Farewell To A True Public Servant

When she was staff director of the Legislative Finance Committee in the 1960s people called her “the most powerful woman in New Mexico government.” When she was chief of staff for Gov. Garrey Carruthers, 1987-1990, people called her New Mexico’s “first woman governor.”

People don’t talk with that kind of irony any more, there are so many women executives in state government, but when Maralyn Budke started out there were only a token few. There was one woman among the 112 legislators, none in the appellate courts, and the idea of a woman governor was only expressed in ballsy humor.

Even as late as 1996 the subject of “Gov.” Budke brought a laugh – warm and hearty though it was – at a big political dinner in Santa Fe’s Hotel Eldorado. Among the 250 guests honoring radio commentator Ernie Mills were all living former governors except one, Carruthers. When a speaker noted his absence someone from the audience yelled, “That’s OK. Maralyn Budke is here!”

The laughter turned to applause. Maralyn, seated at the gubernatorial table, blonde and blue-eyed, demurred. A woman among men, a Republican among Democrats. Later I called Carruthers about something and mentioned how they applauded his former chief of staff at the dinner. “Well, they should have,” he said with blunt honesty. “Maralyn ran government while I was playing golf, and everybody knows it.”

She used to call herself “a sort of a mechanic.” The governor’s office during most of the Carruthers administration was in temporary quarters in the PERA building while the capitol was being remodeled. Sitting at her carved desk in a room as big as the governor’s office (but with better paintings), she reviewed every document that required the governor’s signature. Most she signed for him with the office autopen of which she was sole custodian. “I like the business side of government,” she told me. “The governor thrives on the public side.” The relationship of trust enabled Carruthers, as she put it, “to develop the public persona.”

Didn’t the experience give her a taste for developing her own public persona? “Absolutely, under no circumstances, would I ever consider running for governor,” she said. I took that as a “No.”

A couple of years ago I had lunch with Maralyn at her Santa Fe spa and golf club. I asked if there were things she might like to put on record. She declined. But she did clarify some things I had wondered about.

Was it Cargo or his lieutenant governor, E. Lee Francis, who called out the National Guard within hours of the June 5, 1967, Tierra Amarilla Court House raid by Reis Lopez Tijerina and at least a dozen armed followers?

Some 400 soldiers armed with everything from M-1 carbines to armored half-tracks occupied most of Rio Arriba County, drawing criticism from the New York Times among other national news organizations, but gratifying those New Mexicans who feared some sort of general insurgency in the north. Cargo, whose sympathy with the land-grant movement had been a campaign issue, was out of state, at a fund raiser in his native Michigan.

“E. Lee Francis did it on his own,” she said. The slow, stentorian Republican sheep rancher took charge immediately when news of the raid reached the governor’s office. Francis not only immediately mobilized the Guard and all available law enforcement officers, he switched the governor’s office to an underground communications center called “the war room,” with himself in command. He took Maralyn and a few others with him. He did not communicate with Cargo and ask permission, she clarified, showing respect for the decisiveness of the often ridiculed lieutenant governor.

As for Cargo, whom she always admired for his glib public persona, Maralyn described the difficulty of her abbreviated tenure as his chief of staff. Cargo spent most of his time courting the news media. “We had to read the newspaper every morning to find out what state policy was going to be for that day,” she said.

She mused about a strange crisis in 1969, which threatened to close down the University of New Mexico in a tumultuous period of student protest. She was director of the powerful LFC, the Legislature was in long session. State Sen. Harold Runnels, an oil field contractor who was not easily embarrased, took her aside apologetically and handed her a sheet of paper, asking what she thought of it. It was entitled “Love Lust Poem,” and it described a sexual desire in explicit f-word language. She maintained her usual composure.

The poem had been passed out by the teacher in a UNM Freshman English class, somebody’s daughter brought it home and it was passed on to a legislator who passed it on to Runnels, who called the LFC into secret session. Members of the all-male committee expressed fear and loathing, some practically screaming, “What if my own daughter saw this?”

Before locking the doors, the committee told every woman to leave the room. Except Maralyn. “That’s when I knew I was one of the boys,” she told me, with a smile.

(Runnels went on the win a seat in Congress as a Democrat from the southern district, having established his conservatism by enacting a major tax cut and by expressing outrage over the Love Lust Poem. The Legislature created the University Study Committee under a strong publicity-shunning chair, Sen. I. M. Smalley, who eventually defused the situation.)

Maralyn by then was inured to the short-term views of many legislators. She recalled that as a young staffer she advised how the state could seize an opportunity to buy Fort Marcy Hill in the center of Santa Fe. The purchase depended upon the will of one powerful old bull who was chair of the Senate Finance Committee. This was before the new state capitol was authorized.

She took the senator up the hill and showed him a site that would have been among the most beautiful state capitol grounds in the nation, with room for expansion long into the future. The senator looked down over the city and said absolutely no. Why? “Too far from La Fonda,” he said, referring to the hotel on the plaza where most legislators drank.

Tony Hillerman modeled a central character in his 1971 novel, “Fly On The Wall,” after Maralyn, whom he knew when he was a reporter in Santa Fe. The character, director of “the Legislative Finance Committee” in an unnamed state, was a beacon of truth and ethics in a dark and corrupt government.

In her first-edition copy of the mystery, Maralyn began making marginal notes in her fine hand, references to real-life incidents on which Hillerman probably had based parts of his plot. Then she came upon one that shocked her: the one-line mention of the unsolved murder of the district attorney of Borger, Tex.

The victim in real life was her mother’s first husband. When the couple drove home one night, she told me, “He got out to open the garage doors and was shot and killed before her eyes.” Her mother was guarded by Texas Rangers on the supposition that her life was in danger as a witness. (Hillerman, who had worked in Texas, thought police were involved in the assassination, her mother had a different theory.) So Maralyn, the only child of a second marriage, grew up with that family history as an introduction to politics.

It did not stop her from majoring in political science at UNM, then going to work for New Mexico government. Ten years later, she said, “I realized I had a career.” At age 46 in 1982 she retired to a comfortable Santa Fe house she bought with the help of a an inheritance from her father in Texas. “I intend to watch everything from my hill,” she said.

But life intervened. She was stricken with a brain cancer, which she survived after intensive therapy at UNM Hospital. She was a friend of UNM for the rest of her life, serving on various commissions and advisory groups, maintaining a well informed interest in the practice of medicine. (She was so appalled at the Terri Schiavo intervention by Republicans in Congress that she changed her party registration in protest.)

She came off her hill in response to Carruthers’ intensive recruitment after his 1986 election. Her motive was public service. She insisted upon a salary of $1 a year.

Maralyn died at home among friends, who said she requested no service or memorial and to have her ashes buried with her parents in Texas. She was 74.

Scroll to Top