Friday, December 28, 2007

Death Claims Senate Leader Ben Altamirano; Heart Attack Fells Longest Serving Member of NM Legislature; State Mourns Loss of "Peacemaker" 

"Gentle, genteel and generous" were the words heard most Thursday night as the season of peace was disturbed by the news that State Senator President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano had been felled by a heart attack at his home in Silver City. "Benny," as he was affectionately called by his fellow political travelers, was 77 years old and had served in the Senate since 1971. Democrat Altamirano was the longest serving legislator among the 112 senators and representatives, and one of its most respected and beloved. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson led the state in mourning his loss.

"I am deeply saddened by the passing of a great New Mexican and my dear friend, Benny Altamirano. Benny was a true statesman whose soft-spoken demeanor and love for the state helped earn him the respect of everyone who crossed his path. Benny will be dearly missed. Barbara and I send our condolences to Benny's wife, Nina, and his entire family."

(Details on funeral services here.)

The Governor's statement was echoed by ABQ Dem State Senator James Taylor who called Altamirano a "great conciliator." He said the family informed him that Ben died from a heart attack. Las Cruces State Senator and Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia told KRQE-TV that Altamirano was a "peacemaker." Taylor, 42, was five years old when Altamirano entered the Senate chamber and is the youngest member of the 42 member body.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican, described Senator Altamirano as an easy man to work with. "He always tried to see both sides of the issue and he tried to listen to everybody," Ingle told the AP.

The Senate has been increasingly factionalized in recent years. Altamirano was the institutional glue that often kept the upper chamber together. "He was friendly with the Governor, but he let the Senate be the Senate," said Senator Taylor of Altamirano's delicate balancing act.

Richardson has lost a key ally in the Senate which rebelled against the Governor during the last session and seems poised to do so again if the chief executive pushes them too hard.

Altamirano represented parts of Grant, Socorro and Catron counties. The Governor will appoint a replacement from nominees forwarded to him by the county commissions.


Altamirano took over as Pro Tem in 2004, succeeding Richard Romero who had formed a coalition with the Republicans to oust Manny Aragon from the position. Romero, reached while vacationing in Guatemala, told me Altamirano was "one of the nicest men I ever met--a real statesman."

Before assuming the Pro Tem position, Altamirano was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He started out running a grocery store in Silver City.

The Pro Tem position became ultra-powerful under Manny Aragon. Altamirano returned it to its more traditional role when Manny left. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez assumed most of the power that Aragon had placed in the Pro Tem's office. But Altamirano's distinguished presence, cool head and desire for peace tempered the Senate's sometimes boisterous personality. With the body divided into factions, a Pro Tem replacement is not obvious. The names of Senator John Arthur Smith, Mary Jane Garcia, Tim Jennings, Phil Griego and Pete Campos, among others, come to mind. A thirty day session of the Legislature begins January 15th.

For now, the political battles are put on hold as Senators are unified by the passing of the gentleman from Silver City whose demeanor and civility stood out in a political age that has turned raucous and too often rude.

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