Former gov, Cargo, dies at age 84

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Helped build libraries in area

The Associated Press 

and Optic Staff

David F. Cargo, a maverick Republican who became the youngest governor of New Mexico and served two terms in the turbulent 1960s, died Friday at the age of 84.

Cargo, a popular figure in both San Miguel and Mora counties, had been in an Albuquerque nursing home for about two years following a stroke, but he had remained active. He suddenly fell ill following a day of Fourth of July activities and died after being taken to an Albuquerque hospital, his son Patrick Cargo of Dallas told The Associated Press.

Cargo’s son remembered his father’s bigger-than-life personality, his humor and love for helping people.

“He was really one of a kind,” the younger Cargo said. 

Although he was a Republican, Cargo carried San Miguel County when he ran for governor in 1966 and 1968. Decades later, he remained proud of the strong support he received from Democrats in this area.

In August 2011, when a bronze bust in his likeness was unveiled at the state Capitol Rotunda, Cargo told the crowd about his close political relationship with “Mama Lucy” Lopez and his affinity for San Miguel and Mora.

He recalled a sign in Las Vegas in 1968, when he was running for re-election. The sign said, “Vote Straight Democrat.”

“Then, just below that sign,” Cargo added, “was another one that said, ‘Re-elect Dave Cargo Governor.’”

Jesus Lopez, an attorney and local historian and the son of “Mama Lucy” Lopez, said no governor in recent history was closer to Las Vegas and northern New Mexico than Cargo.

“He often thought of moving here, and owned a cabin in Rociada for many years,” Jesus Lopez said. 

“He was a liberal Republican who was often more comfortable in Democratic circles than in his own party,” he added.

Cargo worked tirelessly to bring public libraries to remote places, telling the Optic in 2008 that his goal was to educate people out of poverty by building libraries in rural northern New Mexico communities.  

The public libraries in Mora and Anton Chico are named in his honor.

Known as “Lonesome Dave,” Cargo championed the film industry as economic development and established the first state film commission. He also was an early advocate of a policy for apportioning legislative seats that has altered the political landscape in New Mexico over several decades.

Cargo earned his nickname during his first bid for governor in 1966 when he had little support from the GOP and traveled the state alone in a 1959 Chevrolet to campaign in rural areas and small towns typically bypassed by his better-funded Democratic opponent, a longtime state Senate leader.

A sheepherder on horseback, according to Cargo, called him “Lonesome Dave” during a chance encounter when the candidate got out of his car on a muddy road to greet the man. A newspaperman with Cargo used the exchange in a story and the nickname stuck.

“People started seeing me as a guy who was battling business-as-usual and the special interests all by himself. Although I had always been the underdog, the name Lonesome Dave crystallized that in peoples’ minds,” Cargo wrote in an autobiography in 2010.

He exhibited a liberal streak in his political philosophy. He opposed anti-union, right-to-work measures and proposed abolishing the death penalty when he was in the Legislature. In his first year as governor, Cargo urged the Legislature to increase the minimum wage, raise unemployment compensation benefits and start offering state financing for kindergarten programs.

“As the years passed, you realize he really was ahead of his time with a lot of the stuff he was doing,” Patrick Cargo said. “He cared so much about the state that he didn’t mind taking on a lot of those tasks and partnering and really reaching across the aisle.”

Democrats controlled New Mexico when Cargo ran for governor in 1966. Only two other Republicans had won statewide office in the previous three decades. However, he actively courted the votes of organized labor, Hispanics and other minorities that typically backed Democrats. Cargo dismayed the political establishment by winning with nearly 52 percent of the vote statewide.

He took office at age 37, the youngest man ever to serve as governor of New Mexico. He won re-election to another two-year term in 1968.

“New Mexico lost a great friend, a leader and a tireless advocate for all New Mexicans,” current Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement. “Gov. Cargo and I shared a passion for literacy and he dedicated much of his life to it by raising thousands of dollars to help build and maintain 12 libraries throughout rural New Mexico in places like Mora, Anton Chico, Villanueva and Corona. Gov. Cargo will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”

Born in Dowagiac, Mich., Cargo received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan in 1953 and then served two years in the Army in Germany during the Korean War. He earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1957 and moved to New Mexico to practice law.

Cargo was elected to the Legislature in 1962, and he won re-election to another two-year term.

Cargo advocated tougher ethics laws against conflicts of interest by government officials, proposed registering lobbyists and pushed for greater pollution controls. All of those eventually were accomplished, but some by later governors.

After leaving the governorship, Cargo never again won elective office in New Mexico despite campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Congress and mayor of Albuquerque. 

Cargo is survived by his five children — sons, David, Patrick and Eamon, and two daughters, Veronica and Elena.

 Funeral services were being planned.