Power and politics New Mexico style

Decade after decade, for nearly half a century, the most powerful politician in New Mexico was a short, slender, modest man who lived in a trailer and never held national or statewide office.

forum mtn musing _20151004_131624The base of his incomparable power was the Democratic Party chairmanship in Rio Arriba County, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 7 to 1, and held every elected and appointed public office.

Emilio Naranjo wrote no books or articles, and left hardly any letters, diaries or private memos. He gave no speeches. Deaf in his later years and hard of hearing earlier, he shunned phone conversations, speeches and even small groups in favor of one-on-one personal contacts.

The enduring record of his passing is a whole library of legends, myths and memories, private anecdotes and public investigations. But that is the only surviving Naranjo library. No reliable biography or history has ever been published. A search through Amazon.com, the Albuquerque Library and the New Mexico Historical Review found no reference to him.

The first book to try and fill this vacuum was published this year: “Emilio: A People’s Politician,” by Robert McGeagh (385 pages in paperback, Dogear Publishing, $19.95).

The author denigrates tales of Naranjo’s raw power, but when I lived in Northern New Mexico, they sure bore all the hallmarks of harsh truth in a poor, corrupt and unfair world.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson recounts that when he first ran for Congress, Naranjo told him his support meant 20,000 votes. “20,0000 votes!” Richardson exclaimed, “Imagine!”

Back in the 1970s my girlfriend was a tough, independent Anglo artist who lived alone in a small house in a remote village in Northern New Mexico. One night a man knocked on the door of her house. Because she knew the man, she let him in. He was drunk and raped her.

She could have reported the crime to the sheriff, but his office had a reputation for letting such crimes slide, especially when committed by local men. She could have done nothing, but that wasn’t her way.

She knew Naranjo, and had even worked on one of his campaigns. She described the crime to him and identified her attacker. A day later the rapist was lying in a hospital bed with two broken legs.

The author doesn’t have patience with such stories. Nor does he validate the frequent and often reliable reports of political corruption.

One of the last of such really flagrant cases occurred in the 1960s when an election was held the day after a flood knocked out a bridge. It was the only link between a village and its polling place on the other side of what had become a raging river. No one could cross that river on Election Day, yet ballots in the box showed that every single registered voter in the village had cast a ballot—for the same candidate.

There are some interesting details in McGeagh’s book that were new to me. Naranjo, an extraordinarily private man, had three wives and 16 children. His deafness was a serious handicap. He lived out his life in a trailer.

But this book is not good history. The author says his primary source is interviews with Naranjo. But the Naranjo statements between quotation marks sound as if the author has written them rather than that a real person spoke them. On the other hand, much of the unattributed material that is presented as the author’s statements seems to have come solely and directly from Naranjo himself.

The book includes no bibliography, no footnotes, and was published by an out-of-state vanity company. Almost no information is sourced, except to Naranjo himself. McGeagh mentions consulting newspapers but says they were totally inaccurate and useful only for general historical background. He never mentions the Rio Grande Sun, which in fact was the only publication to report on Naranjo’s doings seriously and in depth.

The success of the Rio Grande Sun was a notable feat of journalistic enterprise, courage and persistence. During the late 1970s, when I was a writer and editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, I proposed a long-term investigation of Rio Arriba political corruption. The publisher just laughed.

With all its faults, this book is still worth reading—if with a large dose of skepticism—because it is the only one of its kind. And it does show clearly that the source of Naranjo’s unparalleled power was his reciprocal relationship—his tight embrace—with the voters who faithfully supported him for half a century. In depicting the life of a strange man, McGeagh captures the spirit and lore of these still-recent decades, decades that continue to strongly influence events today in Northern New Mexico.