Emilio Naranjo was not the last patron in New Mexico. But he was the last patron who ruled uncontested, during his time. And he was the only New Mexico patron of his generation who enjoyed a national reputation.
His reputation went national in 1960 when he supported Lyndon Johnson, and then Jack Kennedy, for president giving Kennedy a huge margin toward his narrow victory in New Mexico. Kennedy, who loved political bosses, never forgot the favor and Lyndon Johnson rewarded him in 1965 by appointing him U.S. Marshall. But he had already been around New Mexico state circles for many years. He was elected chair of the Democratic Party in Rio Arriba County in 1953 and Sheriff in 1958. At one point he was state director of the Department of Motor Vehicles. His son Benny became Sheriff in 1965 when Emilio resigned that position to become federal Marshall.
Naranjo was a young man (born in 1916) when political change came to the Hispanic North, in the form of the Roosevelt election of 1932. Within the next eight years the North would switch from being heavily Republican to being heavily Democratic. Naranjo single-mindedly set about controlling the levers of power in that county, and did not relinquish his control until the mid-1990s, when he was defeated by Arturo Rodarte in a primary election for state senate. His power was fully consolidated in the late 1970s with his appointment in 1977 and election in 1978 to the New Mexico Senate and his appointment in 1978 as county manager. He was also Democratic Party chair in Rio Arriba County. But he was convicted of perjury that same year in a case in which he was accused of planting marijuana in the car of his 1976 opponent for Sheriff, Moises Morales. The conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1980, allowing him to resume his senate seat, but thereafter his reputation, if not his power, suffered from a feeling among observers that his ability to deliver votes to Democrats gave him special privileges within the political class of New Mexico, a commentary more damning about the political class of New Mexico, perhaps, than about Emilio Naranjo.
The essentially conservative nature of Naranjo's power base was revealed clearly during the Tijerina phenomenon of the late 1960's. Tijerina, who accused the Forest Service of violating the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when it expropriated land grant territory, was a true rebel, willing to shake up power structures through unconventional tactics and appealing to national sympathy. The power structure Tijerina most resented was Naranjo's, which steadfastedly cooperated with the law enforcement agencies that eventually brought Tijerina down. Naranjo's son Benny, Sheriff of Rio Arriba at the time, was pistol whipped by Reies Tijerina during the so-called Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid of 1966, and ordered at gunpoint by Tijerina to free the prisoners in the courthouse. Tijerina was acquitted of charges stemming from this incident, in a trial in which he acted as his own attorney. Likewise, the Raza Unida Party, a left-of-center movement trying to organize Hispanics in the Southwest under a party banner, found its Rio Arriba activists and candidates under attack during the mid-1970s, particularly from the Sheriff's department. Raza Unida leaders accused Naranjo of election manipulation and of fomenting police brutality.
I knew Naranjo casually. When we were both county chairs we would exchange minor favors on votes at statewide conventions, and we maintained a cordial, somewhat formal, relationship. He came and spoke to one of my university classes on politics in New Mexico (his son Larry, now a city councilor in Rio Rancho was in that class), and I would hear about him from students of mine from Rio Arriba county. My last meeting with him, in 1992, did not go well. I went up to his home (a mobile home) near Espanola with Sonny Rivera to see if I could persuade him to encourage Indian participation in the forthcoming 400th anniversary commemoration of Onate's arrival in New Mexico in 1598. Naranjo had acquired funds to have Sonny Rivera, from Mesquite, NM, sculpt a bronze statue of Onate. Naranjo was adamantly against my proposition, and it was clear to me that, for better or worse, that was the final word. There was no appeal.
In truth, Naranjo was a talented politician, well liked by many, with a large following, and he knew how to get things done. That the kind of power he wielded could surface in a county in New Mexico is explained by contradictory things: on the one hand it speaks of the power of his charisma and the fierce loyalty it inspired. These are highly positive, and they rightly inspire a deep pride in Rio Arriba county. But on the other hand that one man could acquire such power speaks volumes about the isolation of the people of Rio Arriba country from the wheels of power in Santa Fe, 30 minutes away, and about how policy and taxpayer funds are distributed through the political system of the state. These inspire much less pride.