2014: Out with the old, in with the … old?

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By Hal Rhodes

At years end reflections on some of the people and events that helped shape the political news during the final weeks of 2013 seem appropriate.
Preeminent among those people, in this reporter’s opinion, is the late John Dendahl.
For anyone who has paid the slightest attention to New Mexico political affairs over the past quarter of a century, John’s passing at age 75 on Nov. 9 is cause for remembrance. Dendahl was a sophisticated man, graceful in comportment and gracious in manner, a witty and bright conversationalist, with a sense of humor as keen as his political passions.
I liked him.
But he was a fierce political adversary who spent nearly a decade (1994-2003) as New Mexico Republican Party chairman, a post in which his seemingly natural instinct for the jugular could stun and enrage political opponents of the Democratic persuasion.
I once told John that he was easily the most partisan person I had ever known, Republican or Democrat. He laughed and said, “Well, thank you, Hal. Coming from you, that’s a compliment.”
In a way, it was.
Dendahl twice ran for governor, but his political gifts shown most brightly during his sojourn as GOP chairman when he helped bring along promising new political talents for his party, even as he pioneered some of the slash-and-burn political tactics so familiar today.
Two of his favorite targets were then-Democratic state House Speaker Raymond Sanchez and then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon.
They were rarely out of John’s line of fire.
He acknowledged that the two men were “very different,” that “Raymond is a pretty straight arrow,” whereas he added, not for attribution, “Manny is a crook. But,” he continued during an interview for a piece I was writing, “I always lump them together.”
And lump them together he did.
In the election of 2000, GOP Chairman Dendahl fortuitously found a Republican candidate whose surname was also Sanchez to run against the Democratic Speaker and so successfully did he link Speaker Sanchez to Senate Majority Leader Aragon in voters’ minds that an unknown Republican, John Sanchez, defeated the far better-known Sanchez, Raymond.
Today that John Sanchez is lieutenant governor of New Mexico. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Dendahl was somewhat prescient in characterizing Manny Aragon as “a crook.”
Barely a month after Dendahl’s death, Manny Aragon was released from federal prison in Colorado, where he spent four and a-half years for his role in pilfering $45 million intended for construction of a court house in Bernalillo County.
Can coincidences be ironic?
Another Dendahl protégé is also much in the news at year’s end. Actually Jay McCleskey has pretty much been in the news since he orchestrated Republican Gov. Susana Martinez election in 2010.
But McCleskey’s rise to prominence in state Republican affairs began under the tutelage of John Dendahl. McCleskey had managed John Sanchez’s campaign for the state House and Dendahl apparently liked what he saw, a kindred spirit perhaps, in the ambitious, no-holds-barred 26- or 27-year-old.
Soon, thereafter, Jay McCleskey was elevated to the post of state GOP executive director where he remained until John Dendahl relinquished the party’s chairmanship in 2003. Today McCleskey is Gov. Martinez’s top political operator, alter ego — the “Ghost Governor” he’s been called.
Last week, when the governor announced that she will be raising money for her heretofore vainglorious attempt to overturn the law permitting illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, it was McCleskey who explained that this effort is a part of her reelection campaign.
2014 will be new, but in New Mexico John Dendahl’s signature will glimmer through it.