Bruce King Was The Last Cowboy Governor — Anywhere

He was New Mexico’s longest-serving chief executive

(Note: I wrote this a week in advance of Bruce King’s funeral, so I had no idea Bill Clinton would be there and deliver the eulogy. More surprising, he told the same story Bruce King had told me many years ago – how they used to meet for early-riser breakfasts at governors’ conferences. It occurred to me the breakfasts must have meant something to both men, like father and son, and when I mentioned the coincidence to Clinton afterwards as he mingled for old times’ sake at El Comedor in Moriarty, NM, he held the handshake and told the story again.)

He was the last cowboy governor. Things have changed so much in the West it’s not likely we’ll see another like Bruce King, who knew what it was like to work a cow pony or hunker down by a tin stove in a line shack in a blizzard. He was proud to call himself a cowboy, and he was completely at ease in dress boots and a business suit.

But no hat. He didn’t wear the hat. To turn a Texas phrase, he and his brothers were all cattle, no hat.

With Bruce King politics was personal. He used a lot of body English – the big double handshake, the slap on the back, the nudge, the elbow to the ribs, the wink. “He was either the warmest politician I ever met or a pickpocket,” former President Bill Clinton once said. As Arkansas governor Clinton understudied King at meetings of the National Governors’ Association, of which King was vice chair. Both early risers, they would have breakfast together and talk politics, King once recalled.

He won his first election as governor in 1970 without taking any scientific polls. Why waste the money? “I knew two-thirds of the people in the state back then,” he explained in his memoir, “Cowboy In The Roundhouse.”

It’s true, he seemed to know everybody. Even in old age when he clomped through the capitol during a legislative session he had a thousand friends.

I once asked him about his remarkable ability to remember names. He confided a little trick that would interest mnemonics researchers. He packaged the information. “The first thing I try to remember is where they’re from. Then when I see them I say, ‘How are things down in Los Lunas?’ and pretty soon the name comes along.”

King was a Stanley High School graduate. He and Alice Martin, his wife who preceded him in death, were high school sweethearts. He went to the Army in 1944 instead of college, serving in the occupation of postwar Japan. The late broadcaster Ernie Mills used to run through King’s political resume and quip: “Just think where he might have gone if he’d had an education!”

Words sometimes escaped King. It was not unusual for him to complete a sentence in an interview with, “. . .and so on and so forth.” Just after he succeeded David F. Cargo in January 1971, I interviewed him in the governor’s office, which was bare. The flags, the pictures and most notably an official Apollo 11 memento with moon rock fragments, were gone.

“He didn’t leave a doggone thing but that one woodpecker,” King said, with a gesture toward a wood bird on a cabinet.

It was a carving of a roadrunner presented to the state by Jack Campbell as he left office in 1966. Cargo replied, brushing up an idiom, “Tell that hay-kicker the state bird is a roadrunner!” It was the kind of malapropism that haunts politicians, and a state political cartoonist subsequently always drew King with a roadrunner on his shoulder. King with characteristic good humor made it a symbolic asset, creating a gubernatorial citation called “New Mexican Roadrunner.”

King and his brothers grew up as hard working ranch kids during the Great Depression. Their father played enough politics to get a district highway department job, and after his army service Bruce won election to the Santa Fe County Commission, then to the state House, where he worked his way up to speaker, 1963-1968.

Forty years ago in August, 70 New Mexicans elected from House districts to rewrite the state constitution gathered in Santa Fe. They included King among the high-minded lawyers, educators, business leaders and young activists. But they could not get along. They adjourned immediately and bickered behind the scenes for the next six weeks about organization and officers. Finally in late September an agreement was struck and they convened in the House chamber for their allotted 30 days.

The gavel rapped that afternoon and a cowboy voice called out from the rostrum: “The convention will come to order!” A wave of emotion passed through the chamber. The delegates applauded and some cheered. King had negotiated enough compromises to bring them together, with himself as convention president.

Their eventual product was rejected in a special election on Dec. 9, 1969, but many of the features of the proposed new constitution would be ratified, piecemeal, in the ensuing years. And King, relying in part on the contacts and friendships he had made in the convention, ran for governor the next year, winning by nearly 14,000 votes.

Democrat King, 46, had no ambition for anything higher than governor. (He once kicked an aggressive New York Times reporter out of his office, explaining to us later, “I’d rather deal with you guys. You’ll always be here.”) This attitude was probably wise, regardless, because the New Mexico governorship is a notorious dead end. You make too many enemies. Campbell and Cargo both left the state, temporarily, after their terms. Nobody in modern times, not Cargo, not Jerry Apodaca, not Toney Anaya, has been able to step from governor to U.S. senator by election.

So King’s defeat of the Albuquerque city commission chairman in the 1970 governor’s race did the rising young Republican a favor. Pete Domenici went on to become the state’s longest-serving U.S. Senator. Similarly, when King was next constitutionally eligible to run for governor, in 1978, he defeated Republican Joe Skeen, who went on to serve a dozen terms in Congress from southern New Mexico.

Domenici, elected senator in 1972, succeeded retiring Democrat Clinton P. Anderson, whom King respected and followed. Anderson had sought the honor of being state Democratic national committeeman, but a new faction of the party rudely denied it to him. Anderson and his supporters were very unhappy. “Many of them felt the Democratic Party at the state level had fallen under the control of a small group of liberals,” King said in his book. He believed this contributed to Domenici’s defeat of Democrat Jack Daniels.

The party split also affected the legislature, where a group calling themselves The Mama Lucy Gang (after the proprietor of a Las Vegas. N.M., restaurant) took control of the House. “To balance what I felt was their excessive liberalism and override the Mama Lucy votes, I helped form a bloc of conservative, east-side Democrats and Republicans, which became known as the Cowboys,” King confessed in his book.

Ever the moderator and compromiser, King added: “Even though it sounds like a gridlock-type situation, we could work together and we all remained friends. Sometimes Hispanic representatives voted with the Cowboys, and Anglos with the Mama Lucies, so there was never a purely racial or ethnic split.”

King won his third non-consecutive term in 1990, beating Republican Frank Bond by nearly 40,000 votes. But four years later when he ran for a consecutive fourth term (made possible by a constitutional amendment) at age 70 he was defeated decisively by athletic urban Republican Gary Johnson. The party split was a factor, in that King’s lieutenant governor, Casey Luna, ran against him in the primary and his running mate from the first two terms, Roberto Mondragon, ran against him in the general as a Green, capturing what might have been the margin of victory.

King learned his politics when a candidate’s reputation was communicated person to person. But by 1994, politics was all polls and consultants and TV time. “The grapevine doesn’t work anymore,” he said.

As to his enemies within, he came up with a characteristically creative cliché. “I’m not angry. . . but I’m not in a position of holding olives’ leaves if they aren’t going to accept them on face value.”

A final anecdote. One day when I was a reporter I had an urgent question (I don’t recall about what) for the governor, but King was missing, and his office did not know where he was. This was unusual. When I finally got to see him late in the day he was sitting alone in his office wearing a black suit and black boots. He had been to a burial.

He was sipping a cup of coffee, a rare thing for a man who seldom drank anything stronger than water.

“Sam Hill died,” he said.

Who? Sam, it turned out, was an old cowboy who had worked on the King ranch. So far as I could determine his only visitor as he lay dying in Bernalillo was the governor.

King recalled that one spring he and Sam were out counting cows and got snowbound in a line shack, where they built a fire. “It was cold. That’s how I got started drinking coffee,” the governor said, raising his cup.

On Saturday it was our turn to bury an old cowboy and raise a cup.