The lives and legacies of our surviving governors

Call this one of those where-are-they-now pieces, this one on former New Mexico governors. We still have five of them running around, you know.

I saw former Gov. Bill Richardson the other day on television for the first time in a while, lending a reasonable voice to the insanity that is enveloping the showdown between North Korea and the United States. Rhetorically, it’s difficult to discern who’s crazier, Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump, but thankfully there are still voices of diplomacy still out there.

Officially, credit Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as one such voice of reason, and Richardson has said as much. His political imprint goes far beyond his eight years at New Mexico’s chief executive, and when it comes to North Korea he’s in the Rolodex of a lot of news producers out there, as his mug on TV in the last few days has demonstrated.

Richardson has one of the most impressive resumes of any of New Mexico’s former governors. He first got elected to office (thanks in large part to Las Vegas’s last great patron, Donaldo “Tiny” Martinez) in 1983, serving as U.S. representative from New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District. He lasted 14 years in that position, becoming a strong ally to then-President Bill Clinton, who sent him on diplomatic missions to places like Mexico, Iraq, Cuba and, yes, North Korea. Clinton then appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. in 1996 and, in 1998, named him to his cabinet as Secretary of Energy.

In 2002, Richardson ran for governor and won with an impressive 56 percent of the vote. Then he won re-election in 2006 with an astounding 68 percent. Whether you loved him or hated him as governor, you’ve got to say he got things done. The Rail Runner between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the construction of Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences and the legalization of medical marijuana are just three of his lasting legacies.

He also took a shot at the presidency, in 2008, but dropped out early on and threw his support to Barack Obama. But his “pay to play” approach to state politics tainted his reputation and, after Obama’s election, he quietly sank into the background. Now, with his expertise on North Korea, he’s back in the great American news cycle.

His gubernatorial predecessor, Gary Johnson, is also a national figure these days, having run twice for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket. As governor from 1995 through 2002, Johnson was determined to downsize state government, and he did so primarily with his veto pen—so much so that he became known as “Governor No.”

Johnson’s recording-setting number of vetoes as didn’t do much for his political popularity in-state, but it sure enough gave him credentials as a Libertarian. At first, he ran for president in his Grand Old Party, but was roundly snubbed in that partisan arena, so he found a new home in the Libertarian Party. His run last year gave him national notoriety, but a fractured nation only gave him about 3 percent of the total vote.

He was seen last month cycling through Silver City, on one of those extreme races he’s known to participate in (this one spanned the length of the Continental Divide, from southern Canada to the New Mexico Bootheel). When a Silver City Daily Press reporter caught up with him, he seemed blissfully out of touch with politics, focusing more on his race than the national stage.

Meanwhile, Gary Carruthers, governor from 1987 through 1990, has been making news of his own lately. Now the chancellor of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, he had the audacity of suggesting that the state’s 31 publicly funded colleges and universities are too many, given the financial strains they’re in these days. A hotter political potato you’ll not find, but he said it sure enough.

Plus, he’s announced his retirement as NMSU’s chancellor, effective at the end of this year. Just days earlier, he was seen on an NMSU tractor mowing down weeds. Having grown up in Aztec, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture, so maybe he was preparing to return to his roots. (Bad pun intended.)

Not as highly profiled these days, Toney Anaya and Jerry Apodaca are the two remaining former New Mexican governors still living. They served in the 1970s and 1980s, for one term each.

These two former governors have been out of the limelight for some time now, presumably enjoying their retirement years. Anaya, now 76, has spent much of his latter years working with nonprofits on Hispanic issues, especially in the areas of “sanctuaries,” education and politics, while the 82-year-old Apodaca’s name is now attached to his son, who is now running for his old man’s former seat. In May, Jeff Apodaca declared his candidacy for governor, one of four Democrats who have announced so far.

And the legacies live on.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.