Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Funeral and the Bruce King Legacy

The sea of about 1800 aging faces at the funeral was a representative sampling of the surviving members of a political class that shaped New Mexico for over 30 years, including some fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.

There was James Martin, a freshman legislator with Bruce King in 1959 and member of the 1969 constitutional convention and later a judge. His son, also at the funeral, is a judge today. There was Myles Culbertson, Executive Director of the New Mexico Border Authority in the early 1990s, today director of the NM Livestock Bureau. His father served in the legislature with King and his daughter worked for Sen. Dominici; Diane Denish, presenting the flag of New Mexico to the King family at the grave site, whose father ran against Bruce King for governor in 1970; Brian Sanderoff, one of King's top aides from 1978-1982, now the top pollster in the state; Linda Kehoe, now with the LFC, formerly King's chief of staff; Ed Romero, former Bernalillo County Democratic Chair, former ambassador to Spain; John Garcia, formerly Secretary of Economic Development under King, now Secretary of Veterans Services; Carol Robertson Lopez, former King staffer, later Mayor Pro Tem of Santa Fe and longtime mover and shaker there. The list could go on and on, including Ben Alexander, born before the Great Depression, and the relative youngsters born after the death of Jack Kennedy who joined the King administration in the early 1990s.

The achievements of this political class are remarkable. It drew up a new constitution (Bruce King of course chaired it) in 1969 and when voters turned it down it helped Governor Jerry Apodaca make the needed changes through constitutional amendments. It facilitated, indeed was part of, the serious entry of women into the New Mexico political scene. It improved the representation of minority groups. It created the best school funding formula in the U.S., insuring an equal share for each student. It stimulated a golden age of university performance, vastly increasing the proportions of college graduates while making our best universities nationally competitive. It created a severance tax on our extractive industries, putting the proceeds into an interest-bearing fund that supplements state expenditures. It opened up the Santa Teresa border crossing, paving the way for the surge of commerce we see there today.

The latter, done during King's third administration, was not atypical of the Bruce King style. When red tape jammed up the project King authorized Myles Culbertson and Jack Pickel, unpaid volunteers, to build the crossing by themselves, while Charlie Crowder crossed onto the Mexican side, unauthorized, to move dirt. Poorly funded and held together with bailing wire, nevertheless, it worked.

Bruce King cannot and would not take responsibility for all of the above. Jerry Apodaca, Toney Anaya, and David Cargo played their roles and so did our strong Washington delegation and our powerful senate and house leaders, like Aubrey Dunn and Raymond Sanchez. In truth, the achievements of that age were the work of a broad-based political class, feeling its baby-boomer oats.

King's most lasting achievement was that he was the master assembler, and often maestro conductor, of this political class. And it was the quality of that relationship--hardball, but decent, honest, at its core--that we miss today. Make no mistake about it. That political class had a mind of its own. It kept returning to King for leadership because King understood it better, and, in turn, he reflected its values more authentically, than anyone else. Beneath the self-parody of a country hick, the cowboy boots and rancher's accent King understood Los Alamos managers and university presidents as well as he understood the effect of weather on the profitability of beef. He understood the chili picker's longing for dignity as well as he understood the resentment of Little Texans against a certain Speaker of the House. He knew where New Mexico was headed and knew how to get what was needed to move it there.

The relationship between King and the political class was complex, and not always smooth, but the interaction made New Mexico a far better, fairer, place to live. At bottom it was cemented in King's deep understanding of New Mexicans and our trust in his integrity, a trust so deep you laughed without resentment when you heard he had told a supporter, "I know I promised but I didn't make it a commitment." Deep down you suspected Bruce had probably made the right decision. You knew he was right when he said, frequently, "you know, it is amazing what people can accomplish if they don't worry about who gets the credit." His funny stories often had a hidden point to them applicable to the moment at hand. And, compassionate, he was nevertheless a master at the prudent exercise of power.

The Clinton appearance was genuine and his eulogy was a work of art. He knew the Bruce we all knew and, like us, he was delighted by his inimitable personality and his underlying seriousness of purpose.

This was not a funeral you had to go to. King had been out of office for 15 years; no gain in seeing and being seen, and many kingistas have been supplanted by younger cohorts in the contemporary political class. The group at the funeral was subdued, self-confident in an understated way and, I thought, not ambitious to govern again. All in all it looked more like a composite of New Mexico, ethnically, geographically, economically, than any crowd I've been in for a long time, a commentary on how truly representative the ruling class in New Mexico really was during that time period. It will almost certainly never gather again under the same roof. But don't underestimate it. It's faculties are intact, it knows how to get things done, it's children are getting active, and it is fully aware of what is happening on the political scene. If it gets unhappy, watch out!

Goodbye Bruce, and thanks!

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