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Skeen Protected Rural Interests

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    A memorial service is scheduled Thursday in Roswell for former U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen, who was remembered Monday by Republicans and Democrats alike as an icon of rural New Mexico.
    First elected to Congress in 1980 in an extraordinary write-in campaign and re-elected 10 times, Skeen died in his sleep Sunday night at a Roswell hospital from complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 76.
    Skeen, a Republican, was one of only three people in U.S. history to win a congressional seat on a write-in vote. He was New Mexico's longest serving member of the U.S. House when he decided, in 2002, to retire from the state's largely southern 2nd District.
    "Joe Skeen was a good rancher and a good friend," recalled former three-time Gov. Bruce King, a Democrat, who defeated Skeen in a race for governor in 1978. "He certainly did his part to serve New Mexico, and he'll be missed by one and all."
    Skeen, who had battled Parkinson's disease since at least 1997, loomed large in New Mexico politics. His decision to retire set off a political free-for-all in 2002 in the 2nd District, now represented by Steve Pearce, a Republican and former state House member.
    "Joe Skeen was a man of deep conviction, a true statesman and a dedicated public servant to his state and his country," Pearce said Monday. "I have seen firsthand the tremendous love he had for his constituents, and the admiration the people of southern New Mexico had for him."
    Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff to honor Skeen, whom Richardson called "a vintage New Mexican."
    "He loved the land and represented New Mexico's rural lifestyle with great skill," said Richardson, a Democrat, who served in Congress with Skeen when Richardson represented New Mexico's northern 3rd Congressional District from 1983-97.
    "His vote was conservative, yet when it came to recognizing the needs of northern New Mexico, he always helped me with his Appropriations subcommittee," Richardson said Monday.
Colleagues to speak
    A memorial service for Skeen is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Grace Community Church in Roswell, with a reception to follow at the Roswell Civic Center, said Skeen family spokesman Jerry McKinney.
    Richardson, Pearce, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and former Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr., R-N.M., are scheduled to speak at Skeen's memorial service, McKinney said.
    Domenici, New Mexico's senior senator, said Skeen's passing was hard to accept "even though he's been ill for so long."
    "Joe fit his district like a hand in a glove, and that fact will define his legacy," Domenici said.
    Skeen, who lived in Picacho, had been hospitalized at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center since mid-November. Skeen's wife, Mary, was with him when he died, McKinney said.
    Erik Ness, spokesman for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, called Skeen "a John Wayne of New Mexico" and "a rough, tough cowboy."
    "He had a heart as big as the West," Ness said. "We were honored to have Joe in Congress as long as he was."
    State Republican Party Chairwoman Ramsay Gorham said Skeen was "a giant in New Mexico politics."
    "He was a take-charge person," Gorham said. "He was always so upbeat."
    King said the Republican was always a gentleman, even in political battle.
    "He didn't sling around the mud like they do now," King said. "We stayed good friends throughout the (1978 governor's) race, which I didn't win by too much either."
    Skeen also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1974, narrowly losing to former Gov. Jerry Apodaca. He was elected to Congress in 1980 as a write-in candidate after the death of longtime Democratic Rep. Harold "Mud" Runnels.
Defending farmers
    Throughout his career in a conservative district dominated by registered Democrats, Skeen, whose family managed a 15,000-acre sheep ranch in Picacho, was a staunch defender of farming and ranching interests.
    Skeen criticized federal management of forests and alienated environmentalists by opposing the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf and wanting to soften the Endangered Species Act.
    "When Joe Skeen walked into a room, you knew he was there," said McKinney, Skeen's longtime spokesman.
    Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, now dean of the New Mexico State University College of Business Administration and Economics, said Skeen was his mentor in the late 1970s when Carruthers chaired the state GOP.
    "He taught me about the importance of the minority party, how we had to continue to play hard," Carruthers said.
    Skeen, state GOP chairman in 1964, spent 10 years in the state Senate, winning election in 1960. He was Senate minority leader under former Gov. Dave Cargo when there were only 11 GOP members in the state House and four in the Senate.
    "When Joe Skeen was Senate minority leader, he used to jokingly say he could fit his whole caucus into a phone booth," said Gorham, a state senator from Albuquerque. "We owe the progress of our party to his convictions and leadership skills."
    Cargo said Skeen was "an old-fashioned conservative."
    Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Skeen "was a model of integrity and truth" throughout his years in Congress.
    "He walked his talk," Udall said. "While we didn't agree on everything, he always did what he believed in his heart to be true."
    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Skeen's death "is a great loss to New Mexico and to the many New Mexicans who called him a friend."
    Survivors include Skeen's wife, the former Mary Helen Jones of Picacho and Roswell; a daughter, Elisa Livingston of Albuquerque; a son, Mickell Lee Skeen of the family ranch in Picacho; a daughter-in-law, Gail Edwards Skeen of Picacho; and three grandsons: Ross Livingston of Albuquerque and Clint and Tyler Skeen of the family ranch.
    The family asked that donations be made to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, 710 West 168th St., New York, NY, 10032-9982 or online at www.pdf.org/giving or to the charity of choice. Funeral arrangements are being handled by La Grone Funeral Chapel in Roswell. Interment will be at the family ranch.
    Journal staff writers Rene Romo and Chris Ramirez contributed to this report.