Saturday, November 9, 2013

R.I.P. John Dendahl

Dendahl in 2006
John Dendahl was a reporter's dream. The former state Republican Party chairman always was friendly and had a great sense of humor. He always returned reporters' phone calls and he always had something interesting, often provocative, to say.

Dendahl died this morning in a Colorado hospital from complications from treatments for leukemia. His widow Jackie Dendahl said he'd been in the hospital for a month. He was 75.

He ran for governor in 1994 but lost to political newcomer Gary Johnson, who went on to win the general election that year. That same year Dendahl was elected as state Republican Party chairman, a position he held until 2003.

Toward the end of Johnson's administration, Dendahl publicly agreed with the governor's position that the drug war had been a failure and that marijuana should be legalized. This angered many members of his party including the then-powerful U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, who initially called for Dendahl's resignation.

Though Dendahl lost his final bid for the party chairmanship, in 2006 he became the GOP's candidate for governor against incumbent Bill Richardson after Dr. J.R. Damron of Santa Fe, who'd won the Republican primary, stepped down.

At that point Richardson was very popular, however, and Dendahl had a hard time raising money. He lost in a landslide.

Not long after that election, he and his wife moved to Colorado. He continued his interest in politics, writing columns and letters to the editor.

Jackie Dendahl said he recently had been helping Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from Colorado who is running for governor.

Political consultant Jay McCleskey, who served as executive director of the state GOP during part of Dendahl's tenure as chairman, said in statement, "John Dendahl was a unique person who was as tenacious in politics, as he was competing as an Olympic skier and deserves a lot of credit for helping end one-party dominance in the state. For as tough as he was in political debates and campaigns, I knew him as a warm man who truly cared about people and almost always had a smile on his face. He will be missed."

Earl Potter of Santa Fe, who was state chairman of the Democratic Party during Dendahl's early years as GOP chairman said he was saddened by Dendahl's death. "He knew how to insult without being offensive," Potter said. "He knew how to make people mad, but on a personal level, he was extremely gracious." Hearing of Dendahl's death, Potter said, "makes me homesick for the day when parties could fight in public, then come together on important issues."

The current state GOP chairman John Billingsley issued a statement saying, “Dendahl advocated for conservative principles and was a strong leader for our Party during his time of service. As a former athlete and competitor, he carried his competitive spirit throughout his leadership role with the Party, working hard to make positive changes. He was known for boldly expressing his convictions and standing for what he believed was right. During his time as Chairman, he worked hard to combat the corruption that existed within individuals within our state government at the time, successfully lead and grew the Party, and left a lasting legacy here in the state of New Mexico.”

More in tomorrow's New Mexican.