June 6, 2023

SANTA FE, NM (AP) — Jerry Apodaca, a Democrat who became New Mexico’s first Hispanic governor in 54 years when he took office in 1975, has passed away. He turned 88.

He died Wednesday at his Santa Fe home after what may have been a stroke, his son Jeff Apodaca said.

His son spoke of the legacy left by his father, one that fellow Democratic politicians say paved the way for more minorities to hold public office and take on leadership positions in boardrooms across the country.

He took his role seriously, said the younger Apodaca, an Albuquerque businessman and former media executive.

“I used to meet people from Fortune 500 companies, and not a meeting went by without a Latino executive asking me, ‘Are you Jerry’s son?’ They would tell me so many stories about what he had 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 January 1, 1975, making him the first Hispanic governor in New Mexico since Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo left office in 1921.

During his four-year term, the Apodaca government reorganized the state government into its current form by creating a cabinet system with 12 departments. Fulfilling a campaign promise, his administration consolidated agencies and eliminated some boards and commissions.

In an interview shortly before his term as governor ended, Apodaca cited the reorganization of the government and the establishment of a statewide kindergarten system as major achievements. He claimed that his administration had made the government more open and responsive to citizens.

Apodaca regularly held walk-in consultation hours where residents could meet him. His government implemented tax reduction 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 government just because he helped the campaign or because he was a friend,” he said in December 1978. “I think the record speaks for itself. The success of this government does not rest entirely on my shoulders.”

Apodaca also fought allegations linking him to organized crime figures.

While campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Apodaca disputed a convicted felon’s claims that he accepted a $10,000 bribe as governor in exchange for pardoning or paroleing a New Mexico prisoner. Apodaca called the accusation “a total fabrication”.

A grand jury requested by Apodaca ultimately found no evidence of perjury.

He lost the Democratic primaries for the U.S. Senate to Jeff Bingaman, who served 30 years.

Apodaca, who played halfback at the University of New Mexico in the mid-1950s, was appointed chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. 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 of tobacco giant Phillip Morris.

Carter also interviewed Apodaca for Secretary of Education when the US Department of Education was created. The job instead went to Shirley Hufstedler, a California federal appellate judge.

After leaving office, Apodaca endured a series of difficult business ventures, including failed real estate deals that led to a bankruptcy filing. In later years, he tried to return to politics, but lost the Democratic primaries for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and for governor in 1998.

Apodaca also ventured into publishing, acquiring Spanish magazine and Vista magazine, both English-language magazines aimed at Hispanic readers. He also served on the Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico from 1985 to 1991.

Apodaca entered politics as a Senator from Las Cruces, serving four terms from 1966 to 1976. 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 October 3, 1934, Apodaca graduated from UNM in 1957 and began teaching history and coaching football in high school 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 features biographical material compiled by former AP reporter Tim Korte.