Quality of Life is Key: A Talk with Mr. James Lewis by Sean Cardinalli
Former State Treasurer James Lewis is a proud New Mexican through-and-through. But his pride doesn’t blind him to the work needed to improve the Land of Enchantment’s political, economic, and educational disadvantages. He has much to say when it comes to black New Mexicans coming together over issues prevalent in our community. He also speaks in great detail about issues endemic to the entire state. And when he speaks on these matters, he does so with a measured combination of certitude, concern, and hope born from years of experience.
James Lewis – HIStory
Mr. Lewis was born in Roswell, attended grade school in Albuquerque, and became a high school football phenomenon in Gallup, where his parents had moved to open a restaurant. Though he came up through the tensions of the Civil Rights Era, Mr. Lewis says he “could go anywhere [in Gallup] and people would welcome” him. He got his bachelor’s degree in education from Bishop College and his master’s degree in public administration from UNM.
Mr. Lewis had two tenures as state treasurer, in both the eighties and again in the aughts until just 2 years ago, when he was termed out. Recently, Mr. Lewis was installed as president of the UNM Alumni Association and quickly found himself involved in a dispute with the Board of Regents over upgrades to the Dr. Karen Abraham Courtyard in the campus’s southwest corner. Mr. Lewis hopes the work can be clarified and completed before the Lobos’ homecoming week.
Still, much of Mr. Lewis’s time these days is spent working with various civic leaders, politicians, and clergy on the well-being of black New Mexicans.
Optimistic Aspirations for New Mexico
Hope-inspired action is all in a week’s work for Mr. Lewis, who splits his time traveling around the country (and recently, Canada) to encourage investors and vendors to settle in New Mexico to help boost the economy. Mr. Lewis’s discussions with other community leaders often focuses, therefore, on the city and state’s economic strengths and weaknesses. He critiques a withering New Mexico infrastructure as the reason why the state struggles to attract more high-end companies.
Neither the city of Albuquerque nor the state of New Mexico currently supports the kind of development of say, a Dallas, Denver, or Phoenix. Despite over 300 days of sunshine and plenty of cultural breadth and depth, “we’re rural, spread out.” Mr. Lewis laments we’re “dead last in education.” Being in the high desert, we have a water supply issue which discourages more construction, and our poverty rate is far too high. Crime, of course, is also a deterrent to some enterprising companies and their families.
The litany of disadvantages seems daunting but Mr. Lewis appreciates what the state does well when it comes to oil and gas, its science labs, and its military bases. His focus is bringing in more private sector opportunities to the state, potentially mirroring the success of the movie business. The local film industry, he happily shares, has bolstered the tax base and has a “multiplier” effect on the economy. Mr. Lewis wants to herald more such growth opportunities in the Land of Enchantment.
The Future of Black New Mexicans
As to black New Mexicans, Mr. Lewis wants to raise the black community’s profile—it’s cultural and economic viability—to state leaders and local businesses. By getting local African Americans better-versed in our civic, economic, and political impact, we can better affect our quality of life overall. He wants young, black entrepreneurs to stick around and invest locally, and looks to economic incentives successfully run by such disparate cities as Oklahoma City and Baltimore. He doesn’t want “young people to leave for the competition for jobs in other states,” and is very concerned about Millennials’ out-migration.
In order for black folks to be heard, and to get and stay connected, Mr. Lewis sees the important role of contemporary portals, sites and blogs (including Weekly EQ) as connectors which might post resume banks, civic board opportunities, and a master community calendar. He sees promise in the increasing success of the Black Expo, the Office of African American Affairs, and in coalition-building with local Latinos and Natives Americans, especially those groups’ Chambers of Commerce.
Mr. Lewis sees the OAAA as crucial in the function of compiling and communicating critical data about black lives to the powers-that-be. “It’s important we have a state body to advocate” for us, because in 2016, we’re still “the invisible community.” We have to present to our elected representatives our graduation rates, our job rates, our incarceration rates. He expects a comprehensive model of empirical data could affect future legislation on behalf of black folk and finally garner attention for us where it’s sorely needed.
Mr. Lewis waxes nostalgic about how years ago, black Burqueños were concentrated in a thriving south Broadway community. “We had our own cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, record shops. There were black businesses up and down the street.” Now, community cohesiveness is more difficult because we’re sprinkled throughout the city and state. Mr. Lewis longs for—and fights for—that same sense of promise and African American camaraderie of yesteryear in today’s tense political and economic atmosphere.