By Jesus L. Lopez
It would happen over a firm handshake between two politicians. One wanted to be governor of New Mexico, the other wanted sweeping change at Highlands University, and each would achieve his goal.
After winning the Democratic primary on June 2, 1970, House Speaker Bruce King knew he would not have an easy time against Republican nominee Pete Domenici, the popular chairman of the Albuquerque City Commission. Pundits predicted a close race, and King feared that Domenici could erode traditional Democratic strong holds. King was especially concerned that as a Roman Catholic who was conversant in Spanish, Domenici would be an attractive candidate to Hispanics in New Mexico’s heavily Democratic northern counties.
As King viewed the election, he would likely lose in Albuquerque and break even in southern New Mexico, and his success depended on traditionally large Democratic majorities in the north. Ascribing to this prognosis, immediately after the Democratic primary, King reached out to northern New Mexico political leaders, including District Attorney Tiny Martinez, San Miguel County’s Democratic boss, who had supported King’s opponent, Jack Daniels, in the primary. (Other powerful Democratic bosses in New Mexico at the time were Rio Arriba County’s legendary Emilio Naranjo, and Filo Sedillo in Valencia County.)
Within a week after the primary election, King was in Las Vegas to meet with Martinez. In his inimitable folksy style, King told Martinez he needed the District Attorney’s enthusiastic support in San Miguel County and other northern counties where Martinez had influence. Martinez’ rejoinder was all about Highlands University, and the contemporaneous events which were overtaking the university, and he told King that change at Highlands was his paramount concern. (The Highlands student protests and occupation of Rodgers Hall had occurred just a week before the primary election, and Martinez had yet to file his lawsuit against the university’s regents.)
Martinez said his only request was that if elected, King appoint Highlands regents who would promote the inclusion of Hispanics in the operation and governance of the school, and who would also be amenable to naming the university’s first Hispanic president. King neither quibbled with Martinez’ quid pro quo, nor did he underestimate its importance to San Miguel County’s political boss. Instead, he told Martinez he was sympathetic to the demands for change at Highlands, and said he would appoint any regents Martinez recommended.
The deal made, Martinez kept his word and ensured that San Miguel County was in King’s column in November, and King carried the county by just under a thousand votes, 3,876 to 2,952. Statewide, King defeated Domenici by 14,000 votes (148,835 to 134,640), and as the savvy House Speaker had predicted, it was the northern counties that gave him the edge over Domenici. (Two years later, in 1972, Domenici would be elected U.S. Senator from New Mexico, defeating former Gov. David Cargo in the Republican primary, and Democrat Jack Daniels in the general election.)
Soon after King won the Nov. 3 general election, he called Martinez to thank him and to assure him that he was prepared to fulfill his promise.
“Just let me know who you want on that Highlands board, and we’ll get them appointed,” King told Martinez. As it turned out, four appointments would be immediately available to King. The terms of Margaret Driscoll, Frank Peloso and Dr. Jose Maldonado (appointed by Gov. Cargo only months earlier to replace Joe L. Otero) would expire Dec. 31 1970, and regent Stuart Beck’s resignation would cause a fourth vacancy. Only John D. Robb would remain as a holdover, two years still remaining of his six-year term.
Martinez soon let close friends and political associates know that King would keep his promise, and that a list of potential regents should be compiled. Within days, dozens of names were submitted to Martinez, and all were carefully considered. Finally, Martinez and his associates settled on 17. They were from all parts of New Mexico, and included educators, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, and even a Catholic priest. Most were friends or acquaintances of Martinez or of his close political associates — and underscoring each name was an implicit understanding that the potential regent would support immediate and dramatic change at Highlands, including the appointment of the university’s first Hispanic president.
When Martinez submitted the list to the governor, King was surprised he had so many choices, and told Martinez he could decide who the four appointees would be. Martinez acknowledged the prerogative, but told King, amusingly, better the governor, than Martinez, incur the displeasure of those not appointed. Ever the consummate politician, King replied, “Oh, we’ll get ‘em on something else, we’ve got plenty of boards and commissions around here.”
Within days, Gov. King called Martinez and told him he had decided on the four regents, and wanted to make sure they were agreeable to Martinez. The appointees soon took their seats on the university’s governing board, as the Highlands Revolution of 1970 continued to reverberate.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.