SANTA FE, N.M. — I first met John Dendahl in the spring of 1994 when I was assigned to cover the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Dendahl was one of four candidates.
It quickly became apparent that he was many things: smart, knowledgeable, passionate and articulate. He also was a straight shooter and got frustrated when his opponents dodged issues.
After a debate in Albuquerque, Dendahl was upset with what he considered to be a lack of thoughtful discussion at times among the candidates.
“I don’t know,” he said as he swung his briefcase into the back of his Chevrolet Blazer. “Maybe I don’t have a career in politics.”
Dendahl finished third in the primary, but his career in politics was far from over. He went on to serve as chairman of the state Republican Party for eight years and write a syndicated newspaper column. He also made another unsuccessful run for governor in 2006.
Dendahl, 75, died Saturday in Colorado, where he had moved in 2007 from Santa Fe. Friends said he had been diagnosed with leukemia and had recently begun receiving treatment.
In marking his death, friends remembered him as “true,” “fearless” and “tenacious.” Dendahl also could be gracious and warm. You didn’t have to share his political views to be a friend. He was quick with a smile and recognized the value of humor in public discourse.
But make no mistake: Politics was serious business for the conservative Dendahl, and he played hard. He knew what he believed in, and he hated losing. He didn’t bring a knife to the fight; he brought an ax.
Dendahl once had an “Attila the Hun” T-shirt. He described himself as a political pit bull. Democrats called him a “political leg-breaker” and character assassin.
Bob Schwartz, the late district attorney and judge in Albuquerque, once joked that he confiscated Dendahl’s utensils at a dinner because he shouldn’t have access to sharp objects.
The state Republican Party’s central committee elected Dendahl chairman just months after he lost the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary to Gary Johnson, who would go on to win the general election and re-election in 1998.
“I’m supposed to be a hell-raiser; I’m supposed to be aggressive,” Dendahl said in describing his style in a 1999 interview.
But, he said, politics was never personal. “I just love the competitive sparring and the matching of wits,” he said.
As GOP chairman, Dendahl portrayed Democrats as socialists, corrupt and ineffective in addressing the state’s problems.
He helped engineer the defeat of House Speaker Raymond Sanchez in 2000 by tying the Democrat to the more controversial Manny Aragon, then the Democratic leader in the Senate. He called Democrat Ben Lujan, who succeeded Sanchez as speaker, a “thug enforcer.”
Dendahl also went after members of his own party who he believed had been disloyal to the GOP.
When Republican state Sen. Billy “Chainsaw” McKibben criticized a veto by Johnson in 1999, Dendahl sent out a one-sentence fax: “I think Chainsaw’s about five links short of a full chain.”
When Republican state Rep. Jerry Lee Alwin opposed a GOP initiative to privatize prisons in 1998, Dendahl wrote a letter to his Republican constituents, saying the lawmaker had “gone off the farm.”
In 2003, Dendahl lost his bid for another two-year term as state GOP chairman, in large part due to party infighting. His attacks on other Republicans had taken their toll. Also, some party members were upset with his support of Johnson’s drug-legalization efforts.
Dendahl appeared to enjoy writing as much as talking, and he began writing an opinion column after losing the state GOP chairmanship. The column appeared regularly in the Journal from 2003 to 2006.
Democrat Bill Richardson was governor then, and he was a favorite Dendahl target. Their political differences were many, deep and long-running, dating back to the late 1970s.
Dendahl also used his column to advocate for school vouchers, voter ID and enforcement of immigration laws. He railed against environmentalists, activist judges, pork barrel spending, the Rail Runner and the spaceport.
When Richardson ran for re-election in 2006 and the GOP nominee to face him bailed out, Dendahl stepped in to challenge Richardson in the general election. He got trounced.
I got word not long after that election that Dendahl and his wife, Jackie, had decided to move to the Denver area. We met over a beer and hamburger to talk about the decision.
Dendahl said he was leaving for family considerations – he had children and grandchildren in Colorado – and because he had grown frustrated with what he believed to be widespread corruption in New Mexico and the refusal of public leaders to stand up to it.
He said many people are unwilling to challenge corruption because they benefit from it – for example, by having government contracts – or are afraid to do so for fear of retaliation.
“I just don’t think there’s a place for me here anymore,” Dendahl said. “I’ve worked too hard and too long and too ethically in business and in government and as a political leader.”
Dendahl continued to write opinion pieces after moving to Colorado.
Dendahl’s New Mexico roots ran deep. His great-grandparents met in Santa Fe in about 1876 after coming to the city to work for the Staabs, a prosperous merchant family whose home is now an inn and spa.
Three generations of Dendahl’s family ran a dry-goods store on San Francisco Street, just off the Plaza, selling fabric and ready-to-wear lines. He attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, and his 1959 national champion ski team was inducted in 2006 into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Dendahl also participated in the 1960 Winter Olympics.
After college, Dendahl returned to Santa Fe, where he worked his way up in a manufacturing company from engineer to CEO. He later served as president of First National Bank of Santa Fe.
Then-Gov. Garrey Carruthers appointed Dendahl to the State Investment Council in 1987, then to head the Department of Economic Development and Tourism the following year.
Dendahl was a longtime member of the board of St. John’s College, which has a campus in Santa Fe.
“I’m a New Mexican first, last and always,” Dendahl told me as he prepared to move to Colorado. “And I’ll never stop being a New Mexican and I’ll never stop having a great love of this state.”
A memorial service for Dendahl is tentatively planned for later this month in Santa Fe.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.