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Former Gov. David F. Cargo died last Friday. He was a former governor for 43 years. That had to be some sort of record. He was elected at 37, New Mexico’s youngest governor ever and one of the youngest ever in the nation.
Cargo was born into a Democratic union family in Michigan. The story is that before leaving Michigan with a master’s degree in political science and a law degree, he researched which state would provide the quickest path to the governor’s office.
The answer was to go to New Mexico and become a Republican. Ten years later he was governor.
But the Republican Party never really was home to Cargo. That’s how he got his nickname “Lonesome Dave.” He didn’t come up with the name but he was proud of it. He said it was easier and cheaper to work alone.
Cargo wasn’t really lonesome. He had many friends. But none of them were in the Republican Party hierarchy. His friends were mainly independents, Hispanics and union members.
Cargo always had trouble winning Republican primaries. His GOP problems never were more obvious than when he had to find someone to run with him for lieutenant governor.
The rule back than was that gubernatorial candidates had to find a running mate even in the primary.
The night before filing day, the Forge at the Inn of the Governors was crammed with Republican leaders from throughout the state. My wife and I were sitting at a table that included Rep. Milnor Rudolph from Mora County.
Cargo came to the table and asked Rudy to run with him. Without a moment’s hesitation Rudolph turned him down. Cargo continued his table hopping.
With no backing and no money, Cargo ran an entirely retail campaign. He had no ads in the papers, or on radio, or television. His motto was “Why buy the back page when I can get the front page free?”
And that he did. Cargo always had a biting quip with a strong message. The media loved him. During his first campaign, Cargo drove the state in a beat up Chevy, painting his name on every roadside rock he could find.
When he ran for reelection, Cargo got a few good-sized donations. His observation: “I have $56,000 to spend this time and I don’t know how I’m ever going to spend it. Today’s campaigns spend 100 times that amount.
Cargo is the first governor to have his bust placed in the state Capitol. That happened two years ago as a result of legislation passed unanimously in the 2011 Legislature.
As with many of Cargo’s doings, the story of how it happened doesn’t seem to make much sense. During the first year of his administration, sculptress Storm Townsend was commissioned to create a bust of Cargo.
Townsend says she doesn’t remember who paid her but she cashed the check at Safeway and had enough money for a nice Thanksgiving turkey. Cargo says he paid her $2,000 out of his own pocket.
The placement of the governor’s bust also raises some questions. It sits between the busts of two territorial legislators near the west entrance of the Capitol.
I can remember seeing those two busts in that location ever since the building was dedicated in 1967. They have been the only busts I ever have seen in the Capitol.
But the joint memorial allowing placement of Cargo’s bust in the Capitol approves its placement in the office of the governor, not in the Rotunda, which the Legislature controls.
Cargo wasn’t just a Democrat in Republican’s clothing. He believed in more limited government than many Republicans do. His budget proposals were measured. He chose as his chief of staff was Marilyn Budke, executive director of the conservative Legislative Finance Committee.
And Cargo almost didn’t bother with a security staff. Red Pack was about it. Cargo said when the two took long trips, he would drive while Pack slept.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.