‘Lonesome Dave’ Cargo dead at 84

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Former New Mexico Governor David F. Cargo in 1988. (Greg Sorber/Journal file)

Former New Mexico Governor David F. Cargo in 1988. (Greg Sorber/Journal file)

Former governor remembered as a ‘tireless advocate for all New Mexicans’

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Former Gov. David F. Cargo, a maverick Republican whose independence from the political Establishment and penchant for solo campaigning earned him the nickname “Lonesome Dave,” died Friday in Albuquerque at age 84.

He was known for his progressive politics and quick wit and remained popular among Hispanics, African-Americans and union members even after his 1967-68 and 1969-70 terms as governor.

A Michigan native, he served as a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives from Albuquerque before being elected as the state’s youngest chief executive at age 37.

He could be a colorful glad-hander but was also proud of his master’s degree in public administration and remained a student of government throughout his life.

Although friendly and outgoing, he embraced the “Lonesome Dave” nickname.

“It’s cheaper going alone,” he said the year he was elected to his first term as governor. “You don’t have to buy hamburgers for everyone.”

Although he remained active in civic life and politics, his political career peaked in the late 1960s. After his second term as governor, he never again won an election for state or federal office, despite several attempts.

“He loved politics and he loved serving the state of New Mexico,” said a son, Patrick Cargo, a lawyer in Dallas.

Cargo suffered a stroke in 2011 and had been cared for since in an Albuquerque nursing home. He participated in a Fourth of July outing on Thursday but fell ill that evening and died Friday at Presbyterian Hospital, his son said.

Cargo’s coalition

He tried to return to public during the four decades after his governor terms, running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, Albuquerque mayor and for state treasurer in Oregon, where he lived for a decade.

Cargo, a lawyer, was a chatty, wisecracking fiscal conservative with roots in liberal Republicanism. He described himself as a “La Follette Republican,” a reference to Wisconsin governor and U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette, the Progressive Party nominee for president in 1924.

He cobbled together the support of middle-of-the road Republicans, labor unions, blue-collar workers, rural residents and minorities, forging a reputation as an accessible and caring champion of the little guy.

Republicans had “better get out of the country clubs and get on the street corners to campaign” if they wanted to win an election, he said in 1965.


“He was a good governor,” said former Republican Party Chairman Edward Lujan. “He believed in working with everyone.”

“He certainly was not your run-of-the-mill conservative Republican,” said former New Mexico Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragon. “I think that is evidenced by how many people supported him in the Hispanic community.”

“Gov. Cargo was a real friend and just an outstanding human being,” said the Rev. Charles Becknell of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Rio Rancho. “We lost a real champion of human rights … He opened many doors for African-Americans.”

Gov. Susana Martinez, the current Republican governor, called Cargo a friend and said she was saddened to learn of his death.

“New Mexico lost a great friend, a leader and a tireless advocate for all New Mexicans,” Martinez said. “Gov. Cargo and I shared a passion for literacy, and he dedicated much of his life to it by raising thousands of dollars to help build and maintain twelve libraries throughout rural New Mexico, in places like Mora, Anton Chico, Villanueva and Corona.”

“His leadership left its mark on our state, and we know that he was respected by many across New Mexico,” said Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman John Billingsley.

Ahead of his time

While a lawmaker, Cargo successfully sued to force redistricting of the state House based on population, rather than having members elected at large from counties, a system he said led to conservative white Democrats controlling the Legislature and state government.

In many ways, he was ahead of his time, with a range of proposals – for a code of legislative ethics, lobbyist regulation, streamlined government, statewide kindergarten, a clean-air law, for example – that were eventually enacted, but not until after he had left the Capitol.

The governor years

The outspoken young governor, who had served in the state House from 1963 to ’66, had a rocky relationship with the Legislature. He said it had to be “dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.”

Cargo counted as accomplishments his creation of a state Human Rights Commission and the nation’s first state film office. He appeared in several movies, including playing a newspaper reporter in the 1969 Western “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys,” starring Robert Mitchum, and a state trooper in the 1971 comedy “Bunny O’Hare,” starring Bette Davis.

He was known for bringing talented young people into state government, but his tenure was also marked by personnel turnovers in his immediate staff and at the agency level.

Cargo was governor in the midst of the turmoil that marked the land grant activism movement in northern New Mexico and anti-Vietnam War protests.

His sympathies for the land grant movement were criticized after the 1967 raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse by Reies Lopez Tijerina and armed followers, in which a State Police officer and a jailer were shot and wounded and a reporter and a sheriff’s deputy taken hostage.

Cargo also called out the National Guard in May 1970 to the University of New Mexico, in support of State Police who were trying to clear sit-down strikers out of the Student Union Building. The governor had issued an order for no live ammunition – it was just a few days after the killing of students at Kent State University in Ohio – but Guard members bayoneted at least 10 bystanders, half of them reporters or photographers.

The Legislature in 2011 approved the placement of a bronze bust of Cargo in the state Capitol, with lawmakers praising his bipartisanship, his intellect and his foresight.

He had helped communities in northern New Mexico get parks and libraries, and one state senator recalled visiting the home of a Democratic precinct chairman who had three photos on his wall: “John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, and Dave Cargo.”

Education, politics

Cargo was born in Dowagiac, Mich. , and earned his bachelor’s, a master’s in public administration and a law degree from the University of Michigan.

He served two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and moved to New Mexico to practice law in 1957. He represented an Albuquerque district in the state House.

Twice in the 1970s, he lost GOP nominations for the U.S. Senate. He moved to Oregon in 1974, because a daughter with an illness needed a special school, and unsuccessfully ran for Oregon state treasurer in 1984.

Back in New Mexico by 1985, he was talked by the GOP into running for Congress the following year against Democratic incumbent Bill Richardson, and lost. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Albuquerque in 1989, 1993 and 1997, and lost a bid to return to the Governor’s Office in 1994, failing to get the Republican nomination.

He served for six years on the governing board of the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute.

Survivors include five children: Veronica, David, Patrick, Elena and Eamon. He was preceded in death by his former wife, Ida Jo Anaya.

Services were pending.