The Story of New Mexico Governor David Francis Cargo
No one paid much attention to the political storm that blew into New Mexico in May of 1957 in the form of David Francis Cargo.
At the time, New Mexico was a small state that no one in the rest of the country cared much about. The local and state politicians were comfortable in knowing that the state’s irrelevance meant that they could continue in their old, abusive and corrupt ways.
Corrupt they were. Governors sold liquor licenses for campaign contributions, state legislators gave themselves state contracts, county sheriffs campaigned for themselves in their squad cars; lobbyists bought lawmakers cars, trucks, liquor and everything else; political candidates bought votes with whiskey, chickens, money, threats and promises. When those incentives didn’t suffice, ballot boxes were stuffed.
White conservative Southern Democrats controlled the statehouse and kept Hispanics, Blacks, Indians, women and anyone else they held in contempt and viewed as inferior down and out of government. Public schools were segregated. Government employment was based on the spoils and winner-take-all patronage system. There was no Civil Service or merit system, so every time a different faction of the Democratic Party won the governorship or a majority on school boards or county commissions or city councils, thousands upon thousands people were fired and cronies of the winners hired.
Organized labor was kept down. Legislators and local elected officials were in the pockets of corporations and mining companies. Some state employees were forced to work six days a week. Governors hired and promoted and demoted state police officers. Some governors took kickbacks from insurance company executives for making it mandatory that state employees buy insurance they didn’t need. Large companies dodged taxes by making hefty contributions to governors. State government had no formal budget.
The state legislature was a joke that made people cry. Legislators were elected from counties at-large, meaning there were no districts, and meaning that, for the most part, white conservative Democrats controlled the state Capitol. They did control it. When Dave arrived, only two Republicans had been elected to statewide office since 1934. More than a dozen Democratic Party county chairmen were on the state payroll. Most never worked—they had their paychecks mailed to their homes. But they did show up—to demand five percent of employees’ paychecks every payday for their infamous “Deduct Boxes.”
Then there was the Republican Party—a nearly non-existent organization that was never able to muster enough guts to confront and challenge the Democrats’ corruption and their lock on government.
David Francis Cargo blew into Albuquerque that May. Fresh from his home state of Michigan and armed with a masters degree in public administration, a law degree, a wicked sense of satire and irony, and an outrage at corruption and incompetence, he was a storm that lingered, built in intensity and then burst in full fury onto the corrupt system he saw.
And New Mexico was never the same.
Dave Cargo was a political junkie in Michigan—had been since age eight when he started subscribing to a host of newspapers, magazines and political tracts. In Michigan he met the heavy hitters of state and national politics and he and they became friends. He learned politics from the inside out and learned how to get votes.
There has always been more to him, however, than getting votes. Dave Cargo cared. He cared about fairness, about working people and about public service and about doing things right.
He was a moderate Republican at a time when the Democrats were the hyper-conservatives who did all they could to defeat civil rights and any other legislation designed to give people dignity and a say in their government.
The minute he arrived in New Mexico, Cargo got involved in politics—slowly at first, and then quickly. He befriended leading Democrats like U.S. Senators Dennis Chavez and Clinton P. Anderson. He got to know former governors like Ed Mechem and John Burroughs. They liked Dave for his wit, his sincerity and his passion for good, clean government.
Within five years of his arrival in New Mexico, Dave Cargo was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives. Within nine years, he was elected governor.
Dave Cargo was no ordinary politician. He railed loudly and publicly against corruption in a state that seemed to think that corruption was perfectly normal. He introduced bills that demanded that state legislators actually report the bribes they had taken. He threatened to pave state roads with corrupt highway commissioners. He fought for working people and minorities, and he did so with a sense of satire and humor that the state had never before seen and that left his slow-witted opponents flat-footed, frustrated and grumbling about this bellicose outsider.
When he introduced his bribe-reporting bill, one legislator stood up on the House floor and wailed, “This is going to ruin us!”
Of course it was, because Dave Cargo had every intention of destroying that old political system. And he did.
During that first term in the legislature Dave shocked the political establishment by filing a lawsuit to reapportion, or district the legislature. Until then, lawmakers were elected-at large from their counties. Because mostly white conservative Democrats voted, they controlled everything. There were no Black faces in the legislature, few Hispanics, and almost no Indian or women.
Reapportionment changed that forever. Dave won his lawsuits. The legislature was carved into districts where minorities had a chance to get elected. They got elected, and they were forever grateful to David Francis Cargo, the Republican who fought for minorities and the oppressed.
When Dave ran for governor in 1966, still a relative newcomer, he was given no chance of winning. It was impossible, the voices said, for a Republican to win a statewide office in a state that had for decades been a colony of the Democratic Party.
But they didn’t know Dave Cargo. While they were predicting his defeat, Dave—a Republican—was out courting minority and Democratic voters. He went to union rallies and asked for their support. He never failed to mention all the pro-labor legislation he had introduced or supported as a lawmaker, and all that pro-labor legislation that his Democratic opponents had opposed and killed. He never failed to mention his reapportionment lawsuits that gave a place and voice in state government to minorities.
He became known as “Lonesome Dave,” partly because he had little money and campaigned by himself, and mostly because he stood by himself in confronting New Mexico’s corrupt political establishment. Dave might have started out alone, but he soon had a wonderfully huge following.
To the shock of many Democrats and to the horror of the state’s inept Republican Party, Dave got standing ovations at those rallies. They were also shocked that this Michigan transplant—they derided him as a carpetbagger and slick opportunist—dared go out and talk with normal people, with citizens! Dave did that. He shook every hand he could, attended every funeral he could and connected with the people the Democrats had for so long ignored. He even personally delivered eyeglasses to welfare recipients after state government arrogantly decided that all those poor people needed to somehow get to Santa Fe to pick up their glasses.
Dave thrived on the criticism and the attempts to discredit him. He charged into northern New Mexico—the mostly Hispanic Democratic Party stronghold—and won the people over with his honesty, humor and empathy for their plight.
In Mora County Dave held rallies that attracted 10,000 people and more. The Albuquerque newspapers and TV stations never knew about them because they never bothered to send reporters or film crews up there.
After the votes were all counted in November 1966, Dave had been elected governor—the youngest governor in New Mexico’s history.
His pair of two-year terms were a hurricane of activity as Dave worked furiously to dismantle the old, corrupt system. He passed civil rights legislation and appointed minorities to boards and commissions. He hired Blacks into state government. He treated state workers fairly. He introduced conflict-of-interest bills and he demanded hard work and honesty. For the most part, he got it.
There were other accomplishments. Dave started the first state Film Commission in the nation. It was a wild success that brought scores of films and billions of dollars of Hollywood money into the state. He saved the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. He saved the potash industry. He created state parks. He helped give Blue Lake back to the Taos Pueblo. He tried to reform the prison system. He ended the infamous “Deduct Boxes.” He demanded that people on the state payroll actually do some work. He invited Blacks and regular people to the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe.
In short, Dave Cargo brought modern government to New Mexico. He was a pivotal figure in the state’s political history; the bridge between the old, corrupt, spoils-based system and a modern government that treated its citizens and employees with dignity, fairness and respect instead of contempt.
Dave served only four years as governor, but those were the most important years in the state’s modern history. We still feel their impact today.
State government still isn’t perfect—it never will be. Lawmakers still take bribes and defraud the public. Some still can’t figure out that “public service” means just that, that public officials are there to serve the public—that the public are their bosses.
State and local governments—all New Mexicans—are far better off than they would have been if David Francis Cargo had not blown into New Mexico in May of 1957 in his beat-up 1949 Chevrolet and had not his political storm vented its full fury on that old and corrupt system.
Dave Cargo changed New Mexico for the better, and for that, he is and will always be remembered and lovingly referred to as Governor Cargo.