Friends said Dendahl, who moved from New Mexico to the Denver area in 2007, had been diagnosed with leukemia and had recently begun treatment. Survivors include his wife, Jackie, and five daughters.
The 75-year-old Santa Fe native was remembered fondly by New Mexico Republicans who noted his fearless challenges to Democrats and his devotion to strengthening the state’s longtime minority party.
“The Democrats would be throwing spitwads at us, and John Dendahl was an F-16,” said former Gov. Gary Johnson, describing political battle during the Dendahl era.
Johnson defeated Dendahl for the 1994 GOP gubernatorial nomination but the two became friends and Dendahl served as party chairman through Johnson’s two terms as governor.
Dendahl came under fire from his own party’s mainstream when he backed Johnson’s criticism of the War on Drugs and Johnson’s calls for drug law decriminalization. Confronted with a sudden ballot vacancy in 2006, however, with Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson seeking a second term, the GOP called on Dendahl to become its candidate and he took on the uphill campaign.
“I could not have asked for anybody better in the role of state party chairman,” Johnson said.
Former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called Dendahl “a special kind of person” and said he felt privileged to have worked with him.
“He was in all respects a true person, who knew who he was and what he was,” Domenici said. “I am very sorry for his family because he had a lot of life left in him.”
“John Dendahl was a leader,” said Pat Rogers, an Albuquerque lawyer and Republican national committeeman for New Mexico, who served as general counsel for the state GOP while Dendahl was chairman.
“He was a fearless friend,” Rogers said. “John was ever honest and resolute … no matter how difficult the trail or how daunting the challenge … . He made the Republican Party, New Mexico and everything he touched better.”
Former state senator and Republican national committeeman Mickey Barnett of Albuquerque called Dendahl “a great American … . He always did what he thought was best, regardless of the consequences,” Barnett said.
Dendahl was the scion of a Santa Fe merchant family and a cross-country skier on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Ski Team. He was president of First National Bank of Santa Fe and head of Eberline Instrument Corp. before becoming secretary of economic development and tourism under Gov. Garrey Carruthers in 1988.
He served on the board of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, among others, and was a frequent newspaper letter writer and guest columnist.
Dendahl served as Republican Party of New Mexico chairman from December 1994 to May 2003. He sought the GOP nomination for governor in 1994 and became the nominee in 2006.
Led by Dendahl, Republicans made gains in the New Mexico Legislature, long controlled by Democrats. The hallmark of the GOP effort during Dendahl’s terms was the defeat of powerful House Speaker Raymond G. Sanchez of Albuquerque in 2000.
A self-described “pit bull” for the GOP, Dendahl took on public school teachers, unions, environmentalists and public corruption.
Probably his most controversial comment came during the 2006 campaign against Richardson, when he said teachers were too busy teaching the “three S’s – sexuality, self-esteem and socialism” to focus on academic basics.
New Mexico political consultant Jay McCleskey said Dendahl deserves credit for strengthening the state Republican Party.
“John Dendahl was a unique person who was as tenacious in politics as he was competing as an Olympic skier and deserves a lot of credit for helping end one-party dominance in the state,” McCleskey said.