ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Les Houston, a former longtime state senator and Bernalillo County commissioner who rose from humble origins as the son of a Kentucky coal miner to become a political power broker, died Friday morning in Albuquerque. He was 81.
Family members said he had been in failing health for some time and died of natural causes while in home hospice care.
Houston was elected to the New Mexico Senate in 1976 as a Democrat and changed parties in 1985 after working with Republicans to thwart a tax hike backed by then-Gov. Toney Anaya. He served in the Senate for 16 years – earning a reputation as a political and fiscal conservative – and held the powerful position of Senate president pro tem for two years.
In 1994, he was elected as District 5 Bernalillo County Commissioner, a position he would hold for eight years. A prominent attorney who lobbied for the private prison industry after leaving the Legislature, Houston also ran twice for governor, in 1982 and 1990, and once for lieutenant governor.
Former New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers, now chancellor and president of New Mexico State University, recalled Houston’s days as a state legislator. “He was considered a power in the Senate, a very sophisticated political leader,” he said.
“Les Houston was good to work with and a congenial man. He worked the public, he worked the interest groups, the Senate, the House and the Governor’s Office. He really knew how to get legislation passed and signed,” Carruthers said.
A former colleague, Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, now the Senate minority leader, said he was saddened to learn of Houston’s death.
“Les was a very astute legislator and a brilliant attorney, and he knew how the state Legislature operated. He became very well-acquainted with everybody on the floor and treated everybody with a tremendous amount of respect.”
Ingle recalled that he was crucial to passing “one of the better workers’ compensation laws in the nation.”
“Our rates came down within a couple of years, and businesses were ecstatic,” Ingle said.
Ingle said Houston was “quick-witted” and could take a snarky comment or joke when directed at him, and could lob one right back.
His daughter, Holly Houston, said her father’s love of politics dominated a lot of his time when she and her brother were young. He was also “brutally honest, so we always knew where he stood,” she said. “He’d love to give advice, even when you didn’t ask for it, and then he’d get annoyed when you didn’t take it.”
Her father was also funny. “When we were little, he’d ask me and my brother if we wanted him to make it snow tomorrow. Of course, we did, and then we were thrilled when there was snow on the ground the next morning. We didn’t know about weather reports.”
Her father, she said, grew up in a one-room house in Meally, Ky., the eldest of four children who all slept in the same bed. A standout athlete, Les Houston played football and basketball in high school and was senior class president. He was awarded a football scholarship at the University of Louisville, where he became the only member of his family to attain a college degree. He remained at the school to earn his law degree and then served as an attorney in the Air Force for three years to pay off his law school expenses.
He discovered Albuquerque while stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base and decided to make the city his home.
Houston is survived by a son from his first marriage, Dennis Houston of Albuquerque; two children from his second marriage, daughter Holly Houston of Denver and son Jason Houston of Albuquerque; grandsons Joshua Duvall-Houston of Albuquerque and Shane Houston of Steamboat Springs, Colo.; and his wife of 37 years, Diane Houston.
Les Houston’s cremains will be interred at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Services have not been scheduled.