Self-described Lincoln Republican was 84
David Cargo, who served as governor of New Mexico from 1967-70, died Friday. He was 84 and had been in a nursing home in Albuquerque.
State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, gave a simple five-word description of Cargo that we liked a lot.
"He was an iconic figure," McSorley said.
We interviewed Cargo less than two months ago. Here is our column from that conversation with the governor, who was called Lonesome Dave because of his willingness to stand alone.
His was an ascent of stunning speed. Cargo was so young, bright and driven that he never listened to people who said he should wait his turn, that he could not win the highest office in his adopted state until he was more seasoned.
At the State Capitol, legislators and lobbyists nicknamed Gov. Cargo “Lonesome Dave.” He went his own way, and he defied political convention.
Cargo, now 84, is a Republican, but he insists on being more specific than that.
“I believed in civil rights. I was a Lincoln Republican,” he said one day this week, sitting in a wheelchair in the nursing home where he lives.
Then he condensed his political philosophy into two sentences: “Stand up for what you believe in. I believe in honest government, sound budgeting and civil rights.”
Cargo was governor from 1967-70, a pair of two-year terms that saw him leave a lasting imprint on New Mexico.
His administration was the catalyst for clean-air and clean-water acts. Cargo created statewide kindergartens. He started the state film office to recruit moviemakers to New Mexico.
He demonstrated that a fiscal conservative could have an abiding commitment to conservation, and that both stands were good for business.
Cargo could be a bridge-builder and a political maverick, sometimes in the same day. But there is no question that he was a fulltime extrovert. A champion of the film industry, Cargo had parts in 22 movies.
“Some of them were pretty bad. Oh, God, they were awful,” he said.
He played a newspaper reporter in “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys,” a cavalry corporal in a frontier Western called “The Gatling Gun” and a state trooper in “Bunny O'Hare.” Filmmakers sometimes credited him as Gov. David Cargo. Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam were among the stars he worked with.
There was no acting in government service, and that was Cargo’s first calling.
He moved to Portland, Ore., but returned to New Mexico in the mid-1980s because Republicans needed a challenger to a seemingly invincible congressman, Democrat Bill Richardson.
That comeback might have been Cargo’s worst race. Richardson took 71 percent of the vote.
“I am the only governor since statehood to have his bust in the State Capitol,” Cargo said.
Legislators unanimously voted for the Cargo sculpture two years ago.
I walk by Cargo’s bronze bust most days. He was at the Capitol two summers ago, when it was placed in the rotunda during a public ceremony.
After learning that he was in a nursing home, I drove down to Albuquerque to see him.
He told me he still reads The New York Times everyday. Cargo himself still delivers quotes better than pearls.
“They used to tell me I wanted an idealistic world. I said, ‘Why not? I hope we do have an idealistic world.’ ”
In truth, Cargo always cared more about good government than he did about politics.
Through colleagues at his old law office in Albuquerque, Cargo became friends with U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez. Those were simpler times, when party labels were not such obstacles. Cargo said Democrat Chavez helped him win his first elective office, a seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives, in 1962.
Chavez died that November, just after the election. “I sat next to Lyndon Johnson at the funeral,” Cargo said.
Cargo was the only Republican House member from Albuquerque in that era. He stood out by leading the way on reapportionment, a dull but critical topic. Harding County, with 542 people, had a far greater percentage of representatives in the Legislature than Bernalillo County did, a political calamity, Cargo said.
We might have talked all morning, but a nurse pushed her way into our midst to order me out of the nursing home. The governor’s family, she said, insisted that he give no interviews.
Cargo said this was nonsense, that the topic had never even come up. “You can’t censor me,” he said.
I left him with reluctance. Lonesome Dave should not be a nickname that means Cargo sits by himself.
During our conversation, it was clear that his famous optimism had faded.
“They bring you here to die, not to live,” Cargo said.
The lion at dusk, his legacy is secure. He grew up in Dowagiac, Mich., which he describes as between Pokagon and Cassopolis. He headed to New Mexico in a 1949 Ford, purchased for $50, and made a mark so deep that we still talk about him and write about him.
Cargo believed government’s job was to make the world better. He put his theory into practice, a lesson for us all.