Ex-Rep. Skeen Dies at Age 76

Posted December 8, 2003 at 11:57am

Former New Mexico Rep. Joe Skeen (R), the Land of Enchantment’s longest serving Congressman, died Sunday evening after a protracted battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 76.

The 11-term Member, who retired from the House in 2002 due to his illness, first came to Congress in 1980 after narrowly winning the 2nd district race as a write-in candidate. To claim victory, he had to defeat both the widow (also a write-in candidate) of the man he was seeking to replace and the nephew of then-Gov. Bruce King (D).

Skeen had to run as a write-in after a federal judge denied his request for a spot on the ballot due to the GOP’s failure to field a candidate in the primary. He was only the third Member to ever win election to Congress without being on a ballot.

During the ensuing 22 years, Skeen — who chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies from 1995 to 2000 — was a tireless advocate of ranchers’ and farmers’ rights. He often butted heads with environmentalists over such issues as grazing fees and the reintroduction of endangered Mexican gray wolves into New Mexico.

“He never forgot that agriculture is the foundation of the country and the people who are that foundation,” said Jim Richards, chief of staff to Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and a former Skeen aide.

Among his many accomplishments, Skeen was most proud of the construction of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, a federal underground nuclear waste repository, as well as increased funding for agriculture research at New Mexico State University.

An affable man, Skeen was praised by Democrats and Republicans alike for his bipartisanship and pragmatism.

“He was such a gentleman,” said Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who added that Skeen never let the fact that Udall’s wife — then a lawyer for the New Mexico attorney general’s office — had argued against Skeen’s request to be placed on the special election ballot affect their relationship. “He was of the old school in the House that really believed in bipartisanship and he walked the talk.”

Members also praised Skeen for his unflagging devotion to his constituents’ concerns and for his infectious sense of humor.

“He never forgot that he represented New Mexico’s 2nd district — that’s a key thing for someone who stays here 22 years,” said Pearce, who succeeded Skeen in the southern New Mexico district.

“He was a Republican Moe Udall,” added Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who served as ranking member when Skeen chaired the Appropriations subcommittee. “He is what all Republicans should aspire to.

“He understood that every district in America was another ornament on the Christmas tree — that the only way to move the country forward was by perfecting what happens in our regions.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) said over the years he and Skeen, who became friends shortly after Skeen arrived in Congress, shared a friendly rivalry as to whether New Mexico or California had the best Mexican food. Their annual cook-off — which later became known as “Tamales on the Terrace” — would eventually attract hundreds to Lewis’ Cannon office, he said.

Prior to his arrival on Capitol Hill, Skeen — a sheep rancher trained as an agricultural engineer — had spent several years in the New Mexico Senate.

In 1970, he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor on the ticket with now-Sen. Pete Domenici, who was the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Skeen would subsequently make two tries for the top job himself, losing the governorship each time to the Democratic candidate.

Skeen, who is survived by his wife, Mary, and two children, had been hospitalized in Roswell since Nov. 14 for complications from Parkinson’s.

Funeral services will be held Thursday at Grace Community Church in Roswell, N.M.