Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Dennis Chavez

A surprising lack of attention has been paid to the first national Latino politicians. Why this is, I don’t know. One of the most prominent was New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez. The first Hispanic senator in American history, Chavez was an important New Dealer, played a key role in US-Latin American relations during World War II and the early Cold War period, and brought much needed federal dollars to this poor state.

Dennis Chavez was born Dionisio Chavez on April 8, 1888 in Valencia County, New Mexico. His parents were local farmers who soon gave it up to move to the burgeoning railroad city of Albuquerque in search for employment. Like migrating farm families throughout the history of industrialization, the Chavez clan remained poor and Dionisio dropped out of school after the 8th grade. However, despite their poverty, Chavez’s father was active in local Hispano Republican politics and Chavez became interested in political life himself, though he soon rejected his father’s party and joined with the Democrats. Chavez was also determined to escape poverty and he taught himself and attended night school after his hard days of work. By 1905, he found work in the Albuquerque Engineering Department but he certainly did not see that as the limit of his ambitions. In 1916, Chavez ran for county clerk but lost. But his bilingual skills and ability to negotiate both Anglo and Hispano culture bought his ticket to success. In that same election year, Chavez was the Spanish interpreter for Andreius A. Jones, the successful Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Jones brought Chavez with him to Washington, hiring him as a clerk.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Chavez was soon accepted to Georgetown Law School. He did not have a high school diploma. In 1920, at the age of 32, Chavez earned his LL.B. degree.

After completing his degree, Chavez moved back to Albuquerque where he started a law practice and again became immersed in local politics. He won a seat in the state House of Representatives and in 1930 went to Washington in the House as part of the anti-Hoover Democratic sweep of that year. Upon the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chavez became known as a New Deal stalwart and was closely tied to Roosevelt and the New Deal for the rest of his career.

In 1934, Chavez decided to take on the Republican Senator Bronson Cutting for U.S. Senate. Cutting was quite popular but the Democratic Party was in the ascendancy. This very tight race ended up tilting slightly toward the incumbent. Chavez questioned the election results, claiming election fraud. Cutting flew back to New Mexico to defend himself. However, his plane crashed and Cutting died. The Democratic governor, Clyde Tingley, named Chavez in his place. On May 20, 1935, Chavez entered the U.S. Senate chamber to take his oath of office. When Vice President John Nance Garner began administering Chavez his oath of office, Oregon Republican Charles McNary suggested the absence of a quorum. At that moment, six senators walked out to protest Chavez, in part because they believed he had caused Cutting’s death and in part because of his race.

Chavez overcame this inauspicious beginning and quickly became a nationally prominent leader who could bring the money home to New Mexico. Chavez made sure that a lot of Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) money came home to his state. Many New Mexican public buildings were erected during this era thanks to Chavez. He worked to promote New Mexican artists, particularly Hispanic and Indian artists and got a good bit of the money for artists sent to these traditionally ignored groups. Chavez was also a huge supporter of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA) and helped ensure the employment of thousands of young people, both in New Mexico and around the nation, during the darkest years of the Depression.

Chavez’s work started the dominant feature of New Mexican life today—the role of the federal government in keeping the state economy afloat. This traditionally poor state was almost totally ignored federally before Chavez. He started sending the money home, something that grew substantially during World War II with the Manhattan Project and continued after the war with military bases and defense projects around the state. One might say that I am describing a classic pork-based politician. Maybe I am. But the government does have a duty to give equal opportunities to people around the nation and ensuring that this dirt-poor state gets its equal share of the money is partially what leadership is about. This New Deal, and later Defense Department, money was going to be spent someone. Why not where it can really make an economic difference? New Mexico is still poor. But the poverty it would face without federal jobs is almost unimaginable.

During World War II, Chavez played a major role in Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. Chavez was very hesitant about entering the war, and counseled FDR to remain neutral. He even voted against the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. As the year went on though, he began to turn to supporting Roosevelt’s war preparations. He worked to ensure good US-Mexico relations during the war, as Roosevelt hoped to avoid a Zimmerman Telegram-esque incident with our southern neighbor at this critical time. He also pushed for the creation of the Pan-American Highway, linking the Americas through a modern highway system. Having been on parts of that highway, I can say that I’m mighty glad it’s there, though, in Costa Rica at least, I wouldn’t exactly compare it to a major American interstate. Chavez also paid much attention to the plight of Mexican-Americans in the United States. After the establishment of the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC) in June 1941, the Mexican government worked to obtain federal action on exclusion of Mexican-Americans in war industries. Chavez was an important spokesman in this debate. He held Senate hearings on the Fair Employee Practices Act, which focused on discrimination in employment around the nation. The FEPC was never very effective, as FDR cared little for civil rights and the agency was significantly underfunded. By 1944, southern senators attacked the agency with great vigor, but Chavez defended it to the end.

After the war, Chavez wielded immense power in the Senate because of his state’s importance to the military. He brought many federal facilities to New Mexico, including White Sands Missile Range, Sandia National Laboratories, and Kirtland Air Force Base. He was the chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee. When Eisenhower sent his military budget to the Senate in 1960, Chavez recommended an additional $1 billion more, money he fully intended to funnel to New Mexico.

Dennis Chavez died in 1962 after a fight against cancer. He was the 4th highest ranking senator in the Senate at that time. Chavez made New Mexico matter to the federal government. Before he entered the body, New Mexico senators had been weak party functionaries and few federal dollars came down here. Chavez changed all that and paved the way for the powerful New Mexico senators today, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, both of whom know how to keep their state afloat through federal defense dollars. You can criticize this, perhaps rightfully. But Chavez, Domenici, and Bingman all know the importance of federal dollars for their state and of their state with its huge empty spaces for the U.S. defense industry. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.

There has been very little written on Chavez. A friend of mine recently completed his master’s thesis on Chavez and water policy, an issue of utmost important in New Mexico. There is a recent dissertation from Arizona St., I believe, that is a full biography on Chavez. Who knows if it will ever become a book. The sources for this essay are María E. Montoya, “Dennis Chavez and the Making of Modern New Mexico” in Richard W. Etulain’s edited volume, New Mexican Lives: Profiles and Historical Society, and Juan Gómez-Quiñones’ Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940-1990. Clearly there is more work to be done on Chavez. His papers, at the University of New Mexico, are rather voluminous. If anyone has a student interested in issues of New Deal politics or Latino history, they could do far worse than work on Chavez.