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'Lala' Was New Mexico's 1st Female Governor

By Deborah Baker
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Diane Denish won't be the first woman to serve as New Mexico's governor. Neither will Susana Martinez.
        Either one, of course, would be the first woman elected to the state's top job.
        But the distinction of being the first woman to govern belongs to political pioneer Soledad Chávez Chacón, who presided over the young state for two weeks in the summer of 1924.
    The "hand of destiny" provided her the historic opportunity, the Albuquerque woman said in a statement as she took office June 21 — "attired in a lavender dress," according to a newspaper account.
    Chacón, a Democrat, had been elected secretary of state in 1922, just two years after women got the right to vote and a year after the New Mexico Constitution was amended to allow them to run for office.
        She was the first woman to be elected secretary of state — and one of the first two women elected to statewide office — in New Mexico.
        And she was the first Hispanic woman in the nation to win statewide elective office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
        They called her 'Lala'
        Chacón, nicknamed "Lala," was bright and educated. From a prominent, middle-class family, she was descended from early New Mexico governors.
        She was active in literary, artistic and issues-oriented clubs, and supported women's suffrage.
        But a political career likely wasn't on her mind the day a group of influential Democratic men, a couple of them her relatives, knocked on her door in 1922 and asked her to hurry over to the party's state convention.
        "My mother did not solicit the nomination," her daughter, Adelina Chacón Ward, recalled in a 1982 interview. "She was in the kitchen baking a cake, and I saw the car pull up outside."
        Chacón agreed to the nomination after consulting with her husband and father.
        Democrats swept the election, and Chacón started her two-year term as secretary of state in 1923.
        In May 1924, Lt. Gov. Jose A. Baca died unexpectedly. So, when Gov. James F. Hinkle headed to New York the next month for the Democratic National Convention, Chacón was next in line.
        That line of succession remains unchanged today, and subsequent secretaries of state have also been called on to act as governor — typically, whenever the governor and lieutenant governor must be out of the state simultaneously. Denish, now in her second term, became New Mexico's first elected female lieutenant governor in 2003, and she has often acted as governor when Gov. Bill Richardson has been out of state.
        Chacón said she believed that her 1924 elevation was the first time in the U.S. that a woman had been called on to assume the responsibilities of governor.
        It was her "earnest desire to carry out the plans and wishes of our governor during his absence, in as fearless and conscientious a manner as has been his policy," she said.
        Chacón was greeted on her first day by an office full of flowers from friends and supporters and a steady stream of well-wishers, according to an account in the Albuquerque Morning Journal.
        The New Mexico State Tribune reported that "for the first time ... a woman has become the chief executive of one the largest states in the Union," according to a 1982 article in IMPACT, the Albuquerque Journal Magazine.
        "She is a young woman, too, and a good-looking one," the newspaper said.
        More than acting
        It was a busy couple of weeks for the acting governor, according to historian Dan D. Chávez, who wrote a monograph about Chacón in 1996.
        "There's no such thing, really, as an acting governor," Chávez said in a recent interview. "When the governor leaves the state ... you are indeed the governor."
        Chacón signed a requisition for federal funds for the New Mexico National Guard, pardoned an inmate at the recommendation of the New Mexico Industrial School's board and superintendent, issued notary public certificates, made an appointment to the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and requested the extradition from Kansas of a man wanted for larceny.
        Gov. Hinkle returned to the state July 5, according to Chávez.
        Chacón was re-elected to a two-year term as secretary of state in 1924 — the same year two U.S. women made history by being elected governors of their respective states: Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming and Miriam Amanda Ferguson of Texas.
        Chávez quotes historian Charles F. Coan as saying Chacón "possesses an unusual fitness for public office, being painstaking and careful, prompt and courteous and inspired."
        The office ran "without friction and without jar," Coan also said.
        Shortly after the 1926 elections, Chacón had to travel to Las Vegas to settle a heated dispute over the San Miguel County sheriff's race. She declared the winner by six votes.
        "She told us she thought that when she walked into the meeting there was going to be some shooting," her daughter recalled in the 1982 interview.
        Another first
        Chacón added another "first" to her political résumé in 1934, when she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Legislature from Bernalillo County.
        She was in her second year as a member of the state House of Representatives when she died in August 1936, of peritonitis. She would have turned 46 a week later.
        Chacón was a 1908 graduate of Albuquerque High School and completed the accounting curriculum at Albuquerque Business College.
        She married Ireneo Eduardo Chacón in 1910 — and appointed him assistant secretary of state after her first choice for the position, her close friend Imelda Espinoza Chávez, turned it down.
        The couple had a daughter and a son: Adelina Chacón Ward and Santiago Chacón.
        Ward said in the 1982 interview that her mother enjoyed her service in state government.
        "She had been career-minded when she completed her education, and she felt her dreams were being fulfilled," Ward said.

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