Remembering (From A Journalistic Distance) The Boss Of Rio Arriba County, NM

The man who put patron in patronage

Emilio Naranjo, who died last week at 92, was at the top of his game in the mid-1960s when I immigrated to New Mexico as a sort of foreign correspondent. His game was political bossism, and he almost always won. He once said, in a rare radio interview, “If it weren’t for politics, what kind of government would we have?”

In the old days in New Mexico, politics meant party loyalty and some pretty shady tactics in the name of “getting out the vote.” The first press-room legend I heard about Rio Arriba County told how a reporter in Albuquerque phoned the county clerk late on the night of a close election involving a certain Democrat, call him Joe the Politician.

Without identifying himself, the reporter said, “Hey, how many votes does Joe have up there?”

“I don’t know,” the voice on the other end answered. “How many does he need?”

I used the word “legend” here because like most of the stories about Emilio — ballot boxes floating down the Rio Chama, bags of election-day money dropped from airplanes — it probably never happened. And Emilio, probably, never got rich at what he did. He was chairman of the county’s Democratic Party Central Committee for the better part of four decades. It was the party that gave him power and sent him campaign money, but money was not the name of the game.

What’s not legendary are the election results when he was chairman, from about 1953 to 1994. Politicians did the math: Rio Arriba had more voting Democrats than all but the three most populous counties in the state. If, in a general election, a Democrat came out of Rio Arriba with plus-6,000 votes (not unusual) that would wash out the minus-6,000 total from all the Republican counties put together, including Chaves and (in those days) San Juan. In a close statewide election, Rio Arriba could be more important than Bernalillo.

The power of Rio Arriba was double in Democratic primaries. Candidates slated by Emilio won. (To slate is not a particularly honorable verb in the media dictionary. Imagine the Statue of Liberty with a slate of candidates in her left hand).

Very few Democratic politicians (Toney Anaya comes to mind as an exception) got anywhere without Emilio’s expensive blessing. He was close to U.S. Sen. Joseph M. Montoya and a friend of often-Gov. Bruce King, among other Democrats. A Republican governor, Dave Cargo, probably got the nod too, in a time of deep Democratic Party division, because his wife was Hispanic. Journalists try to avoid talking ethnicity, but it had everything to do with Emilio’s career (and his allergy to Anglo journalists). While Rio Arriba was 80 percent Democrat, it was also 95 percent Hispanic.

In this spirit The Almanac of American Politics, bible of pundits, kept repeating: “For many years New Mexico politics was a somnolent business. Local bosses — first Republican, later Democratic — controlled the large Hispanic vote. Elections in many counties featured irregularities that would have made a Chicago ward committeeman blush. New Mexico also had for years another evidence of boss-controlled politics, the balanced ticket.”

Gov. Bill Richardson called Emilio’s passing last week “the end of a unique political era in New Mexico,” implying that the game is over. But there is a way of looking at politics that implies the game is not over, that it in fact has been professionalized, televised, nationalized.

I have in mind a startling argument in Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” about bossism as a political force. “Forty or fifty years ago,” he wrote, “that force would have been the party apparatus: the big city bosses, the political fixers, the power brokers in Washington who could make or break a career with a phone call. Today, that force is the media.”

Obama might have saved this false comparison if he had been more specific. There are indeed media commentators who operate, in an abstract way, like political bosses. But few, if any, can raise the dead and have them vote — a power sometimes attributed to Emilio.

This, of course was just a legend. But the unpurged registration rolls in Rio Arriba were not. Emilio’s lists, so to speak, were suspect. One by-the-book secretary of state, Stephanie Gonzales, decided to take him on. She found that a quarter of the registered voters in 1990 were names with blank addresses and another quarter were names with invalid addresses, such as a P.O. box number without a post office or simply “Albuquerque” or “Los Alamos.”

Gonzales’ findings were published in my column along with the observation that the county clerk was one of Emilio’s nephews. The Rio Arriba boss, then also a state senator, subsequently paid Stephanie a visit. I asked him in the capitol hall afterward for a comment, which he had declined to give earlier by not returning my phone calls (as usual).

“I think the public should be informed people are not going to be purged and they can vote in the same place. People have been calling me saying, ‘What’s happening? Where are we going to vote?’ These people need to know they’re not going to be purged,” he said.

“If I ran every office, I wouldn’t have time to run my own business,” he said, referring, no doubt, to the county clerk’s office and his Española restaurant. “The press is misinforming the public.” He looked at me squarely and added, “No offense.” I appreciated that. Emilio was a gentleman. He was known to be cool and perceptive about people. The legend was that he began his career selling household goods door to door. He knew his territory. And the people knew him.

It’s significant that the American Civil Liberties Union took his side, threatening to take Stephanie to court. In a letter, ACLU lawyer Philip Davis of Albuquerque wrote her that any attempt to purge solely on the basis of an inadequate address was unlawful and “will have a vastly disproportionate effect on Hispanics and Native Americans registered to vote in Rio Arriba County and in other counties.” In this sense, Emilio might have been seen as defender of civil rights, but his most obvious following was because of patronage (spelled a little like patrón).

It was said that he could get you a job. Even when he was not county manager, he still controlled county hiring, and he could always get in to see a governor.

It was said that he could get you off in a criminal case. Juan Valdez, convicted of assault in the shooting of New Mexico State Police Officer Nick Saiz during the famed Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid, was pardoned by King at Emilio’s behest. (Valdez, a family man with a logging business, never got in trouble again.)

It was said that he could get you arrested. Even when Emilio was not serving as county sheriff, he had a great deal of influence over law enforcement. Sheriff’s deputies attended party central committee meetings and, on one videotape, helped conduct the vote. Moises Morales, another courthouse-raid defendant, who along with Ike DeVargas openly opposed Emilio in an election, was arrested on marijuana charges. His successful defense — that the evidence was planted by sheriff’s deputies — led to a perjury conviction of Emilio.

The 1967 courthouse raid of land-grant activist Reies Lopez Tijerina came at the zenith of Emilio’s power. He was New Mexico’s U.S. Marshal at the time and had temporarily resigned as the Democrats’ county chairman, but the raid had to be humiliating. County officials including his son, the sheriff, were severely harassed. The undersheriff was beaten. The county jailer was wounded by gunfire. A deputy was taken hostage.

Tijerina, however, was targeting the Santa Fe district attorney and Anglos in general, not Emilio and his machine, but some seeds were planted on that rainy day. The raid would become legend and the raiders, heroes.

In 1996, Emilio’s slate was shattered. Among the winners in the Democratic primary (who always went on to win in the general) was Morales against one of Emilio’s candidates for county commissioner. And Emilio himself was defeated for re-election to the state senate by Arthur Rodarte. How many votes did Emilio have? 3,474. How many did he need? Another 62. And they weren’t there.