Inside the Capitol

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Billy’s Part of Our Tradition

SANTA FE – The recent renewed interest in Billy the Kid has caused several readers to express their dismay about a violent criminal being the most recognizable New Mexican to the rest of the world.
We already have discussed some reasons why Billy’s legend has captured the imagination of many people around the world, and perhaps we’ll discuss it further. But today, let’s consider why it may be appropriate for New Mexico’s most famous person to be a man of violence.
From the time New Mexico became a territory in 1846, we began a tradition of violence that was noted all the way to the Potomac and became a major factor in denying our statehood for 66 years.
Just five months after United States occupation of New Mexico, our first governor lay dead as the result of a Taos uprising that also claimed the lives of other state and local officials. The revolt was quickly ended by a furious assault from government troops and a company of mountain men enlisted by Gov. Charles Bent’s business partner Ceran St. Vrain. The perpetrators were quickly tried and publicly executed.
New Mexico was the Western battleground of the Civil War, as Confederate troops fought their way up the Rio Grande until they were defeated near Glorietta in a battle sometimes termed “the Gettysburg of the West.”
Following the Civil War, Indian wars and range wars attracted the nation’s attention. The most notorious of the range wars between rival factions of merchants and ranchers in Lincoln County attracted gunslingers from throughout the Southwest. But it was one of our local boys, William Bonney, who garnered the most publicity.
The turmoil had the entire territory in disarray. Virtually all men wore guns. Murder cases almost always were dismissed with the verdict: “The deceased came to his death accidentally after having given due provocation.”
In 1878, President Rutherford Hayes declared Lincoln County in a state of insurrection. He dismissed Gov. Samuel Axtell and many public officials who were members of the scandalous Santa Fe Ring.
President Hates prevailed on Gen. Lew Wallace, a respected military officer to take over as governor and bring peace to Lincoln County. Three years later, Wallace left in disgust, saying his friend Gen. Sherman was correct when he suggested that we get into another war with Mexico and make it take back New Mexico.
The violence continued;. Sheriff Elfego Baca gained fame when he stood off 80 cowboys for 36 hours. Years later, a movie dramatized his exploits.
The Hillsboro trial of the ranchers accused of murdering prominent politician Albert Jennings Fountain in 1895 drew national publicity as a tent city sprang up that reportedly rivaled the hoopla surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial a century later.
No public official was safe as New Mexico gained the reputation of being the only place in America where assassination was an integral part of the political system.
When Teddy Roosevelt formed his Rough Riders for the Spanish American War, New Mexico was the logical place to recruit the hard-charging cowboys that made up over half his regiment.
Statehood in 1912 didn’t end our violent reputation. In 1916, Mexican rebel Pancho Villa put Columbus in the history books as the last place in the continental United States to be attacked by a foreign power.
In the 1950s, ranchers being chased off the White Sands Missile Range made national news when they took up arms to keep the feds off their property. In the ‘60s Reies Tijerina and his Alianza made headlines when they shot up the Rio Arriba County Courthouse over a land grant dispute.
In 1970, the New Mexico National Guard got carried away putting down an anti-Vietnam demonstration on the University of New Mexico campus and people were hurt. The 1980 prison riot was the bloodiest penal uprising the nation ever saw.
And in the ‘90s, Indian leaders threatened violent action if their casinos were closed and Hispanic activists hanged two environmentalists in effigy.

The Most Excellent Sir Tom Benavides

SANTA FE – Sir Tom Benavides is back on the political scene, and columnists such as I couldn’t be happier. In these days of bland politicians, who conduct polls to assure they don’t offend anyone, Benavides is pure fun.
He’s the guy with the distinctive eye patch, whom we can thank for pari-mutuel mule and ostrich racing and for the numerous Benavides County efforts. Ten years ago, Benavides was named to the order of King Alfonso X, the only U.S. citizen to be accorded such an honor, recognizing individuals who have advanced the Spanish culture.
Benavides began years ahead of time to promote New Mexico’s observation of the 1992 Columbus quincentennial celebration. During that period he made many contacts with the Spanish government and traveled to Spain.
It was during a reception for the Spanish Ambassador in Albuquerque that Benavides made an appearance when the State Police were looking for him to complete a call of the Senate. The following morning Benavides explained to the Senate that he actually had been in his Senate seat the previous evening, but he had had an out-of-body experience in Albuquerque.
Over the years, Benavides has won and lost a seat in the New Mexico House and twice won and lost a seat in the Senate, representing Albuquerque’s South Valley. He did all of this as a Democrat, but at one time he ran as an independent for Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s seat in the U.S. Senate. A few years ago there was talk of Benavides running as a Green. Now he is running as a Republican for the seat he lost to Sen. Linda Lopez eight years ago.
Republicans normally do very poorly in the South Valley, so Benavides probably won’t fare much better. His only hope for victory lies in the disenchantment of many Valley Democrats with what they feel is Lopez’s overambitious quest for power. She also is Bernalillo County chairwoman and is talking seriously about running for mayor of Albuquerque.
Disenchanted Democrats reportedly were looking for another Democrat to run against Lopez in the June primary, but she is unopposed. There is always the possibility some of these Democrats could support Benavides.
Benavides’ last fall from grace occurred eight years ago following the culmination of his six-year effort to establish a new county for the South Valley. Many residents of the area felt they had been short-changed by Bernalillo County. Wanting to attract attention to his effort, Benavides jokingly referred to the new county as Benavides County and even talked about county offices being housed in the compound he and his extended family call home.
The senator knew the new county would never be named after him because there were other senators, representatives and a county commissioner from the South Valley, but Tom was a master at knowing exactly what the media liked to cover and Benavides County fit the bill.
Sir Tom was successful on three occasions in passing a bill calling for a South Valley referendum on a new county. But Gov. King kept vetoing the measure, citing a lack of tax base in the new county. But when Gary Johnson challenged King’s bid for another term, Benavides threw in with Johnson and promised him South Valley support. Johnson won. Benavides got his bill through the Legislature once again. And Gov. Johnson signed it.
But there wasn’t a happy ending to the story. Benavides lost the 1996 primary to Linda Lopez and then in November, the referendum for a new county lost by a 4-1 margin. But Benavides wasn’t disturbed. That was only one of the many battles he has lost. The war is still to be won. “Just like Gen. Douglass Mac Arthur,” he said, “I’ll be back.”
Tom always did have a way with words. And besides, his Spanish award entitles him to be addressed as “The Most Excellent Sir Tom Benavides.” But maybe not in the South Valley.