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Morgan Lee
Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe's incumbent entrepreneur-turned-mayor defended his handling of conflicts over historical monuments and stewardship of a COVID-battered economy at a candidate forum Monday amid stinging criticism from two Latina challengers.

Mayor Alan Webber is being challenged by fellow Democrat and City Councilor Joann Vigil Coppler, who highlighted her hardscrabble local upbringing within a Hispanic family and lengthy experience in public administration and finance in the hourlong debate.

Vigil Coppler accused Webber of mismanaging city finances and neglecting bedrock parks-and-recreation obligations with long-delayed repairs to an outdoor pool. Webber claimed credit for not only backfilling potholes but also turning Santa Fe into a closely watched testing ground for universal basic income by offering guaranteed monthly payments to 100 young parents as they attended Santa Fe Community College.

Vigil Coppler and Republican contender Alexis Martinez Johnson lambasted the mayor's response last year as a tumultuous crowd toppled a downtown monument representing Union soldiers who died fighting Indigenous tribes and Confederate soldiers. The monument, which had an inscription that referred to Indigenous peoples as "savages," is reviled by Native people for glorifying military campaigns against their ancestors.

The events on Santa Fe historic central plaza have catalyzed criticism of the mayor by several fraternal orders including an advocacy group for local Hispanic pride and heritage.

As the monument was toppled in October 2020, many police left the area in a move the mayor has said was meant to prevent physical violence. At least eight people were later charged in the destruction, with seven entering a diversion program that involves community service that will spare them jail time.

At Monday's forum, Webber and Vigil Coppler gave conflicting accounts of the action that day — and its significance.

"I would never have ordered the police to stand down, and it's clear that order came from the mayor," Vigil Coppler said. "We just saw our culture ... what we're used to seeing on the plaza just fade away."

Webber said he didn't dictate the police response, while noting that previous city councils and mayors had advocated for removing the obelisk, which is reviled by some Native people.

"The mayor does not order the police chief or any other police officer to stand down. That is simply false an inaccurate," Webber said.

He said the city ultimately sidestepped any major civil unrest.

"No one was killed," Webber said, paraphrasing comments he has heard. "Everyone went home safely, there was no tear gas hanging over the plaza. There were no windows shattered. ... People were cited for their illegal behavior."

At the same time, all three candidates said that the city's ongoing truth and reconciliation process on culture and history is worthwhile, amid a national conversation about public markers paying tribute to historical figures linked to racism, slavery and genocide.

During Webber's tenure, Santa Fe discontinued an annual reenactment of the return of Spanish settlers 12 years after the Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680.

Webber, who won election in 2018 as a first-time candidate for public office, is renown as a publishing entrepreneur and founder of Fast Times Magazine.

He is seeking a second term after leading New Mexico's fastest growing major city through the pandemic and state emergency health orders that all but shut down the crucial hospitality and tourism industries.

Vigil Coppler, elected to the Santa Fe City Council in 2018, has campaigned for mayor as a seasoned public administrator who previously served as Santa Fe's human resources director after prior posts with the state courts system, state government and Los Alamos County.

The roundtable-style discussion, sponsored by the Santa Fe Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Drury Hotel, was moved to a remote, online format in response to concerns about the coronavirus.

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