The legacy of ‘El Jefe’ ― Filo M. Sedillo

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(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus and a past president of both the Valencia County Historical Society and the Historical Society of New Mexico. He is the author of 17 books on the history of New Mexico, including his latest, “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in Valencia County,” co-edited by John Taylor.
Information for this column was drawn from newspaper accounts and interviews, especially with Corrine Sedillo, Judge Filo Sedillo’s daughter-in-law and long-time employee.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

The date was Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1980. It was 5 p.m. when 71-year-old District Court Judge Filo M. Sedillo left the Los Lunas courthouse after another busy day on the bench.
We can only imagine what he was thinking that afternoon as he got into his 1976 Monte Carlo for his usual drive home to Belen.
He might have been thinking about the things he enjoyed most, including his cabin up in the Jemez Mountains. He and his sons, Filo Jr., “Bobo,” and Raul, spent many summers at the cabin, hunting and horseback riding through the countryside.
Or Judge Sedillo may have been thinking about his own father, Antonio A. Sedillo. The judge truly admired his father, a man who had worked hard as a laborer, a store clerk and a teacher while studying law and entering the bar in 1900.
A Republican, Antonio Sedillo held many important political offices, from a local school board member to a member of the University of New Mexico’s Board of Regents and speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Most importantly, he served as one of a hundred delegates to the 1910 convention that wrote New Mexico’s state constitution on the eve of statehood in 1912. Coming from a political family, it was as if politics were in Judge Sedillo’s DNA.

Early Life and Career
Thinking of his father, Judge Sedillo might have reflected on his own political career. Born on Dec. 14, 1908, to Antonio A. and Donaqiana Sedillo, he was one of five children, including two brothers, Juan and Rufino; and two sisters, Mela and Tula.

Photo courtesy of Corrine Sedillo: Filo M. Sedillo was sworn in as district court judge in 1971 at the Valencia County Courthouse.

From an early age, he was known simply as “Filo,” a nickname used by his family, friends and even his political adversaries over the years.
Young Filo went to school in Albuquerque, graduating from Albuquerque High School in 1928. He attended St. Louis University, the University of Virginia and George Washington University, where he earned his law degree in 1933. His education completed, Filo headed home to Albuquerque to hang out a shingle and begin to practice law.
But Albuquerque had more lawyers than clients during the Great Depression. Filo made up his mind to move to El Paso to offer his legal skills in new surroundings. His father might well have suggested this option, having passed the bar in Texas in 1899, beginning his own successful legal career at age 23.
As he drove south toward El Paso, Filo stopped to visit Fidel Delgado in the small railroad town of Belen. Delgado told Filo that Belen lacked lawyers and a good young attorney would be wise to move in and start a practice. Filo took his friend’s advice, opened his office the next day and began a legal career in Valencia County that would span more than four decades.

Entering Politics
Filo Sedillo was not in Valencia County long before he entered local politics. He and a small group of like-minded friends created an independent political organization called the Native Sons of New Mexico, with Filo as its leader.
Filo joined the Valencia County Democratic Party in 1935 and soon rose in leadership roles. Although his family had long been Republicans, Filo said that seeing long bread lines in Washington, D.C., made him change his political affiliation.
He was disappointed that Republicans in the Herbert Hoover administration were not doing more to help the poor and end the Great Depression. He hoped that Democrats, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, might act to help create new jobs and restore economic prosperity.
Filo remembered how small the Democratic Party in Valencia County had been when he first joined its ranks. Only six party members attended Filo’s first meeting. Elected the group’s secretary, Filo claimed the party had been so inactive that its “records were delivered to (him) in a match box.”
Republicans, led by powerful men such as Solomon Luna and J. Francisco Chaves, had dominated Valencia County politics for so long that Democrats seldom won elections and didn’t even bother to run candidates in some elections of the early 20th century.
But the political winds had begun to shift with the rise of Democratic leaders such as Dennis Chavez, Clyde Tingley, John E. Miles and, nationally, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Riding these shifting winds and impressing all who knew him, Filo entered politics, first serving as the president of the Valencia County Board of Education and then as an assistant district attorney by 1937.
In 1938, Filo won his party’s nomination for State Attorney General, drawing praise from many sources. A newspaper in Las Cruces admired his fluency in English and Spanish, a skill that clearly helped him win his “political spurs” at such a young age.
A letter writer in Santa Fe added that Filo was “the smartest young politician in the current campaign.” The writer suggested that New Mexicans “Keep your eye on that boy. He should be senator someday.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Filo Sedillo beat his Republican opponent, James McCall, 85,220 votes to 67,727, making him the youngest attorney general in New Mexico history. He had only been a lawyer for four years. His mercurial rise in state politics was unprecedented.
Filo returned to his private practice in Belen at the end of his two-year term as attorney general. He would serve in various appointed positions and run unsuccessfully for public office (a judgeship in 1942) but, by the late 1940s, he had become more and more focused on politics back home in Valencia County.

Becoming El Jefe
Filo Sedillo was elected the chairman of the Democratic Party in Valencia County in 1941. With the exception of a few months, while working temporarily in Washington, D.C., he remained chairman until 1971.
Already powerful in the 1940s, Filo’s control of his local party increased steadily through the 1950s. New Mexico’s politics were still structured to allow the dominance of individual party bosses, or jefes, in many counties of the state. Emilio Naranjo dominated Rio Arriba County politics. George Baca dominated Socorro County. And Filo rose to become the political boss of Valencia County.
As El Jefe, Filo controlled party politics, deciding who received political appointments and who ran for office, from the smallest job to the most prominent positions in Valencia County.
Once nominated, candidates could count on Filo’s unwavering support. On election day, they were almost guaranteed election. From 1952 until 1964, at the height of Filo’s power, Democrats, facetiously known as “Filocrats,” won every major election in Valencia County. Some said that Filo ran nothing less than a political machine.
Filo claimed there were three main keys to success in winning campaigns: discipline, teamwork and hard work. Of the three, discipline was most important.
Party loyalty must be absolute. Those who wavered in their loyalty could never be trusted — or politically favored with jobs or benefits — again.
Abe Peña, a Republican who ran for the state Legislature in 1962, remembers a good example of how loyal Filo’s Democrats could be to their leader. During the campaign Peña went to two of his cousins to ask for their support.
Both cousins refused, insisting that Filo would know if they voted for a Republican. Peña pointed out that it was a secret ballot and Filo would never know how individuals voted. One cousin replied that secret ballot or not, Filo would know.
“He’ll look me straight in the eye and know I voted for you.”
Filo worked side-by-side with his chosen Democratic candidates, going door-to-door through the day and holding political rallies at night. Most rallies were well attended, with plenty of Mariachi music and good food. At a typical rally, 1,500 turned out for a barbecue beef dinner in the new sheriff’s posse building in October 1964.
Filo insisted that Democratic candidates make their scheduled speeches even if only a handful of loyal voters attended. Party loyalty must be rewarded in both large and small ways.
At political rallies, he also advised candidates to keep their speeches short and to the point. As Peña noticed, Filo sat behind the podium so he could kick any speaker who went on too long.
El Jefe instructed his candidates to avoid talking about their opponents in their campaign speeches. Instead, candidates should focus on their own positive messages and avoid the temptation of mudslinging. The odds were in their favor anyway. There was no need to fight in the mud if your team was far ahead.
Known as a “master politician,” Filo’s ability to coach and promote Democratic candidates was unequaled. Able to deliver the votes needed for victory, Filo could reportedly tell candidates how many votes they would get in a particular race. According to one admirer, “he was often off by only one or two votes.”
Filo also enjoyed great power in state Democratic politics, especially at party conventions. El Jefe took pride in delivering Valencia County’s 13 delegate votes as a disciplined, solid block that could decide a close vote on important issues and nominations.
Valencia County always had the “last say” because delegates cast their roll-call votes by counties in the counties’ alphabetical order. In other words, Filo often controlled the critical swing vote (or block); many deals could be made to benefit Valencia County at such critical moments.
Filo served as a member of the State Democratic Central Committee from 1936 to 1971. He was a delegate to several Democratic national conventions, and was proud to have been an early supporter of John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in 1960.
By 1964, the Valencia County News called Filo Sedillo “the most talked-about man around.” According to the News, “Some regard him as the champion of the little man, a sort of benevolent despot with a big heart for the underdog. Other people believe him to be a tyrant and, to others, he is a legend.”

Waning Power
But with all his clout and influence, Filo Sedillo’s political power showed signs of wear by the mid 1960s. Politics in New Mexico were changing and, with few exceptions, old-time political bosses began to lose the absolute grip they had held at the state and local levels for so long.
In 1964, for example, Filo led his 13 delegates to the Democratic Party’s state convention to help select their party’s candidate for governor. As always, Valencia County’s delegates could be expected to vote as a group, with Filo controlling their final decisions. Filo delivered his 13 delegates to a rising star in the party named Bruce King.
King later recalled that he decided to withdraw his candidacy because he did not want to look like he had made a deal with a political boss like Filo. Rather than being considered an asset, Filo’s support had become a political liability for a new generation of leaders such as King.
Five years later, a state constitutional convention was called to write a new constitution to replace the outdated document of 1910. Filo was elected a delegate, becoming one of only two delegates whose families was represented at both the 1910 and 1969 conventions. (H.O. Bursum Jr. was the other delegate.)
Filo had hoped to also be elected chair of the 1969 convention, but ran into opposition from the same man he had supported for governor in 1964. Bruce King won the coveted leadership role, but was wise to make sure that Filo was chosen as his first vice chair. Remembering Filo’s good work at the convention, King later declared that “I never have worked with any man who showed more compassion for the people than Filo Sedillo.”
Once the new constitution was written, King and his fellow delegates began the campaign to have it passed by the voters of New Mexico. Filo vowed to secure the important Hispanic vote by winning the support of key Hispanic leaders who could then deliver the votes of their followers.
Such strategy may have worked in the past, but not by the late 1960s. The new constitution failed at the ballot box by about 2,500 votes. Filo delivered a slim 183 majority in his own county, an unheard of result a decade before.

A New Direction
Bruce King might not have gotten the new constitution of 1969 passed, but he secured his party’s nomination for governor in 1970. As in 1964, Filo supported King who beat his Republican opponent, 38-year-old Pete Domenici.
Remembering Filo’s support in both 1964 and 1970, Gov. King appointed the aging politico to a whole new role, district court judge in the newly created 13th Judicial District. Some observers were leery of the appointment, wondering if a partisan leader like Filo could administer equal justice when old political enemies stood before his bench.
Filo’s supporters came to his defense. The News-Bulletin noted that while Filo had earlier believed that “to the victor goes the spoils,” he did not seem to carry a grudge after an election “and eventually worked with those he may have earlier opposed.”
Filo pointed out that other politicians had made the transition and had become good judges, including former Gov. Edwin L. Mechem. Filo won the endorsement of all 12 lawyers in Valencia County, including several who were Republican.
Filo Sedillo was sworn into office at the courthouse in Los Lunas at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 26, 1971. Supreme Court Justice Paul Tackett administered the oath, and Filo’s 7-year-old grandson, Antonio, led the pledge of allegiance. A reception, catered by Kotch’s Café, followed at Our Lady of Belen parish hall.
Among the nearly thousand people in attendance were dignitaries, including Gov. and Alice King, State Sen. Tibo J. Chavez, Speaker of the House Walter K. Martinez, and Reps. Dickie Carbajal and Fred Luna. Attorney Gilberto Espinosa gave the invocation. The new judge was surrounded by family members, including his wife, Emily, and his children, Filo “BoBo,” Sonia and Raul.
Speaking to the crowd, Judge Sedillo said, “A judge should divide himself completely from politics. I am happy to cap my career as a judge.”
Filo promised to protect the interest of society as a whole, upholding the rights of all defendants.
Just as at his old political rallies, Mariachis played their music at the reception, singing many of the judge’s old favorites and even singing a new one, appropriately titled, “His Name Is Filo.”
Judge Sedillo served as a district court judge for nine years. He was known as a very fair judge, able to “temper justice with compassion,” in the words of one observer. In his first seven years, he handled more than 8,000 cases, with only 45 decisions appealed. Of those appealed, 90 percent were confirmed by the state appellate court.
Filo’s daughter-in-law, Corrine G. Sedillo, served as his court reporter while he sat on the bench. Corrine remembers many difficult trials, including a sensational first-degree murder case in Deming in 1975. After two weeks of testimony, the jury took only about two hours to find Daniel DeSantos guilty of the 1974 Halloween night murder of 19-year-old Glennie McDonald in Silver City.
Judge Sedillo sentenced DeSantos to death in the gas chamber, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Judge Sedillo presided at DeSantos’s second trial, in 1977, with the same guilty outcome, but with a different sentence: 10 to 50 years in prison.
Clearly admired by the citizens of Valencia County, Judge Sedillo was re-elected for six-year terms in 1972 and 1978. Asked in 1978 if he ever thought of retiring, Filo replied, “I wouldn’t know what to do if I retire. Besides, I enjoy the court work, even though we are very, very busy.”

Last Trip Home
And so it was on Wednesday evening, Oct. 29, 1980, that Judge Sedillo headed home. We’ll never know for sure what he was thinking as he drove down Luna Avenue and made a right turn on Courthouse Road.
We only know that Filo crossed the railroad tracks and began to turn south onto old Highway 85. The sun was setting and might well have shown in his eyes, making it hard to see oncoming traffic.
The judge collided broadside with a north-bound pickup. The pickup’s 41-year-old driver was transported to Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Hospital in serious condition. Arriving quickly from his office in the courthouse, Sheriff Bill Holliday believed that Filo had died almost instantly.
Hearing the news of Filo’s death, the citizens of Valencia County were in “shock and dismay,” according to one newspaper report. Condolences poured in from men and women throughout the state and across the nation.
Longtime political friends and foes, including Gov. King, Tibo Chavez, Fred Luna, Ron Gentry, District Attorney Tom Esquibel, Lucy Brubaker, Walter Martinez, Frederick “Ted” Howden, Joe Fidel and District Court Judge George Perez, expressed their sorrow and recalled their favorite stories about the judge.
Memorial resolutions were introduced in the state senate by Willie M. Chavez and in the state house of representatives by Fred Luna and Ron Gentry. Local resolutions were passed by the city council in Belen and the village council in Los Lunas.
Newspapers ran complimentary editorials and obituary notices. The Albuquerque Journal observed that Filo was “one of the last” great jefes in New Mexico history. The Grants Beacon called him Valencia County’s “political patriarch.” The Santa Fe New Mexican wrote that his passing left Valencia County politics “less colorful and not nearly as interesting.”
More than a thousand men, women and children attended Filo Sedillo’s funeral at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church. Judge Tibo Chavez gave the heart-felt eulogy, praising Filo’s years of service and lauding his ability to unite diverse groups. “Filo’s name,” said Judge Chavez, “is synonymous with Valencia County.”
Judge Chavez might have agreed with a political observer who wrote that whatever his virtues or faults, none could dispute that Filo M. Sedillo was “a real political ‘pro’ and a genius with the common touch.”