I spent a long night in Grants with Mike Runnels in the fall of 1980. I was there as chair of the Dona Ana County Democratic Party. Eighty or so members of the Democratic Party central committee had assembled at a hotel in Grants to elect someone the next day to replace Mike's father, incumbent Democratic Congressman (Southern District) Harold Runnels, on the November ballot. The congressman had died of lung cancer a few weeks earlier. He was so popular and conservative that the Republican Party had not fielded a candidate in the primary to run against him in the fall. Thus, since no one else would be on the ballot in November, whoever won the party election in Grants was certain to replace Runnels in Congress. The competing candidates in Grants were Dorothy Runnels, the congressman's widow and Mike's mother, and David King, nephew of incumbent Governor Bruce King.
David King's candidacy was ill-advised. He had lived in Southern New Mexico only while attending NMSU. His residence was in Santa Fe county. He was very young, in his early 30s, and while he had done a credible stint as head of the state planning agency, the appointment had come from his uncle and he had never run for any office . He was also a liberal, in a conservative district. Big labor backed him strongly; this alone stirred resentment among conservative Democrats in Southern New Mexico, even more so among Republicans. Dorothy was well known, articulate, and attractive. It was hard to make a case that King deserved the nomination. But since his uncle was the Governor, how could he lose?
I argued strenuously against David's nomination. I had asked each of my 72 precinct chairs the same two questions: who do you, personally, think should get the nomination, and who do you, as a party leader, believe would be the best candidate in the election? The answers ran about three to one against David. One precinct chair, the head of the retail clerks union in Las Cruces, told me he would support King, but "if David gets into this he will be walking into a propeller," given the growing outrage. I spent hours on the phone with my friend Neal Gonzalez, state director of the AFL-CIO. He begged me to support David. My political career, he said, would be over if I did not.
Many county chairs from the South agreed with my assessment, and some vowed to swing their votes toward Dorothy. Although I was never in touch with her I was quickly tagged as leader of the Dorothy faction. This put me in trouble with party leaders from the North, delighted at this windfall chance to replace Runnels with a liberal. But they didn't have to live with the fallout, and David's nomination would only add to a growing resentment in the South against the arrogance of the North, an arrogance that had, in part, led to the overthrow of Walter Martinez as Speaker of the House a year and a half earlier to a coalition of 11 Democrats and 26 Republicans.
Arriving in Grants I was greeted at the entrance of the hotel by Maura Rico, Democratic chair of Hidalgo county. She put her arms around me and said, tearfully, "I know I promised you my votes, but I've been offered jobs and my people in Lordsburg need jobs." I assured her I understood. I learned that Maura and others had been flown to Grants by Betty Stahmann, a close friend of David's, in a Lear jet. These were not good signs for my side. Inside the hotel I met with Matt Runnels, who had been a student of mine three years earlier, and Mike. I had never met Mike or Dorothy. Part II tomorrow.