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Reminiscence on the passing of New Mexico Senate President Ben Altamirano

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Reminiscence on the passing of Senate President Ben Altamirano

By Stephen Fox 

I. A truly great statesman

     For two years, he endorsed and volunteered to sponsor the bill to create a powerful new Nutrition Council for New Mexico, of which I was the author, and he saw the need to have express powers to challenge the FDA when it was wrong. He spoke of the need to have viejos and comadres serving on the council, if it was really going to help the people improve their health, not just industry apparatchiks. He told me many times that although he didn’t have a lot of confidence in the accuracy of newspapers, he had never gotten such good press nor such positive feedback from constituents in his entire legislative career than he had gotten from taking on the Nutrition Council legislation and its related issues.

       Then the corporate lobbyists who had nothing to gain and everything to lose if the Nutrition Council ever were passed by the Legislature, turned on him and forced the bill's evisceration in a couple of Senate Committees.

      He always had time to talk and always saw deeply into matters of ordinary people and the problems deriving from poverty, stemming from his own experiences growing up somewhat poor in Grant County. He was no "hack" like some of the very powerful in the Roundhouse; I think the main reason he rose to power was his even handedness as Senate Finance Chairman for 18 years, disbursing the state's money even handedly, fairly, judiciously, and without the faintest hint of scandal or dishonesty! Michael Sanchez noted in his personal eulogy that Ben got the Pro Tem job after he asked the Democrat Caucus after Richard Romero resigned to run for Congress if anyone objected to his being Pro Tem, because he wanted it to be unanimous, and of course, no one objected and he got the job. I was in his office a day or two later and he was beaming with happiness and saying “By golly, President Pro Tem of the New Mexico Senate: it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?”

       All of New Mexico will miss him profoundly. House Speaker Luján noted that legislation sponsored this year by Altamirano took effect on New Year's Day, to increase minimum wage benefiting the lowest-paid workers in New Mexico. "He was a gentleman in a place that does not always treat gentlemen kindly. He was a statesman in a place that too frequently rewards those with more narrow concerns," said Luján. "He brought a calm, reasonable voice to a place that needs more calm and more reason."

 II. What Killed Benny Altamirano?

    At the Memorial Service in the Rotunda, his son Paul briefly touched on the “negative” aspects of what 36 years of public service in the New Mexico Senate really means: the 4:00 A.M. calls asking him to come to Santa Fe, the very long trip starting with the tortuous winding road over the Black Range, the 1 and 2:00 A.M. sessions in Senate Finance, the stress, the cumulative fatigue (all of which led his doctors to recommend that he “cut back and slow down.” Not Benny . . . no one was as driven as he was by a love of public service and legislating.

    After visiting him in his office, I noticed several perpetual cans of diet Coke in his office refrigerator. I was horrified for his health: the sweetener Aspartame is metabolized as methanol and formaldehyde, obviously two horrible effects on anyone, particularly someone recovering from cardiac surgery and on a later occasion, from a severe bout with bronchial pneumonia. I gave him dozens of bottles of Organic Apricot Nectar from the Italian firm, BioNaturae, but he kept drinking the Diet beverages. His physicians were right to be alarmed. Anyone would suffer from the grinding schedule of New Mexico’s Senate President.

In retrospect, maybe he shouldn’t have gone to Santa Fe in the later years, and shouldn’t have carried on those 100 hour weeks. Someone suffering from cardiac impairments and later a total knee replacement, the last of his surgeries, should have retired and told stories of his accomplishments to his eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren. But not Ben Altamirano . . .

       It was almost as if he believed his personal powers of civility and persuasion would allow him to prevail over the Grim Reaper himself. After all, he had conquered a divisive and even embittered Legislature and six different Governors with his civility, decency, and wit. Alas, that was not to be. My own theory is that a disproportionately large number of aged and ill people die after our gluttonous holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, much as Halloween is bad for all of the children goring on sugar, candy, and junk food and much as hundreds die in auto wrecks after imbibing on New Year’s Eve.

    Ben and his family no doubt welcomed the lighter load as Pro Tem, compared to the 18 years of physical draining as Senate Finance Chairman. Having grown up in the Depression in New Mexico made him glad to accept the travel and perks offered the Pro Tem, like a trip to the Netherlands to examine nuclear fuel reprocessing, and international legislative conferences in China and in California. I even warned him several times about the impact of such travel on his health.

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