A liberal Democrat who spent almost 40 years in public service, Joseph M. Montoya was a 20-year veteran of New Mexico state politics before he came to Congress, and a Cold Warrior who supported U.S. global efforts to contain communism. Within that context, Montoya served his constituency by soliciting federal funds for defense and social programs in New Mexico. His longtime colleague Manuel Luján, Jr., said, “Senator Montoya was exactly what every public servant should be—a true servant of the people who elected him. No person was too insignificant … and no problem brought to him by a constituent was ever too small for him to try to solve.”1
Joseph Manuel Montoya was born on September 24, 1915, to Tomás and Frances de La Montoya, in Peña Blanca, Sandoval County, New Mexico. Tomás was a county sheriff, and Frances taught elementary school. Montoya attended parochial elementary schools. When Tomás became sheriff of Sandoval County around 1929 or 1930, the Montoya family moved to Bernalillo. Montoya graduated from Our Lady of Sorrows High School in Bernalillo, New Mexico, and from Regis College in Denver, Colorado, in 1934. Then he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and attended Georgetown University Law School, earning an LL.B. in 1938. In 1940 Montoya married Della Romero, a nurse. The couple had three children: Joseph II, Patrick, and Linda.
In 1939 Montoya returned to New Mexico full time and gained admission to the bar. His public service had been underway since 1936, when he became one of the youngest members to serve in New Mexico’s house of representatives (he was elected at age 21). After his re-election in 1938, he served as majority leader from 1939 to 1940.2 In 1940 Montoya won a state senate seat, which he held for five years (1941–1946). He also served as majority whip and chairman of the judiciary committee.3 He was elected lieutenant governor in 1946 and served from 1947 to 1951.4 In 1950 Montoya ran against Antonio Fernández in the Democratic primary for an At-Large U.S. House seat. After failing to topple the incumbent, Montoya spent a year away from politics, but in 1952 he was re-elected to the state senate. After one term (1953–1954) he was re-elected lieutenant governor in 1954; he served two terms (1954–1957) before running for the U.S. House.5
With the blessing of Democratic Party leaders, Montoya ran for a vacant seat in the 85th Congress (1957–1959) after the sudden death of Fernández, the eight-term incumbent who died the day after he was re-elected in November 1956.6 Montoya sought to hold the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration accountable for its government spending. “I think it is up to the Democrats in Congress to point out to the administration just how reckless and irresponsible its fiscal policies have been,” Montoya noted during the campaign. Montoya told constituents he would secure federal resources for New Mexico. “It is more important than ever that our state have representatives who can work with the majority in Congress to protect such federal projects as our atomic energy installations and our missile test and experimental bases which are not only essential to the state’s economy but are vital to national security as well,” he said.7 Montoya pledged to develop closer ties between the United States and Latin America, saying, “It is just as important to us to strengthen democratic forms of government in the countries to the South as it is to Europe and Asia.”8
Montoya’s opponent was Thomas Bolack, a state legislator from Farmington, New Mexico, who later became governor. Montoya’s party affiliation was advantageous since registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans five to two. Also, he was “a long-experienced politician with contacts all over the state” and had “a following that will go to the trouble of voting without a lot of spending and effort.” The observer noted, “Bolack’s gamble is on winning the admiration of the huge independent vote; he’s on the side of the popular president … and he’s not a piker in the pocketbook.”9
By late March, Montoya’s campaign was in trouble. His poll numbers began to slip because of tepid support from organized labor and the party’s inability to mobilize Hispano voters. Some of Montoya’s organized-labor advocates were tainted by scandals, and the Republican distribution of state house patronage jobs to Latino voters in the community fragmented Montoya’s once-monolithic support. “Democrats of influence have not stepped forward to help him … [and] some local Demo leaders are secretly supporting the Republican,” noted an editorial. Bolack “had the benefit of heavy spending in the newspapers, television, radio, and roadside advertising in the early part of his campaign.”10 Eight days before the election, Senators Clinton Anderson and Dennis Chavez, along with Representative John J. Dempsey, endorsed Montoya.11 He prevailed in the special election on April 9, 1957, with 53 percent of the vote to Bolack’s 47 percent.12 Montoya was re-elected to his At-Large seat (New Mexico had two at the time) for three more terms, with pluralities in the four-way 1958 race (32 percent) and in the six-way 1962 general election (29 percent). In 1962 he won with a 53 percent majority.13
Montoya first served on the House Judiciary Committee during the 85th Congress; the assignment was a prestigious one for a freshman member. In Montoya’s second term, he earned a seat on the influential Appropriations Committee, where he remained until he moved to the Senate.14 Montoya delineated the advantage of his position during his re-election campaign in 1962. “It means that there is a New Mexican among the most influential men in the House,” he said. “It means this New Mexican’s opinions count heavily in the decisions which insure that your tax money is spent only where necessary for our Nation’s strength and well-being. It means that through one man, New Mexico speaks with double strength: once in the Appropriations Committee and again in the full House.”15
Montoya aggressively advocated for federal aid for state education programs and public works projects. Although all of the bills he proposed died in committee, Montoya established a reputation as an ambitious legislator.16 Montoya tried to secure financial and material aid for veterans and lobbied for federal workers.17 He advocated government support, particularly farm subsidies and funding to train seasonal workers for other occupations, as well as federal aid for depressed rural and industrial areas and public infrastructure projects.18 He also tried to expand educational opportunities for students because he believed providing for education was a “national responsibility as well as a local one.”19 During his House tenure, Montoya supported the Vocational Education Act of 1963 (H.R. 4955), which he noted would provide New Mexico an allotment—“almost double what my State is receiving under present programs. These funds are sorely needed to construct area vocational schools, improve vocational education facilities and train additional young people … to successfully enter the labor market,” Montoya said.20 The House passed the bill on August 6, and President John F. Kennedy signed it into law (P.L. 88-210) on December 18.21
In these and other undertakings, Montoya emphasized constituent service. Like many Members from Western states, he pursued federal subsidies to develop New Mexico’s natural resources. In 1962 Montoya secured an early victory when the New Mexico delegation won passage of S. 107 (P.L. 87-483), a bill authorizing the Department of the Interior to build an irrigation project for Navajo Indians along the Colorado River for $221 million. Montoya described the project as a major contribution to the “future development of Northern New Mexico, Albuquerque, and the Middle Rio Grande Valley.”22 He also routinely submitted legislation to extend Social Security benefits to his constituents and to other U.S. citizens.
Montoya also honed his anti-communist bona fides. Running for re-election in 1962, he reminded voters that he disapproved of efforts to seat Communist China in the United Nations, voted to fund the continued work of the controversial communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, and sponsored legislation to block U.S. aid to communist regimes. He also invited “voters to look at copies of the hearings on Appropriations where I have stated in no uncertain terms that I oppose aid to foreign countries dominated by the Communist philosophy [and] … countries which are neutralist in thinking, such as India, Ghana, Brazil, Mali, and others.” These overt expressions of devotion to U.S. society neutralized charges of communist sympathy leveled against Montoya and other politicians of his generation, especially those who challenged racial discrimination.23
The death of New Mexico’s Senator Dennis Chavez on November 8, 1962, set off a scramble for a successor, which Montoya soon joined.24 In 1963 the state legislature replaced direct primaries with pre-primary nominating conventions, centralizing party control over nominations for office. This development allowed Montoya to preempt any primary opponents by conserving his resources for the general election against Republican Edwin L. Mechem, who had resigned as governor to fill the Chavez vacancy.25 Montoya’s nomination in 1964 was endorsed by New Mexico’s senior Senator, Clinton Anderson, and by President Lyndon B. Johnson. One newspaper noted that Montoya had the advantage of “the growing support in New Mexico for President Johnson, which is expected to aid the entire ticket, and the loyalty of Spanish-American voters to candidates with Spanish names,” especially in the northern portion of the state. Mechem, meanwhile, was widely criticized as a “self-appointed senator.”26 A major state newspaper, Santa Fe’s New Mexican, endorsed Montoya based on his experience of working with New Mexico’s congressional delegation and his ability to steer federal dollars to the state.27 Montoya also benefited from national Democrats’ strategy to attack the “extreme” positions of Republican presidential nominee Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Montoya used the same strategy to criticize Mechem’s political record.28 President Johnson visited New Mexico to campaign for the challenger. “I think this state needs Joe Montoya; I think this nation needs Joe Montoya; I think I need Joe Montoya,” he said.29 In the 1964 election, Montoya beat Mechem with 55 percent of the vote, winning both the unexpired term and the full term beginning January 3, 1965. Since his term as Senator began November 4, 1964, he had seniority over the other Senators elected to the 89th Congress (1965–1967). Montoya earned 53 percent of the vote in his 1970 Senate re-election campaign.30
Long considered the consummate institutional insider, Montoya eagerly began learning Senate procedure by “taking his turn presiding over the Senate during slow periods” and embracing his committee assignments. His “network of committee and subcommittee memberships … enabled him to wield influence on a specific program or proposal from different positions of authority.”31
Montoya began his Senate service on three committees: Public Works, Agriculture, and Government Operations. Four years later, in 1969, he moved to the Senate Appropriations Committee. He also served on the Select Committee on Small Business and the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, and on the Joint Committees on Atomic Energy and Bicentennial Arrangements. Montoya chaired a number of subcommittees during his Senate tenure.32
Montoya’s bilingual education initiatives merged his interest in supporting education with broader civil rights issues. He supported the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, a bill sponsored by Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas. An amendment to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), it provided financial assistance for bilingual programs in Spanish and English. Sponsors emphasized that the bill could help the United States in its fight against communism. Opposition was minimal, and the bill was approved as a package of amendments added to the ESEA.33 But the Johnson administration was ambivalent about implementing the bill’s bilingual education components, which were seriously underfunded the first year. Montoya advocated proper funding since bilingual education was “heralded as the first real sign of national concern for the plight of the Spanish and Mexican Americans, the Indians, and the Puerto Ricans who are trapped by linguistic circumstance in the cycle of poverty,” noting that the administration’s request to provide only one-third of the authorized funding “was met with astonishment and great disappointment” by the program’s supporters. Congress eventually appropriated $7.5 million, a fraction of the $30 million that was authorized by the original legislation.34
Montoya sought to link Hispanic-American issues with the broader civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In January 1968, Montoya introduced S. 740, a bill that established a Presidential Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People. In a Senate Floor speech, Montoya said the bill’s enactment would “mark the turning point for all Spanish-speaking people of this Nation as they continue their quest for full equality of opportunity.” He staked his personal and professional prestige on the measure’s passage. As “the only U.S. Senator of Spanish heritage, I pledge to my people that I shall keep careful watch, that I shall keep careful surveillance over the activities of this new Cabinet-level committee to insure that it carries out its work in the dedicated spirit I know it is capable of.”35 Montoya said the measure was necessary to “assure that Federal programs are reaching all Spanish Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, Cuban Americans, and all other Spanish-speaking and Spanish-surnamed Americans, to provide the assistance they need, and to seek out new programs that might be necessary to handle programs that are unique to such persons.”36 Although the bill had prominent supporters, such as Senator Yarborough and Edward Roybal of California in the House, other members, such as Representative Henry González of Texas, objected to its lack of specifics and questioned its effectiveness.37 After several amendments, the bill cleared both chambers and became law (83 Stat. 838; 1969) on December 30, 1969.38
Like many Members of Congress who had emphasized their credentials as Cold Warriors, Montoya supported President Johnson’s Vietnam policies, voting in his waning months in the House, for example, for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (H.J. Res. 1145), which authorized the use of military force in Vietnam in August 1964.39 Montoya supported the Vietnam War as fulfilling U.S. obligations to maintain regional security and preserve access to strategic natural resources. In 1967, even as support for the war soured, Montoya reminded his colleagues, “Members of this body debated and discussed the implication of our involvement in Southeast Asia. In the end, we determined overwhelmingly that our national interest was involved in that part of the world.”40 Like many of his congressional colleagues, Montoya gradually became more critical, first calling for reforms within South Vietnam in 1968 and a year later suggesting gradual disengagement. “After a decade of steadily increasing U.S. military and economic support,” he said, “Saigon [must] begin justifying the faith the American people have been asked to place in its sincerity in developing a government responsible to the people.”41 Montoya later objected to the Richard M. Nixon administration’s expansion of the war into Cambodia in 1970 because such an invasion would result neither in victory nor in a quick withdrawal from Vietnam.42 By 1971, Montoya had submitted an amendment to provide for the immediate withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam “within 4 months after the date of the presidential election” and to “allow the President of the United States to make a finding … which would assure the Congress that the Republic of Vietnam has followed democratic processes in selection of its President.”43 Although the amendment was not adopted, calls for more immediate withdrawal increased inside and outside Congress until the final pullout of U.S. combat troops in 1973.
By the early 1970s, Montoya faced questions regarding his personal, political, and financial matters. Despite Montoya’s history of late tax filings, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had not audited him since he chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government, which controlled the IRS budget allocation. The IRS did, however, investigate charges that Montoya had created seven dummy committees to launder $100,000 in campaign contributions. In 1975 critics pounced on revelations that Montoya’s extensive real estate investments throughout New Mexico had made him a millionaire. Montoya denied using his political position for personal financial gain. “If I owned all of the property or had an interest in every business my enemies say I have, I’d be the richest man in New Mexico,” he countered.44 But these revelations damaged Montoya’s political reputation beyond repair. His opponent in the 1976 general election, Republican Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a former astronaut, campaigned on honesty and transparency.45 According to a leading newspaper, perceptions of Montoya’s corruption, along with shrinking support from his base, enabled Schmitt’s decisive win, with 57 percent of the vote. After the election, Montoya was implicated in the “Koreagate” scandal, in which a number of Members of Congress allegedly accepted illegal campaign contributions from foreign agents who sought to influence U.S. policy toward South Korea.46
Montoya suffered from failing health throughout 1977. After traveling to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1978 to seek medical care, Montoya died of liver and kidney failure on June 5. He was interred at Rosario Cemetery in Peña Blanca, New Mexico.47
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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