Prominent New Mexico politicians, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, eulogized longtime legislator Nick Salazar, whose death was announced late Friday.
Salazar was 91.
Salazar, of Ohkay Owingeh, served District 40 for 46 years, beginning with his election to the House of Representatives in 1972.
Salazar announced his intention to retire in 2017. At the time, he was the Legislature’s longest-serving member.
“Personally I considered Nick to be something of a father figure,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “He believed in me and mentored me and so many others. He was instrumental in establishing the Indian Area Agency on Aging and he sponsored the creation of the Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
“As its first secretary, when I thought I knew everything there was to know about New Mexico seniors, he generously guided me, helped me grow and find new ways to deliver for them,” the governor continued. “He knew innately how to reach people. He was kind, he was tenacious and he was a gentleman.”
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called Salazar “a true giant and champion” who left a “legacy of service, sacrifice, and honor that may never be matched.”
State Attorney General Hector Balderas said Salazar was “a great leader” whose service “strengthened Northern New Mexico and many rural communities across the State.”
Salazar, a U.S. Air Force veteran, served on the Rio Arriba County Commission in the 1960s before his election to the House.
Salazar was a witness to one of the most controversial events in New Mexico history, the 1967 raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. In 2015, Salazar told The New Mexican he had a sense “something was in the air” as he arrived at the courthouse for a meeting on the day of the raid.
He said nothing happened until he and other officials returned to the courthouse from lunch in Chama.
“We came back and all hell broke loose,” said Salazar, who recalled someone had a gun pointed to the back of his head.
“I remember seeing this beautiful girl with black curly hair and big silver earrings with a cartridge belt across her chest,” Salazar said. “I thought, ‘What in the world is someone like that doing here?’ “
He later said he did not have any animosity toward the raid’s leader, Reies Lopez Tijerina.
In the interview, Salazar said he didn’t think Tijerina and the raiders were out to hurt him or the others in the commission chambers.
“They were more determined to fight law enforcement,” he said.
Of Tijerina, he said, “He was trying to do the right thing for the people who were cheated out of their land. I don’t think he went about it the right way, but I’ve never felt any animosity toward him.”
As his time in the Legislature neared its end, Salazar was a particularly staunch advocate for the elderly, sponsoring bills on expanding services and legal protections for seniors. He described that work as his biggest contribution to the state.
When he announced his intention to retire, Salazar said he developed problems with his heart and vision. Those issues, he said, led him to the decision to step aside.