Hardball politics

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The recent presidential election, fiercely fought and not immune to mudslinging, no doubt raised eyebrows among those Americans who quaintly believe that politics ought to be conducted in a gentlemanly manner.

In fact, more often than not, our national elections have resembled a rough-and-tumble spectator sport. Closer to home, in 1857 New Mexico suffered through what was then called "the most bitterly contested election in the history of the territory." Its purpose was to elect New Mexico's one territorial delegate to the United States Congress for a term of two years.

This delegate, who had no vote in the congressional body, merely represented New Mexican interests there but otherwise was powerless.

Among aspiring politicos, however, the post of delegate was much sought after, it being the most prestigious elected office in the territory. In 1857, one candidate was the incumbent seeking re-election, Miguel Antonio Otero Sr. of Valencia County, who had attended St. Louis University and afterward passed the Missouri bar exam before returning to New Mexico.

His opponent, bent upon unseating him, was another lawyer, Spruce M. Baird, a Texan who arrived in 1848 and eventually built a large house south of Albuquerque. Entering the political arena, he wrote: "The Mexican population here, when left to themselves, are the most orderly people I have ever seen at an election."

That held up, he made clear, only when Americans were not present because "their strategy was to create chaos at all those precincts expected to give large majorities against them."

Strange to us now, both candidates for the delegateship were Democrats, but each represented different factions within the party — one pro-statehood and the other anti-statehood. Odd too, the factions were not divided on ethnic lines. Texan Spruce Baird had made many friends in the Hispano community and was reputed to have claimed that he himself was a better Mexican than Otero!

The opposition, in an attempt to scare voters, started a rumor that should Baird be elected, he would attempt to sell eastern New Mexico to Texas. One of Baird's most vocal supporters was the ex-priest Jose Manuel Gallegos, who had been defrocked by Bishop J.B. Lamy. Gallegos, considered to be anti-American, ran for territorial delegate back in 1855, but lost to Otero after a bitterly fought campaign.

The 1857 election, with its confusing alliances and political animosities, exemplified the nature of governance in the seven-year-old territory of New Mexico. Samuel Ellison, the territorial secretary and official interpreter, wrote to a friend in Connecticut, James J. Webb, just a month prior to the election and brought him up to date.

Ellison was a staunch Baird backer as was Webb, a former Santa Fe Trail merchant. Ellison informed him that Jose Manuel Gallegos had organized a pro-Baird rally in Albuquerque with 500 New Mexicans in attendance. Otero and friends tried to break up the meeting, causing a serious disorder.

Voting officials told Otero to behave himself or get out. Otero left. Gallegos asserted that if he hadn't, the people would have committed violence against him.

In his letter, Secretary Ellison wrote in upbeat terms that Baird was ahead, he believed, in Doña Ana, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Taos counties, although Socorro and San Miguel counties were lost. A month later, Ellison addressed a follow-up report to Webb, declaring sadly, "We are badly whipped!"

As one of several causes for the defeat, he noted that Bishop Lamy canvassed the counties on behalf of Otero, adding, "You know the influence he has with the people."

In closing, the secretary mentioned that a wild victory baile (dance) was given to Miguel A. Otero in Santa Fe's Exchange Hotel (today's La Fonda). Mrs. Otero and Mrs. Joab Houghton, wife of the former chief justice, looked on with pleasure. While this episode in the practice of democracy was neither edifying nor dignified, it was certainly colorful, conveying the flavor of time in New Mexico's 1850s.