David Cargo, the former Republican governor, was honored last week in the state Roundhouse with the unveiling of a bronze bust in his likeness. The crowd that gathered for the ceremony included Gov. Susana Martinez, out of respect for one of her predecessors, and a host of friends and relatives out of loyalty to this man and the mark he made on New Mexico.
Interestingly, Cargo observed that there were probably more Democrats in the audience than Republicans, which illustrates a sad reality to politics today.
Cargo is among the last of a breed of Republicans who were, in their day, remarkably liberal. That’s right, liberal Republicans. For a while they were referred to as Rockefeller Republicans in deference to Nelson Rockefeller, New York governor from 1959 to 1973 and vice president under President Gerald Ford in the mid-’70s. Rockefeller ran three times for president as the leader of a moderate wing of his party, but the conservatives took over the GOP with such nominees as Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the Rockefeller Republicans had been successfully pushed aside for a richly conservative base that dominates the party to this day.
But in the context of the 1960s’ Republican Party, Cargo emerged as governor of New Mexico. He made a name for himself as both a representative and an Albuquerque attorney who effectively forced proportional district representation into law. As one of the youngest governors in U.S. history — he was only 37 when elected — Cargo reorganized state government, diversified power, brought in the movie industry and ran the state during some of the most tumultuous times in modern history.
His successes as governor were due in large part to his support in northern New Mexico — a heavily Democratic region that Cargo worked diligently and effectively. Consequently, he always speaks fondly of this area — and particularly of Las Vegas and Mora, which he referred to often at last week’s Roundhouse gathering.
Cargo clearly had fun speaking at the event, firing quips and barbs off in a number of directions. In one tale about his political relationship with “Mama Lucy” Lopez, 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.’”
My favorite quip of the day was when he boasted of raising the wages of state workers after getting in office. “I believe in paying people well because I want everyone to feel like they’re a Republican,” he said, drawing a healthy round of laughter and applause.
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A lot of people in northern New Mexico have a great affinity for Cargo. He did a lot for our area. I too like the man, but perhaps for a different reason. I admire him because of his association with the Rockefellers.
You see, when I was growing up in Arkansas, we had a Rockefeller of our own. Winthrop Rockefeller, Nelson’s brother. After 10 years of Gov. Orval Faubus and his segregationist policies, Win Rockefeller was elected governor, as sort of a backlash to what conservative Democratic had wrought upon the state.
During those times, Rockefeller’s election was an anomaly in Arkansas. He was the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction. And while the state’s Democrats kept this liberal Republican governor somewhat hamstrung during his four years in office, Rockefeller was instrumental in ushering in a new breed of progressive Democrats. First came Dale Bumpers. Then David Pryor. Then, Bill Clinton.
During those same years in which Rockefeller was serving as governor of Arkansas, his friend David Cargo was running New Mexico.
Those were some great Republicans. Too bad there’s no room for them in the GOP today.
Tom McDonald is the Optic’s editor and publisher. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or email@example.com