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SANTA FE — As part of this column’s centennial coverage, I am pleased to write about colorful legislators. I may miss a few from the early days before I arrived on the scene.
I begin with Louise Coe, the first woman elected to the state Senate. Her political rise was not easy. Women had attained the right to vote only six years earlier. Coe went on to become president pro tem of the Senate. She is the only woman ever elected to that position.
A strong, determined woman, Coe married into a Lincoln County ranching family that included George and Frank Coe who rode with Billy the Kid. Her husband Wilber Coe stayed home to run the Coe’s Ranch on the Ruidoso, the title of Wilbur’s autobiography.
Because of Coe’s unaccompanied status in Santa Fe, many stories grew around her, some of which she confesses in her book, “Lady and the Law Books.”
In 1940, she left the Legislature to run unsuccessfully for Congress.
Former state Rep. Tweeti Blancett, was part of a longtime San Juan County ranching family also related to the Coes. Tweeti had a rather brief but colorful career in the Legislature and still appears in the news occasionally complaining about how natural gas developers treat her ranchland.
Tweeti brings up the interesting category of colorful names in the Legislature. Toots Green, of Alamogordo, was a House Republican leader. At the same time, Smiley Gallegos, of Clovis, was a House Democratic leader.
The aforementioned were still in the Legislature when “Lucky” Luciano Varela was elected from Santa Fe. These aren’t just nicknames we’re talking about. These names appeared on the ballot. I didn’t know of Varela’s good reputation when he first ran, so I just couldn’t bring myself to check the name of an infamous mobster.
Sen. Les Houston was an intimidating leader. He began his legislative career as a Democrat but switched to Republican during the turbulent 1980s. Houston immediately became the Republican Senate floor leader. His battles with Democratic leader Manny Aragon are legendary.
Behind the scenes, the two likely had some laughs about their floor antics. But on the floor, they were bitter. And Houston usually won. He once was challenged that one of his maneuvers was illegal. Anything for which I can get 22 votes is legal, Houston firmly replied..
Despite his fierce manner, Houston privately admits that he cries at Lassie movies.
My vote for the most colorful legislator goes to Tom Benavides, of Albuquerque’s South Valley, which he once tried to get named Benavides County. Tom has been a member of both the House and Senate and both the Democratic Party and Green Party. He also may have been a member of the Republican Party for a while.
Tom wore an eye patch, which may have been a tipoff to his demeanor and loyalties. He looked like a good time guy but he didn’t drink and had the stamina to be the last man standing during late night floor sessions.
Long after everyone else had lost interest, Tom would sneak something through, like a bill to send him to Spain for a Quincentennial celebration. The bill didn’t fare as well in the House the following day, but somehow Tom managed to arrange a special bottling of Benavides wine, a bottle of which resides somewhere in my house.
Many shenanigans were pulled by members of both houses to avoid being present for controversial votes. The State Police search for members in all sorts of hiding places.
One night during a “Call of the Senate,” Benavides was spotted at a reception for a visiting Spanish dignitary in Albuquerque. Police tracked him down but Benavides eluded them.
The following day, Benavides was questioned by leaders on the floor of the Senate as to his absence the night before. Benavides answered that he was, in fact, present and in his seat but that he was having an out-of-body experience in Albuquerque.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.