Former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King dies at age 85

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — Former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King was a back-slapping, hand-pumping, old-fashioned politician, equally at home on the ranch or in the Roundhouse.

His death, at 85, marks the end of an era in New Mexico politics.

King was with family members at his ranch in Stanley when he died Friday morning, less than a year after the death of his wife of 61 years, Alice.

King served a total of 12 years as governor in separate terms that spanned three decades.

Former President Bill Clinton, a friend for 30 years, said he was saddened.

“He was truly one of a kind — a great governor and a wonderful man who used his homespun manner to demonstrate, and sometimes to hide, a razor-sharp mind and an amazing wit. Bruce was my generation’s Will Rogers,” Clinton said in a statement.

Clinton, the former governor of Arkansas, said he always tried to sit near King at governors’ meetings “knowing if I did I’d get a laugh and a lesson in life and politics.”

King’s political career covered 40 years. Before being elected governor in 1970, 1978 and 1990, he was a lawmaker and county commissioner.

When King retired in 1994 — after losing re-election to a younger political outsider, Republican Gary Johnson — New Mexico’s political landscape had changed.

The importance of political bosses had dwindled. The notion that you had to start at the bottom of the political ladder had been tossed aside. It was all about campaign consultants, big bucks and the televised sound bites — something the inarticulate King never quite mastered.

“Bruce King was the last of the politicians whose success derived from his personal relationships, or personal friendships, with everyday New Mexicans,” said Brian Sanderoff, an aide to King in his middle term who went on to become the state’s most prominent pollster.

King’s famous folksiness was no put-on. He was a cowboy; he looked it and sounded it.

Another former governor, Republican Dave Cargo, recalled King as commonsensical and straightforward.

“With Bruce, he would tell you what he thought, and that was it,” said Cargo, who served with King in the Legislature and was governor just before King’s first term.

King’s parents were homesteaders. His father arrived in the Estancia Valley, east of Albuquerque, in the early 1900s.

“Ranching was in his blood. It’s who he was, and it dictated his style as a public figure,” Sanderoff said.

He was a middle-of-the-road Democrat, constantly seeking the balance he thought would satisfy most New Mexicans.

That earned him the support of a cross-section of interests, as well as criticism that he was too easygoing and a political caretaker.

He signed laws that equalized funding for schools, created a huge trust for the state’s income from minerals, established kindergarten statewide, set up a public defender program, and created an environmental improvement agency.

He was particularly proud of the Children, Youth and Families Department, which was formed at the urging of Alice King to consolidate children’s services.

But his tenure was marred by the bloody 1980 riot at the old state penitentiary near Santa Fe in which 33 inmates were butchered by other prisoners. A state investigation found the prison problems resulted from years of neglect.

The situation at the penitentiary before the riot was “kind of like the guy who was going to control the tea kettle by just putting Scotch tape and taping over the spout and lid,” King said in a 2005 interview. “And as he heated it up, well, it just has to give.”

He refused to expand legalized gambling, angering Indian tribes that threw their support and money to Johnson.

He said he hoped his political legacy would be the belief of New Mexicans that they’d had “an honest, efficient, effective government.”

“Let’s saddle up and ride out, answering wrongs where we can, setting things right where we can,” he told the Legislature in 1971 as he started his first term.

King’s survivors include his sons Gary, who is New Mexico’s attorney general, and Bill.

Funeral arrangements were pending.