Inside the Capitol

Sunday, September 16, 2012

9-21 State's first governor ideal

92112 Gov McDonald

SANTA FE – New Mexico's first governor, 100 years ago, was quite a guy. Born and raised in New York State, William Calhoun McDonald, better known as Mac, heard of the mining excitement at White Oaks, New Mexico.
In the spring of 1880, the 22-year old McDonald arrived in White Oaks, 11 miles northeast of present-day Carrizozo. He had a law degree but he didn't want to spend time as a starving lawyer so he found a government job as a surveyor. If that sounds like our first president, maybe it suggests the journey McDonald was on.
He speculated in some mining claims and quickly began cultivating a network of friends and useful contacts. Those connections got him elected county assessor in 1884.
According to a lengthy article in the July 2012 La Cronica, the official publication of the Historical Society of New Mexico, McDonald prevailed over his opponent because of his integrity, ability and firmness of character.
Much of this column is excerpted from the article's author, Roberta Key Haldane, a native New Mexican and granddaughter of a pioneer Lincoln County ranching family.
Two years earlier, in 1882, McDonald landed a job as bookkeeper for the Bar W Ranch, owned by a group of stockholders from England. This was only about four years after the murder of Englishman John Tunstall by a local group associated with the infamous Santa Fe Ring.
The leader of that local group was L.G. Murphy who owned the Bar W Ranch. Murphy soon was broke and the ranch went to T.B. Catron, head of the Santa Fe Ring who sold it to the English syndicate. Obviously the recent Lincoln County War did not scare away the Englishmen from investing in the local ranching business.
McDonald also was beginning to find ranching very profitable if done right. As bookkeeper he learned the business inside and out and by 1890 the Englishmen ask him to manage the ranch.
Not having been raised on a ranch, McDonald didn't have experience as a cowboy handling daily operations. So he hired the best foreman in the area and devoted himself to running the business operation.
In the following years, McDonald expanded the ranch and bought others. Eventually he had done well enough to buy out the British interest and be in complete charge of a ranch covering much of Lincoln County.
Concurrent with his ranching business, McDonald kept up his interest in politics. He was elected to numerous positions at the local and state level where he was known as a man of outstanding character and honesty.
When New Mexico finally was approved to become a state, McDonald was nominated by the Democratic Party as its nominee for the state's first elected governor.
Supporters of statehood knew it was important to have a governor of sound conservative judgment who could keep the state scandal free. The New Mexico territory hadn't had a particularly good reputation along that line.
McDonald was elected over Holm Bursum by a vote of 31,000 to 28,000. As predicted, New Mexico's government was sound and scandal-free. Historian William Keleher called McDonald the nearest approach to an ideal governor the state had seen in his 50 years of watching.
When McDonald left for Santa Fe to begin his term as governor, he left his ranch in charge of his manager Truman Spencer, a shrewd and ambitious man who reminded McDonald of himself.
Spencer cemented that relationship by marrying McDonald's only child a few months later. They spent some time in Santa Fe during McDonald's term because of the governor's failing health.
There was no one to carry on the McDonald name but the Spencer name has been prominent in the area ever since. Dr. A.N. Spencer was a respected doctor in Carrizozo. His wife Jackie was active in local, county and state affairs for many years.
McDonald's great-grandson Stirling Spencer manages the Bar W and was the Republican nominee for state Land Commissioner several years ago.


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