House District 43 Rep.-Elect Chris Chandler reflects on her time as a Los Alamos County Councilor during an interview earlier this week at her Los Alamos home. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
As Los Alamos County Council Vice Chair Chris Chandler prepared for her final Council meeting this week she reflected on her last two years in office and looked to her first term at the Roundhouse as House District 43’s new State Representative.
In an interview with the Los Alamos Reporter, she said she has always worked on the local level and to her, being on the ground in local government has always been only what she has been interested in. Even when she was in college she never thought about running for higher office.
“I was active in my hometown in student government and I was part of a committee that would liaise with the school board. We would share our views on certain policy initiatives and things like that and so I attended a lot of school board meetings. Then I ran for school board when I was in college and won,” Chandler said. “I always just thought it was just a way of participating in the local community and I really did not plan on or expect to be running for House Seat 43 ever.”
She said she had expected that Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard would be hold the seat for quite a long time and even then she probably wouldn’t have thought about running.
“I felt having spent time at the Legislature and thinking about who was best suited, I thought well I have the background now. It wasn’t gained intentionally. Sometimes you just do things and then you realize it’s a really good fit. It was like, yeah, I can do this,” Chandler said.
She noted that it was much more daunting to run for the District seat.
“In Los Alamos you can run a campaign for $5,000 and basically do everything yourself with volunteers, but because politics has really come down to the state level, national politics seems to be now wanting to participate on a state level. A lot of groups are interested in state seats which probably 15 years ago was less the case,” Chandler said.
She believes that’s because people are so frustrated on the federal level where they see how hard it is to make a difference that they’re now bringing those controversies and issues down to the state level.
“They know that the state legislatures can make a big impact on policies. So that means the profile is higher and as a consequence there are more participants and you have to run a more professional campaign. I certainly hadn’t ever expected to be doing that but once I decided, I decided I was going to be all in and make sure I had the infrastructure to be able to do it because I didn’t want to be the person that lost the seat,” Chandler said.
She said she and Garcia Richard have similar political and policy views.
“I don’t know if we’re one for one on everything but certainly if you were looking at us you would see that we’re going to have similar viewpoints so I wanted to make sure that those policy trends continued. I wanted to be part of a team in the Legislature that presses for certain kinds of reforms that are necessary, that have been stalled for almost a decade now,” Chandler said.
While recalling experiences throughout her on two Charter Review Committees, she said it got to the point where not only was it a local issue, but that some of the state participates wanted to get involve in the charter.
“I’ll point to the sheriff issue, because I still remember. We were talking about what’s best for our community in terms of the sheriff’s office. This was around 2010 and we were re-visiting the issue of whether it would make sense for us to have a full professional police department as we do plus a sheriff’s office and if we had a sheriff’s office, what should it look like. We had a meeting at the Pajarito Cliffs conference room and as I’m pulling up I see all these sheriffs’ vehicles from across the state in the parking lot. I’m thinking, my, isn’t this interesting and I walk in and there’s a room filled not so much with local people though there were maybe half a dozen who had a strong interest in the issue,” she said. “And then the room was filled with sheriffs with their hats on and their regalia having driven up in their official vehicles from wherever. And I thought, holy cow, we’re not now bringing federal issues to the state level, we’re bringing state issues to the county level and the groups are organizing on what little Los Alamos County is going to be doing with their sheriff’s office.”
Chandler said the sheriffs felt they should be weighing in on Los Alamos’ local government issues.
“I’m always willing and happy to listen to all points of view, whether they’re from Los Alamos County of Dona Ana County but certainly what I’m going to be focused on is what’s most important for the local community when it’s a local issue. I felt like it was intended to a little bit intimidate the participants and the committee members and again, John Hopkins was the chair and he ran a really tight meeting and didn’t allow things to get off track. That was a little disappointing to me that there was an organization that was organizing to really try pressure just local volunteers. And that’s how it felt,” she said. “I was really proud of how everyone just kept it to the point and just tried to explain to people who know nothing about our form of government here. We have a unique form of government. They knew nothing about It but they were coming and talking to us as if they were authorities on what’s best for Los Alamos County. Our committee just handled themselves in a really professional manner and we just moved along and just talked about it on the merits and came up with recommendations on what to do at that point.”
Asked if there were County issues she will be sad to leave behind, Chandler said she’s really interested in this committee that’s been put together to look at how to improve animal shelter operations if necessary.
“I like things that are willing to challenge the current paradigm and I gravitate, frankly, to challenging accepted ways of doing things. I think sometimes people are a little put off by that because I’ll be in a meeting and I’ll immediately start asking questions that go to that -is this really the right way to do it. And I’ve been getting a lot of citizen interest in looking at a different way to do things and it’s great to see something moving now down the track to maybe come up with some positive recommendations along those lines. And of course I’m an animal lover and I’ve always had dogs from the various shelters in Northern New Mexico. It gives me a lot of pleasure to give a nice home to an abandoned dog. They’re not always the easiest ones to pick up but it’s really fun to see them settle in,” she said as her two beloved dogs Gracie and Sophie sat by her feet.
In my role on the County Council, Chandler said it’s not always the most fun, but she has always gravitated towards trying to elucidate for the public the ups and the downs sides of things.
“This is not a criticism of anybody, but I think often there’s a tendency to just accept a recommendation so I really try so I really try to avoid that and I think it’s my natural temperament to challenge concepts,” she said, going on to discuss her recent vote against a new housing project in White Rock.
“You’re not always the most popular person in the room when you start pointing to all the down sides to things and the tendency is to want to only point to the up sides of things when there’s a push to get something through. But I have always felt that it was one of my jobs to point to the down sides instead of this one-sided argument that this is going to bring housing and that has yet to be seen. There are certainly some monetary obligations that we’re going to be putting on people that buy houses in there that needed to be well-described out there. I don’t find those the most enjoyable exercises but I think they’re necessary. In both my terms on Council I’ve always viewed myself in that role. It’s not always appreciated,” she said with a hearty laugh.
Chandler said high on the County’s legislative agenda is ensuring that we have a stable tax in place to ensure that regardless of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s chosen corporate structure, they’re going to be carrying their share of the GRT and making sure that they’re not riding on other taxpayers in the community. She said there’s definitely going to be a push to get a bill in place like SB-17 which Council endorsed but ended up being vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. She said there’s no resistance from Triad’s management to paying the GRT and that the Congressional delegation supports the County’s and the State’s interest in maintaining the GRT.
“I’m hopeful the Department of Energy will recognize that in order for the Lab to be successful, the town has to be successful in supporting the Lab. The way to do that is ensuring that we can sustain a quality of life that will draw the kind of workforce that Triad needs to make sure that is a successful, topnotch, world-class scientific institution. The view that some hold at DOE and maybe some other places as well is very short-sighted. It’s a very penny wise and pound foolish approach because long-term the Lab can’t be sustained if the community can’t be sustained,” Chandler said.
She added that when the Council asked former Lab director Charlie McMillan what the community could for the Lab, he said additional housing was a big need.
This council, previous councils and probably future councils are interested in supporting efforts to increase access to housing for the workforce here. A-19 is one of those initiatives; we’ve got a market project over there where the old Los Alamos Site Office was for very nice apartments that would be suitable for post docs and early entry people, staff members and others who are here.
“With that is the need to make sure the Lab and DOE uphold their end,” she said.
One of her main issues heading into the Legislative session is education, which Chandler says is one of those critical issues that almost everyone agrees on – Republican and Democrat.
“I think there are differences in maybe approaches and how much is necessary. The debate there this term is going to be, “what do we need to do, what timeline, what programs work and what’s going to turn around the system. It’s not a debate about whether, it’s what and when and timing and how much. And there will be wide-ranging views and I’m going to working very hard to understand the differences,” she said.
Chandler will support projects related to school safety initiatives, she said but outlined the need to also be focused on the mental health issues, “not just because of school safety but because it affects everything else that happens”. She noted that she recently attended NEA conference on the community schools concept which integrates social services into the schools and each school makes an assessment on their own on what’s needed to support them.
“It might be a breakfast program. There are a lot of kids who are hungry in the state even here. Even our little town has needs and all those are going to be considered here. I met with some moms last week about a pre-K program here, expanding it here. We have a small pre-K school here and it’s on a lottery basis with 48 seats. There are parents here who need it for their kids. Their kids are bright but that’s not the only criterion for whether or not you need a pre-K program. There’s an interest in expanding pre-K in Los Alamos County, not just the disadvantaged areas,” she said. “A lot of this stuff is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be phased in and prioritized because the system can only absorb so much. We don’t have staff across the state so we’re going to have to get the staffing levels up. There’s talk about increasing teachers’ salaries which I think is important so we can draw people here. I know there were a lot of vacancies just in Los Alamos County for teachers and it is even worse in other parts of her district.”
The rural areas definitely need support, Chandler noted. She said when she was out and about talking in places like Gallina and that area, there is definitely need for support for the schools.
“That’s an issue that the district shares across the board. Los Alamos has traditionally been interested in making sure our kids get a good education. We share that view with everybody – every parent wants their kids to get a good education,” she said.
Asked about what County issues she is sad to leave behind, Chandler said the County is in the middle of a lot of project including efforts to increase affordable housing.
“We’re making a little headway in terms of the rental market with the apartment complexes coming in. We need to look for ways to increase affordable housing for purchase. I’m sad to be leaving that behind but I think at the Legislature we can look at the affordable housing statute and see what more we can do to help to the extent available with capital monies that would support affordable housing here and other places,” she said. “There are efforts underway to expand the wide array of housing here. The current council and the next council are committed to that. You can see it happening.”
On the state level, Chandler said she is really interested in tax reform, trying to make sure the state has a stable long-term tax base. She noted that oil and gas prices are already dropping and that the state needs to broaden and diversify its tax base.
“I’m going into this session with the idea that I might have a handful of bills to introduce – maybe specialty bills – not earth-shattering or big policy bills, in part because there are so many already in the hopper that have been filed time and time again these last few sessions. I am looking to support those initiatives that there’s already been a lot of groundwork on,” she said.
Chandler said her experience in office at a local officer makes her a little unique.
“There are people in the Legislature who have held office on a local level but not as many as you would like. I think it’s important to have people like that in the Statehouse. The state has a huge effect on local communities and I think legislators who haven’t had the local experience don’t appreciate the effect or impositions they are placing on the local governments. I think they’re oblivious sometimes,” she said.
Her parting advice to the new Council members?
“Do your own homework particularly when it’s a big issue like the small nuclear reactor. Don’t rely on everything that’s given to you. Go out and seek your own information and make a point of reaching out to people who disagree with you, whether it’s on the Council or in the public because what you’re going to find out is if you reach out to those people you are going to learn some things. You may still disagree, but you will have been given the opportunity to explain to those people you’re dealing with why. And they’ll appreciate it. Not only that, you might modify your view which has happened to me,” Chandler said. “People want to feel like they’re being listened to. You don’t always have to do what they want, but they want to believe that you’re listening.”
She cited the need to deal with the “bread and butter of people’s daily lives” which is mainly true of local government where your goal in life is to provide services to people.
“I’m going to carry this philosophy on to the Legislature. I know Los Alamos and I’m certainly going to try and keep in touch with Los Alamos but I’m definitely spending time in rural communities so that they understand that I’m not just here for one sector,” she said.