By Daniel Libit
WisePies Pizza & Salad CEO Steve Chavez doesn’t just care about custom-ordered pies and Lobo hoops. He has broader interests as well.
During the 2016 election cycle, according to records posted by the Secretary of State’s office, Chavez made $37,750 in state-wide political contributions, a very hefty sum. Indeed, a heftier sum than the penalty WisePies would have to pay if it ever bailed on its naming-rights deal with The Pit. (But that’s another matter.)
Chavez’s 2016 political gifts included a $25,000 check to Advance New Mexico Now, the state’s biggest-spending political PAC, which is run by Gov. Susana Martinez’s top advisor Jay McCleskey. Other beneficiaries of WisePies’ dough included State Sen. Greg Baca, State Rep. Nate Gentry, and Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzalez III. Chavez was also supportive of Republican State Senate candidate Candace Gould, which evidently led to this email solicitation of UNM Athletics Director Paul Krebs over the summer.
On June 27, WisePies spokesperson Season Elliott wrote to Krebs’ wife, Marjorie, an assistant professor at UNM, inquiring as to whether she and her husband would co-host a campaign fundraiser for Gould, which Chavez was helping to put together. Elliott wrote:
Steve and I are coordinating a fundraiser for Candace’s state senate run on June 29th from 5:30 p – 7p at Vintage of Paseo in their back private event area. We will be hosting it along with a few others and was hoping to add you and Paul to the hosting list (others include Kevin Yearout & David Doyle). The campaign asks for a $500 donation to be listed as a host. They also ask that you bring 2-3 people to attend the event with a $250 donation per person.
Marjorie Krebs forwarded the email along to her husband, asking how should she respond:
I can respond with “we can’t be seen as formally supporting one candidate over another” type of thing…or you can tell me what to say…
Paul Krebs replied:
Yes, inform Season as state employees we are strongly advised not to have are [sic] name appear in these kinds of events. We will gladly come and invite folks if that helps. We can make another donation.
Campaign finance records show that Marjorie Krebs made two donations to Gould’s campaign this election for a total of $350. Gould’s husband Leland, a top oil lobbyist, is an officer with the Lobo Club. Candace Gould ultimately prevailed on election day, eking out the 10th District State Senate seat by less than 400 votes.
In recent years, the Krebs have donated to both Republicans and Democrats: Governor Martinez (R), Diane Denish (D), Gary King (D), State Auditor Tim Keller (D), State Sen. Mimi Stewart (D), and State Sen. Mark Moores (R), among others.
On its own, there’s nothing wrong with that: university employees are perfectly entitled to participate in the democratic process. But why is The Pit’s naming-rights sponsor trying to hit up the school’s athletics director for a contribution to a state Senate race? Is there an extracurricular relationship between the parties beyond Lobo athletics?
“The Krebs have no connection to WisePies,” Elliott emailed NMFishbowl.com. “I reached out to many community leaders in relation to supporting Gould for Senate.”
Krebs is certainly no stranger to the potential conflicts that can arise when athletics department business intermingles with state politics. In 2008, he took the blame for getting Steve Alford in hot water over a fundraiser for Darren White’s Congressional campaign. Prior to the event, the Albuquerque Journal uncovered a fundraising invitation which sought $1,000 political donations to White’s war chest in exchange for a photo with the Lobo coach. Asked about his involvement in a partisan affair, Alford said he had no idea who White even was, and suggested that his commitment had been entirely at Krebs’ behest. Following the ruckus, Krebs said his department would be more judicious about stump-state separation, going forward:
“We’re very high-profile figures, in the largest city of the state, in the shadow of the state capitol,” Krebs said of all UNM coaches. “I would strongly advocate we not publicly endorse political figures, because I think it jeopardizes our programs and it compromises our fan base.”
In the instant case, the concern is not about a school official publicly advocating for a politician, but about the convolution of conflicting interests. Krebs is the UNM official tasked with administering the naming-rights “gift” agreement for The Pit, a deal that is tendentious enough without a side helping of politics. The other thing to keep in mind is that Chavez is not merely a UNM booster: he’s an influential (and at times controversial) businessman with a number of political and financial tentacles, some of which now caress the hallowed house of Lobodom.
Though Krebs declined the invitation to co-host the Gould fundraiser, records show his wife did make a political contribution to her campaign a week after Elliott’s email.
NMFishbowl.com asked Krebs whether he thought it was appropriate for WisePies to have made this request, or for him to be having political sidebars with the company’s principals. In an email response, he didn’t directly answer those questions, but he did write this: “Season Elliott and Steve Chavez asked my wife and me to co-host a political fundraiser. We declined as I believe it is inappropriate for me to be involved in hosting political fundraisers.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the last name and office of State Sen. Mimi Stewart.
(photo illustration/original by N salazar)