SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Jerry Apodaca, a Democrat who became New Mexico’s first Hispanic governor in 54 years when he took office in 1975, has died. He was 88.
He died at his home in Santa Fe on Wednesday after what may have been a stroke, his son Jeff Apodaca said.
His son talked about the legacy his father left behind, one that fellow Democratic politicians say paved the way for more minorities to enter public office and take on leadership roles in corporate boardrooms across the country.
He took his role seriously, said the younger Apodaca, an Albuquerque businessman and former media executive.
“I used to meet with people in Fortune 500 companies, and there was not a meeting that went by where I wouldn’t run into a Latino executive who’d ask me, ‘Are you Jerry’s son?’ They would tell me so many stories about what he’d done,” Jeff Apodaca told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “General Motors, McDonald’s … he opened doors for Latinos in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Apodaca ran an insurance business in Las Cruces before being elected to the state Senate in 1966. He was 40 when he was inaugurated as governor on Jan. 1, 1975, making him the first Hispanic governor in New Mexico since Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo left office in 1921.
During his four-year term, Apodaca’s administration reorganized state government to its current form by creating a cabinet system with 12 departments. Delivering on a campaign pledge, his administration consolidated agencies and eliminated some boards and commissions.
In an interview shortly before his gubernatorial term ended, Apodaca cited the government reorganization and establishment of a statewide kindergarten system as major accomplishments. He claimed his administration made government more open and responsive to citizens.
Apodaca regularly held open office hours where residents could meet with him. His administration implemented tax relief programs, including tax credits, tax rebates and tax rate reductions, but Apodaca was criticized for appointing close friends to public positions.
“I didn’t find any logical reason to exclude anyone from the administration just because he helped in the campaign or because he was a friend,” he said in December 1978. “I think the record speaks for itself. The success of this administration does not rest entirely on my shoulders.”
Apodaca also battled allegations linking him to organized crime figures.
While campaigning in 1982 for U.S. Senate, Apodaca disputed claims by a convicted felon that he had accepted a $10,000 bribe as governor in return for granting a pardon or parole for a New Mexico inmate. Apodaca called the accusation “a total fabrication.”
A grand jury requested by Apodaca ultimately found no evidence of perjury.
He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to Jeff Bingaman, who went on to serve for 30 years.
Apodaca, who played halfback at the University of New Mexico in the mid-1950s, was appointed in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. While governor, he ran and completed the 1978 Boston Marathon.
After leaving office, he resigned from the fitness panel after being elected to the board of directors for tobacco giant Phillip Morris.
Carter also interviewed Apodaca for Secretary of Education when the U.S. Department of Education was created. The job went instead to Shirley Hufstedler, a federal appellate judge in California.
After leaving office, Apodaca endured a series of troubled business ventures, including failed real estate deals that led to a bankruptcy filing. In later years, he sought to return to politics but lost the Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate in 1982 and for governor in 1998.
Apodaca also ventured into publishing, taking over Hispanic magazine and Vista magazine, both English-language periodicals aimed at Hispanic readers. He also served on the University of New Mexico’s board of regents from 1985 to 1991.
Apodaca started in politics as a state senator from Las Cruces, serving four terms from 1966-76. In the 1974 gubernatorial race, he defeated Republican Joe Skeen by just 3,752 votes. Campaigning during the post-Watergate era, Apodaca portrayed himself as “The Man Nobody Owns.”
Born Raymond S. Apodaca in Las Cruces on Oct. 3, 1934, Apodaca graduated from UNM in 1957 and began teaching history and coaching high school football in Albuquerque. He later moved back to Las Cruces, opened an insurance business and branched out into retail and real estate.
He is survived by his ex-wife, Clara, three daughters, Cindy, Carolyn, Judy, and two sons, Jerry Jr. and Jeff.
The story includes biographical material compiled by former AP reporter Tim Korte.