Sunday, January 27, 2013


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Jan. 27, 2013

RIP Fabian Chavez. He took on giants.House Speaker Kenny Martinez said something that hit me last week at the Rotunda memorial service for the late Fábian Chávez. Martinez talked about how every year, Chávez, a former Senate majority leader, would drop by his office at the beginning of a session, usually sharing “really friendly, fatherly advice.”

Martinez added sadly, “I missed his visit this year.”

I did, too.

Until the past couple of years, Chávez was a frequent visitor to the Capitol newsroom. He loved to talk about his years in the Legislature in the ’50s and ’60s.

He made sure I knew of his impressive accomplishments — reforming state liquor laws, overhauling the corruption-tainted justice-of-the-peace system, passing the legislation to create the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. How he was a fierce advocate of civil rights back in the day when large segments of his own Democratic Party were not on board with that.

He loved to recount his campaign for governor. That was 1968, the year I moved to Santa Fe as a teen. I’ve said for years that my two favorite politicians were Chávez and David F. Cargo, the Republican who beat him by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Just a few years ago, on the first day of a legislative session, I bumped into the two rivals in the Roundhouse lobby, chatting like a couple of old pals. “We were talking about the last clean race in New Mexico,” Chávez said.

But Chavez didn’t just tell tales of the good old days. In fact, usually he was more concerned about what was going on in the present. Sometimes he even had a good news tip for me.

One of the first times I interviewed him was just before the 2004 Democratic presidential caucus in New Mexico. That year, some 900 requests for mail-in ballots were denied by the state party. The party said their names didn’t appear on the voter rolls in time to be included. One of these casualties was Chávez, who was going to be in Arizona on the day of the caucus.

“It breaks my heart, ” he told me. “I’ve voted in every election since 1944, when I was overseas and voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

One issue we talked about many times through the years was corruption. Chávez hated it. Intensely. He hated the very appearance of it. One time, he even went public in expressing concerns when a candidate for state office — an old friend whom he was backing — attended a fundraiser organized by someone Chávez thought was shady. “I want to raise money for him legitimately,” he told me.

The story I wrote certainly didn’t help his friend in the race. But Chávez believed it needed to be said.
He was even more concerned about political corruption in early 2009, when he not only was afraid that the corruption issue would cost the Democrats the Governor’s Office the next year. He was afraid it could be the beginning of a longer downward spiral for the party.
Fabian in 2008 at the Roundhouse

As usual, Chávez put it in historical perspective. “Between 1950 and 1962, no Democratic governor was elected to two consecutive terms, ” he said. (State office terms were two years back then.) “And the Democrats did it to ourselves. It was the hari-kari years for the Democrats in this state.”

He was afraid history would repeat itself. “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,” he said. “So, it’s incumbent upon the Democratic Party leadership to repair it. Someone has to recognize our weaknesses and do something about it.”

Indeed, Republican Susana Martinez used the corruption issue against the Democrats and won the governor’s race in 2010.

Declaring that the Democrats were headed for a return to “the hari-kari years” didn’t win Chávez any friends in the party hierarchy.

He didn’t care.

“Someone has to say it,” he told me.

Both Democrats and Republicans could use a few more tellers of hard truths like Fabian Chávez.