By Karl Terry: PNT columnist
As I grew up and came of age it seemed Bruce King had always been governor of New Mexico. With three different terms he was in the governor’s chair a long time.
It seemed the man, who passed away Friday at 85, truly loved the job of governor and the people of New Mexico truly loved his style of government.
King was the first governor to get my vote. By that time he had already served his first term and sat out nearly four years. I was out of state during the latter part of his third term and his unsuccessful run for a fourth term but I was disappointed when I heard the old cowboy had been beat.
He served 12 years in his three full terms, more than any other New Mexico governor. Edwin Mecham was also elected to three terms but was appointed to the U.S. Senate halfway through his third.
Before running for governor, King, from the tiny community of Stanley, served five terms in the state Legislature, the last three as speaker of the House. For his first term as governor he defeated then-Albuquerque mayor and Republican Pete Domenici.
My father-in-law, a Republican Tucumcari business owner, said the governor always looked to him like he was tromping through a cow lot. He liked Bruce King and I’m sure voted for him at least his last two terms. There were a lot of working people who voted for him without any thought to what party he represented. They knew King spoke their language and his agenda was helping the people of his beloved state.
I’ve seen him enter a gym or ballroom or stride through a county fair and watched as the crowd basked in his hand-pumping, back-slapping, aw-shucks attention. It’s said he rarely forgot a name and people appreciated that in an elected official.
I would have to describe his political methods as “Good Ole Boy” but not in the same realm as the term has become known. He didn’t call on his network for petty politics as much as he called in favors because it was the most expeditious way to get things done for the people of New Mexico. He was used to seeking consensus in the things he did in his life and bringing party leaders together to work things out rather than political sniping always seemed to be his way.
Fiscally he was pretty tight-fisted, sorta like you would expect a rancher to be but on social issues he led like a Democrat. A few of those social changes that bear his stamp was the state school equalization formula that is used these days to make sure that poorer school districts are able to attend to students’ needs and the creation of the Children Youth and Families Department, which oversees the welfare of at risk youth.
King was at home campaigning on the road and rubbing elbows with the voters. His approach was homespun and straight-forward and through three decades that was more than enough to bring home the votes for himself and anyone he campaigned for.
King revealed a good example of that approach in a 2007 interview with an Albuquerque Tribune reporter in which he told about a campaign stop he made in Pep, a tiny community south of Portales in his first governor campaign.
He recalled stopping at the Pep store and telling the owner he was running for governor. The guy was unimpressed at first but by the time King had finished a bottle of pop and a candy bar he had won the man’s trust. The store owner asked for some campaign materials and even sent King back out to the car for more buttons and cards, telling him “we got 99 voters here.”
“On election night I watched the returns in Pep and we got every single vote,” King said. “I knew then you did some good visiting people.”
It’s likely no one else will top King’s length of service in the governor’s office and it’s almost certain no one will ever build the same amount of trust he enjoyed with the people of this state.