David F. Cargo, a maverick Republican who became the youngest governor of New Mexico and served two terms in the turbulent 1960s, died Friday at the age of 84.
Cargo had been in an Albuquerque nursing home for about two years following a stroke, but he had remained active. He suddenly fell ill following a day of Fourth of July activities and died after being taken to an Albuquerque hospital, his son Patrick Cargo of Dallas told The Associated Press.
Cargo’s son remembered his father’s bigger-than-life personality, his humor and love for helping people.
“He was really one of a kind,” the younger Cargo said. “We actually saw him last week. He was doing great, he had good energy and he looked really good. We were very thankful that we got to spend time with him.”
Known as “Lonesome Dave,” Cargo championed the film industry as economic development and established the first state film commission. He also was an early advocate of a policy for apportioning legislative seats that has altered the political landscape in New Mexico over several decades.
Cargo earned his nickname during his first bid for governor in 1966 when he had little support from the GOP and traveled the state alone in a 1959 Chevrolet to campaign in rural areas and small towns typically bypassed by his better-funded Democratic opponent, a longtime state Senate leader.
A sheepherder on horseback, according to Cargo, called him “Lonesome Dave” during a chance encounter when the candidate got out of his car on a muddy road to greet the man. A newspaperman with Cargo used the exchange in a story and the nickname stuck.
“People started seeing me as a guy who was battling business-as-usual and the special interests all by himself. Although I had always been the underdog, the name Lonesome Dave crystallized that in peoples’ minds,” Cargo wrote in an autobiography in 2010.
He exhibited a liberal streak in his political philosophy. He opposed anti-union, right-to-work measures and proposed abolishing the death penalty when he was in the Legislature. In his first year as governor, Cargo urged the Legislature to increase the minimum wage, raise unemployment compensation benefits and start offering state financing for kindergarten programs.
“As the years passed, you realize he really was ahead of his time with a lot of the stuff he was doing,” Patrick Cargo said. “He cared so much about the state that he didn’t mind taking on a lot of those tasks and partnering and really reaching across the aisle.”
Democrats controlled New Mexico when Cargo ran for governor in 1966. Only two other Republicans had won statewide office in the previous three decades. However, he actively courted the votes of organized labor, Hispanics and other minorities that typically backed Democrats. Cargo dismayed the political establishment by winning with nearly 52 percent of the vote statewide.
He took office at age 37, the youngest man ever to serve as governor of New Mexico. He won re-election to another two-year term in 1968.
“New Mexico lost a great friend, a leader and a tireless advocate for all New Mexicans,” current Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement. “Gov. Cargo and I shared a passion for literacy and he dedicated much of his life to it by raising thousands of dollars to help build and maintain 12 libraries throughout rural New Mexico in places like Mora, Anton Chico, Villanueva and Corona. Gov. Cargo will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”
Born in Dowagiac, Mich., Cargo received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan in 1953 and then served two years in the Army in Germany during the Korean War. He earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1957 and moved to New Mexico to practice law.
Cargo was elected to the Legislature in 1962, and he won re-election to another two-year term.
After leaving the governorship, Cargo never again won elective office in New Mexico despite campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Congress and mayor of Albuquerque. He lived in Oregon for several years and ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer there in the 1980s, but later returned to New Mexico.
Cargo stands as a transitional figure in New Mexico politics, a bridge to a modern media-driven style of governing and campaigning. His sharp wit and quick one-liners produced widespread press coverage but often stirred controversy and angered those in government.
His progressive agenda often ran into opposition from conservatives who dominated the Legislature. Cargo advocated tougher ethics laws against conflicts of interest by government officials, proposed registering lobbyists and pushed for greater pollution controls. All of those eventually were accomplished, but some by later governors.
Cargo is survived by his five children — sons, David, Patrick and Eamon, and two daughters, Veronica and Elena.
Funeral services were being planned.
Massey reported from Santa Fe, N.M. Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.