Wheeler wraps up council career

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Councilor reflects on his time on council and his reluctant first campaign

By Kirsten Laskey

In 2002, Mike Wheeler entered the race for Los Alamos County Council without any glowing aspirations or huge ambitions.
Wheeler’s career as a councilor may have had a modest beginning, but as it draws to a close, this career holds great significance for him.
Wheeler said he became involved in the 2002 elections as result of being active in the Democratic Party. The chairman called to ask if he would consider running because he thought Wheeler would be “electable.”
Wheeler said he agreed, but once a “real” candidate appeared he wanted to be dropped.  When no other candidate showed up, Wheeler seized the responsibility.
He may have initially been reluctant, but Wheeler said he campaigned hard. He said early voting and absentee voting results looked grim but he won the votes on Election Day. “I squeaked out a win,” Wheeler said.
One of his motivations for running for public office was his father-in-law, Bob Thorn, who was acting director and deputy director at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Wheeler said, “I admired him a great deal.”
Besides working at the laboratory, Thorn served on one of the county’s early commissions. Wheeler said Thorn told him the most rewarding job he had was serving on that commission.
Wheeler said he thought that was surprising. Thorn had done so much but public office was what he treasured the most.
Now that his own career on council is wrapping up in December, Wheeler shares his father-in-law’s sentiments. “Serving on the Los Alamos County Council is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” he said. “You end up getting a lot more out of it than you put in.”
Wheeler said he finds this huge gain part of the magic of being a councilor. “Serving on a local level,” he said, “every task the council takes on has a direct impact on the community.”
It wasn’t just his father-in-law who influenced Wheeler as a public official. His grandmother plays a role, too. Wheeler said his grandmother was a “rock solid person” and every time he cast a vote he thinks about what his grandmother would do. This, he said, makes voting simple.
Whether it is recognizing great work or imposing taxes, the council has a huge direct impact on the community. People complain about government and discuss about the lack of confidence in public officials but Wheeler said he feels that local and state elected officials have the best job because of the close connection they have with the community.
There have been other highlights, too. Wheeler said when he first took office, the local budget was in big trouble. As a result, services had to be cut back at the Larry R. Walkup Aquatic Center and the Los Alamos County Library System.
Then, Wheeler said, as if by magic, Sen. Pete Domenici and the administration at the time worked to privatize the lab. Once that happened, the lab started paying state and local taxes, which increased the county’s revenue and allowed the county to replace its infrastructure. One of the pieces he is most proud of is the new waste treatment plant.
“We have replaced almost the entire infrastructure of the community … and I think it has made a big difference,” Wheeler said.
Another bright spot was when reconstruction of the burned area caused by the Cerro Grande Fire was completed. Wheeler said the federal government funded the project.
Plus, he said, relations with Los Alamos’ neighbors including San Ildefonso Pueblo, Rio Arriba, Española, Jemez Springs and other communities have greatly improved.
Wheeler said  former County Councilor Jim West led the effort on regional economic development.  
Constructing the Pajarito Cliffs, building the new animal shelter, improving Diamond Drive are all things Wheeler said he is proud to see accomplished.
His time on council has made an impression on others who have worked with Wheeler.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Mike Wheeler on the council since his first term began,” said Julie Habiger, communications and public relations manager. “Through the years, he has always been very interested in seeking out the public’s opinion on issues and projects, and striving to find ways we can improve our communications with residents and businesses. I’ve always found him to be very straight-forward and to the point both during council meetings and here in the office, and I’ve enjoyed his sense of humor, too.”
County council is a major responsibility, Wheeler said, “I guess over time this job becomes all-consuming and (you) have to remind yourself that you do have a life outside of council.”
For Wheeler, that life includes riding his fitness bicycle, even though when he rides it, he said he usually thinks about the agenda for the next council meeting.
Still, Wheeler said he swims with the Pajarito Aquatic Masters. Up until last December when he hurt his knee, Wheeler was an active skier. He still rides his bike and would love to take a motorcycle trip.
He has lived in Los Alamos for 35 years and retired from working at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s weapons engineering division in 2005.
Looking back at his time in Los Alamos, Wheeler said he is pretty pleased with the community. To live here, he said, and to have an interesting job is a miracle.
He added just after graduating college he did a lot of interviews in different areas throughout the country and there are some horrible places to live. Los Alamos, however, “is just spectacular.”
Wheeler married his wife, Kyle, in 1982. He has two children from a previous marriage and three grandchildren.

Contact Kirsten Laskey at lareporter@lamonitor.com