sidewalk in New York.”

But Jaramillo says Pick is missing the point.

This city’s ethnic heritage, she argues, is being packaged and sold by commercial interests as “Santa Fe-style” in pricey art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, and in the fake adobe mansions sprouting up in old Latino neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, average folks are having to migrate to trailer parks on the fringes of town because of soaring property taxes and low-paying jobs in fast-food restaurants, trinket shops and stop-and-go markets.

To reclaim the “true soul” of Santa Fe, Jaramillo wants to funnel more tourism dollars into local improvements and to create affordable housing in a place where an average home costs $100,000 while the median annual income hovers around $18,000.

She has already hired a new police chief dedicated to community-based law enforcement, which emphasizes cooperation with residents. And she is now leading efforts to have developers voluntarily give a portion of their profits to the city for affordable housing in return for building permits.

A proposed zoning law to be voted on in March would require developers to include affordable housing in their plans, or, as Jaramillo describes it, “mix rich and poor in the new neighborhoods.”

“As long as I’m here, developers will have to give something back or they won’t get,” Jaramillo said.

As for her detractors: “I’ve been blamed for everything from crime to realtors going out of business. As long as they’re not blaming me for what’s going on in Bosnia, I guess I’m doing all right.”