Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Back to the Hari Kari Years?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 7, 2009

Richie Cunningham and The Fonz might remember the 1950s as Happy Days. But Fabian Chavez has a different name for that era:

The "hari-kari" years for the state Democratic Party.

And despite the big gains state Democrats made in the last elections, Chavez — a self-described "lifelong FDR Democrat" — fears that because of the virtually ceaseless explosion of corruption stories involving New Mexico Dems, if his party isn't careful, a new hari-kari era might be in store.

Chavez is a former majority leader in the state Senate. In 1968, he was the Democratic nominee for governor, losing to incumbent Republican David F. Cargo by just a couple of thousand votes. He's stayed politically active all these years, working recently as a lobbyist for the Public Employees Retirement Association.

Only one man could be called a more "elder" elder statesman in the Democratic Party — former Gov. Bruce King, who at 85 is just a few months older than Chavez.

Chavez dropped by my office in the Roundhouse on Wednesday to talk a little history and how that applies to current political concerns.

"Between 1950 and 1962, no Democratic governor was elected to two consecutive terms," he said. "And the Democrats did it to ourselves. It was the hari-kari years for the Democrats in this state."

Those Fabulous '50s: The year 1950 was a good one for Chavez. That's the year he won his first legislative seat, representing a House district in Santa Fe.

But statewide, Democrat Johnny Miles lost to Republican Ed Mechem in the governor's race.

"They didn't think he could lose," Chavez said of Miles. "He'd been governor, land commissioner. He was known as 'Mr. Democrat.' "

But Miles became unpopular with some of his own party two years before by taking on and defeating an incumbent Democrat, Georgia Lusk, for her congressional seat.

Also making headlines in the months leading up to the 1950 election was the 1949 murder of a Las Cruces waitress named Ovida "Cricket" Coogler — a case that involved a cover-up by law enforcement, exposed illegal gambling and prostitution operations in Southern New Mexico, and tainted the reputations of some New Mexico politicians who used to frequent Doña Ana County gambling houses and allegedly profited from the illegal proceeds.

"In comes this handsome lawyer and former FBI agent, Ed Mechem," Chavez said.

Mechem won re-election in 1952. (State office terms were two years back then.)

In 1954, Democrat John Simms won the governor's race. But his re-election was hampered by two feuding Democratic factions. He lost to Mechem in 1956. Mechem in turn lost to Democrat John Burroughs in 1958. But Mechem beat Burroughs in 1960.

Though there wasn't any one scandal as huge as Cricket Coogler after 1950, Chavez said corruption was an issue Mechem and the Republicans used effectively against Democrats during that era.

The Dems' bad luck streak didn't end until Jack Campbell came along and was elected to two straight terms in 1962 and 1964.

Which brings us to now: Chavez said bad memories of some of those Democratic losses came back Wednesday morning after he read about former Republican state chairman Allen Weh's announcement that he's running for governor.

Weh stressed the corruption issue — Democratic corruption — at his announcement. And he's got a lot to work with. Two former state treasurers in prison, a former Senate majority leader on his way and a public regulation commissioner indicted.

And all those complicated state investment scandals. There's CDR and Vanderbilt "pay-to-play" cases, not to mention the more recent revelations that Marc Correra, a son of a fundraiser and confidante to Gov. Bill Richardson, has made millions of dollars in finder's fees for companies that received state investment money.

All this makes Chavez worry. "It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Republicans are taking the cue, and they're going to run with all that stuff," Chavez said. "So it's incumbent upon the Democratic Party leadership to repair it. Someone has to recognize our weaknesses and do something about it."

Speaking of the only declared Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, Chavez said, "She has to be able to separate herself from any scandal resulting out of the Richardson administration."

Isn't talk like that considered heretical by the current leadership of the Democratic Party?

Chavez said he doesn't care. "Someone has to say it." Then Chavez reminded me of the title of his biography by my former colleague David Roybal.

Taking on Giants.