Resilient mayor looks forward
By Susie Ouderkirk
Las Cruces Bulletin
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima is resilient, if nothing else.
The newly re-elected Las Cruces mayor tends to land on his feet, regardless of the stumbling blocks that crop up in front of him. At 5 years old, he survived a lightning strike that hit a tent he and his siblings and friends were playing in at the Miyagishima home in Alamogordo. The neighborhood friends were enjoying a game of Monopoly, when their dog Blackie stood up, stuck his nose out the door flap, sniffed once, and drew himself back into the tent. He stood quiet and still for several seconds, and then a bolt of lightning hit the tree above the tent.
The shock wave flung the children three feet into the air, still in their crosslegged positions. The sound was horrifying and huge. The event made the
MIYAGISHIMA local paper; one of the Miyagishima brothers was knocked unconscious, but no one was seriously hurt except for Blackie. Like a faithful guardian angel, the dog took the brunt of the lightning strike, saving the children.
Miyagishima recently survived a (less lethal) political storm when he won his third term as Las Cruces mayor, amid an aggressive assault by political rivals which included out-of-town PAC money, thousands of mud-slinging flyers and the dredging up of an old police file. But Mayor Ken, as many people call him, just stuck it out and kept moving forward.
“I was exhausted after the negative campaign,” he said. Not knowing it was coming blindsided the mayor, as he scrambled to do damage control. But to his surprise, the people of Las Cruces came out in big numbers on Election Day and overwhelmingly voted to keep him in office.
He must be doing something right. But he seems a little unsure of what that is, exactly. When asked if he can finally have a “Sally Field moment,” (she famously announced at the Oscars, “You like me. You really like me!”) Miyagishima shrugged and said, “I’m not really sure what that’s about.”
Instead of dwelling on the fortuitous election, he’d rather talk about the elements of his politics that make him proud.
“One thing I really am proud of is a program I have, which was started in 2008, for third-graders.” He initiated the Mayor’s Award on Education eight years ago as an incentive program to keep kids in school.
“I go in and we talk about why they need to go to school and graduate. They get a certificate that says they promise to graduate, and they sign it and I sign it.” Throughout the years, he checks in with the third graders as they mature to remind them of their contract.
“I’ll tell them that I remember signing the certificate, and that they can’t break their promise.”
During the last eight years, 14,000 kids have come through the program.
“2018 is the graduation year of the very first class,” he explained, “so I’m excited to see how many have stayed in school. That’s important to me.” In fact, Mayor Ken would like to see Las Cruces have the highest high school graduation rate in the state.
“It could happen,” he insists.
The Mayor’s Award program for third graders is two-fold: “The second part is the fitness and nutrition challenge,” which he initiated in collaboration with the state. In addition to promising to graduate, third graders within the 25 participating elementary schools also agree to eat a healthy diet, which is something that touches him personally.
“One of my heroes is my brother, James,” Miyagishima said. James has diabetes which resulted in the loss of his eyesight, his foot and one of his kidneys. He is a kidney transplant recipient who lost everything he had, including his business.
“He lost a lot, but he never gave up. I mean— wow!”
As for Miyagishima’s politics, he knows that one of the top issues he has to tackle is economic development. Although the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce endorsed candidates opposing the mayor, he still considers himself a business owner and points out that, “Our gross receipts are up from previous years.”
He mentions the climate, the people, the public school system and New Mexico State University as important factors in that growth. Although some groups made an effort to unseat him as someone unfriendly to growth and development, Miyagishima notes that, “Our area is one of the few places in New Mexico that is growing,” and he’s supportive of the high tech aerospace industries.
He’s even an ex-officio board member for the chamber this year.
After reaching out to the local Homebuilder’s Association, he said, “We have some things we’re working on.”
He’s allocated $400,000 for automated planned review software, which will make it possible for building plans to be scanned and sent around via email, rather than having to be handwalked all around town. This will reduce the wait time for builders from weeks to days.
“We’ve also hired a business liaison to help business owners more quickly and efficiently navigate the permitting process, and we will be cross training inspectors,” to streamline the building process, he said.
Just after the election in November of this year, Miyagishima approached the Greater Las Cruces Chamber to set up a meeting and address the issues head on.
Although he has yet to meet formally with the Chamber (Bill Allen, the current Chamber CEO recently submitted his resignation to take a job in Michigan), Miyagishima said he will open a dialog about what he feels is best for Las Cruces, which does not include the city endorsing candidates in elections. But, he adds, “I’m not going to let this interfere because we have to move forward.”
The mayor is enthusiastic about new infrastructure going up around town.
The new combination police and fire station, to be located at the corner of Lohman Ave. and Sonoma Ranch Boulevard, is in the works.
He’d also like Las Cruces City Manager Robert Garza to reconsider his recent retirement announcement.
“Robert should not retire. He has the ability to bring people together. The people of Las Cruces should learn more about him before he leaves,” the mayor insists. Garza is a friend and role model for Miyagishima, who also admires Bruce Lee and John F. Kennedy.
He once met Donald Trump in Japan and they shook hands. The only thing Miyagishima took away from the encounter was that “His hair wasn’t done. It was white.”
The citizens of Las Cruces made it clear that they appreciate the mayor, and he appreciates them right back.
“Our people and their compassion speak volumes. Things like Tough Enough to Wear Pink and Cowboys for Cancer Research mean a lot. Las Cruces is filled with people who care about each other and are giving,” he said.
Had he not won the election in November, he would have cheerfully changed paths to spend more time with his wife and children, and would have turned attention back to his insurance business. No worries; just a shift of course.
One final question is of vital importance to the mayor’s Las Cruces constituents: Red or Green?
“Oh. That’s hard. It’s red enchiladas with an egg on top, but green enchiladas with chicken and sour cream,” Miyagishima explained, once again deftly navigating a tricky obstacle.