ActivePaper Archive Hobbs GOP leader dies at age 87 - Hobbs News Sun, 8/16/2019

Hobbs GOP leader dies at age 87

Ken Batson remembered for mentoring Republicans, locating prison in Hobbs

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Batson

Former Lea County Commissioner Ken Batson, who was instrumental in bringing a state prison facility to Hobbs, died unexpectedly at his home Thursday morning.

Friends remembered Batson as a staunch Republican who devoted himself to conservative politics and diversifying the local economy.

“He was just a good guy,” said Lea County Clerk Keith Manes. “He was a staunch Republican, there was no doubt about that.”

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, of Hobbs, said Batson was a big presence in the local Republican Party.

“I talked to Ann (Batson) this morning and it just broke my heart,” Pearce said Thursday. “He was a big figure for Lea County.”

Pearce credited Batson and his wife, Ann, with getting Pearce involved in politics. Ann is the chair of the Republican Party of Lea County.

“I think he was one of the first to cause people to say there is a different way to see things,” Pearce said of the Democratic Party’s former domination in southeast New Mexico and the South as a whole. “He was the one who called me first and told me that (former state Rep. Robert Wallach) was going to step down and would I run for that office. I was on the (Lea County) fair board, but I was not very politically involved. And they just said ‘Hey, think about it, and let’s get in here and win this seat.’ So I filed for that seat and was successful.

“So I’ve always credited Ken and Ann with getting me involved in politics and being there to support me. I give him a lot of credit for mentoring and them being there to help me get started.”

Ken died early Thursday morning at his Hobbs home from an apparent heart attack, at the age of 87. His wife said he wasn’t feeling well Thursday morning and he died suddenly while they prepared to take him to the hospital.

Ann said she called 911 and emergency responders arrived almost immediately and performed life-saving efforts for about 30 minutes.

“It may have not been that long,” she said. “It seemed like a long time.”

Ken, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1932 in Endee, N.M., an unincorporated community on the route of historic Route 66 in Quay County.

“His mother talked about living in a dugout, I believe, in Indian territory in Oklahoma,” Ann said.

Ken grew up in Tucumcari and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years during the Vietnam War-era.

“He had some good times in the service, and probably some bad times, too,” Ann said. “Towards the end of his service he was chosen for an award for doing whatever you do very well, and got to go on a goodwill tour of a number of South American governments. He was a hydraulics guy and he was awarded out of that group to get to go on this goodwill trip.”

After his discharge, Ken resumed college and graduated from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. He met Ann in Odessa, Texas, and they married in 1961.

“I just liked him,” Ann said.

Ken was the manager of Dixie Electric for 37 years, where Ann also worked as the office manager. They transferred to Hobbs in 1965.

“We were here all those years and he was the manager all those years,” Ann said. “It was some hard times and some good times, and oil up and oil down.”

Ken ran twice unsuccessfully for the Lea County Commission before winning a seat on the commission in 1994.

“Of course, the Democrats out-numbered us heavily then,” Ann said. “The evening of his second loss, he said ‘I’m going to run until I get there.’ And that’s just what he did. The next time he ran, he won.”

Ken served on the Lea County Commission from 1995 to 2002, serving as the commission’s chair for two years during the era of Ralph Littleton, Dan Fields and Buster Goff, to name a few.

Ken also served with former County Commission Chairman Maurice Hughes in the 1990s, working on what was then one of the largest diversification projects the county had seen that did not rely on the oilfield — a private prison.

“Ken was a Republican and I was a Democrat,” Hughes said. “I told him we’re going to disagree and we’re going to agree. Just don’t ever lie to me. As far as I know, he never did. ... Ken was a good guy to work with.”

Hughes said the key for their relationship was respect and being upfront about their ideas and disagreements.

Getting a private prison built in Hobbs required getting the state to provide funding to build either a publicly run prison or funding to contract a private prison operation. The legislation at the state capital was going to name a county where the prison was to be located, so politics played a big role as well.

“I delegated him as the contact man (for the county),” Hughes recalled. “He headed that up and done a good job.”

Hughes said Ken and the County Commission spent many hours working the phones and attending meetings to land the 1,200-bed private prison and the 300 permanent jobs it brought. Ken and Hughes would often have former Gov. Gary Johnson on the phone and state Rep. Robert Wallach or Sen. Billy McKibben on another, negotiating how Lea County could land the prison project.

Eventually, the county was successful with the state awarding the private prison contract to Wackenhut, which eventually changed its name to GEO Group, and naming Lea County as the location for the new prison.

Hughes noted Ken’s efforts, along with many others, was one of the first united fronts the county put together to land an economic development project — one where all the cities and the county spoke with one voice. The cooperative model was used later to land the $3 billion LES uranium enrichment plant, which is now URENCO-USA. Even today, the cities and counties work together on quality-of-life initiatives that Hughes says can find its cooperative roots in the prison project work.

“The prison was the starting of all the cooperation in the county to get something done,” Hughes said.

Ann said the oil and gas industry used to be the only large employer in Hobbs.

“Because of Gov. Johnson and this hardworking group of commissioners, we landed the prison out here,” she said. “That was a big thing for everybody. It was the first business outside of oil and gas of any size that came into the county. That was a lot of hard work by all of those commissioners. And Gary Johnson was a great governor then. He was certainly good for Lea County.”

Pearce said Ken was a Republican in Lea County before being a Republican was cool.

“Back when there weren’t many Republicans, he and his wife just took the reigns of the Republican Party,” said Pearce, who is now the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico. “He and Ann have just been leaders in helping Lea County become one of the strongholds in the state for Republicans. The other thing is, he always could hear the other side, but you never doubted that he was conservative and had traditional values. So that was always pleasant.”

Pearce said Ken won two tough races to get elected to the Lea County Commission in 1994 and 1998.

“He was a big guy and he always carried himself, I think, with distinction,” Pearce said. “As he got in as an underdog, you just never got the sense that he was really an underdog. He wasn’t a politician who questions himself and kind of puts their finger to their tongue and holds it up in the wind to see which way the wind is blowing. He never did that. He just said here’s who I am. And he felt like he was going to win, and he did.”

Pearce said Ken served with distinction on the county commission.

“He really did things that were good for the county,” Peace said. “He took on that county commission role, and when that was finished, he went back to doing his realty work. He never seemed to have the aspirations to run at the state level and always wanted to direct people in there. We had constant conversations through the years about this spot’s opening up, that spot’s opening up. Together, he and I and Ann just discussed each one of these state rep slots, each state Senate slot. We came to some conclusions. They didn’t always agree with me and I didn’t always agree with them, but we solved it amicably and were generally pretty successful in electing Republicans.

“You never had to worry where he stood. He was very transparent, and people felt like sometimes too much. He’s just going to be deeply missed. I considered him a friend.”

Charlie Robinson, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Lea County, said he worked with Ken in politics for about 15 years.

“I’ve known him since probably about 1965, he’s just been a good friend,” Robinson said. “He was one of those individuals that you can trust your life with. He was a good man, straight-forward, honest. You couldn’t find a better man. He was one of those top-notch individuals that did a lot for Lea County.”

Pearce said he last saw Ken at a Lea County Republican party meeting last month, where Ken always sat, near the rear of the room.

“He just reassured me that they are appreciative of everything that I’ve been doing in the past, and now as state party chair,” Pearce said. “It was just a positive, feel-good thing.”

Pearce said he’s proud he made a motion at last year’s Lincoln Day dinner to name the GOP headquarters at 1776 N. Turner St. in Hobbs after Ann and Ken Batson. The impromptu motion passed unanimously.

“I was glad that we did that before he passed on, and he was able to see that the party appreciated what their service had meant to the Republicans in Lea County,” Pearce said.

Pearce, who served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Ken was both supportive and unbashful.

“He also made it very plain that you were there to make hard decisions, and those decisions needed to be consistent with what you had said when you were running for office,” Pearce said. “He didn’t give an inch. He wouldn’t be terrible, but he would let you know if you weren’t sticking with your principles. When I got to Congress, he was still the local county guy. Lea County is where I got my start. Then he expected me to remember that.”

Manes said Ken served on committees throughout the state for the Republican Party and was the guy who sold all the tickets for the party barbecues.

“He was very involved in the Republican Party, and his wife has served as the chairman for over 30 years, and he was right there beside her the whole way,” Manes said.

Manes also said he spoke Thursday with Ann Batson.

“She’s a strong person, but she’s pretty much in shock,” Manes said. “She just wasn’t expecting it.”

Ann said funeral arrangements were pending with Chapel of Hope Funeral Home in Hobbs.

Todd Bailey and Daniel Russell contributed to this report. Jeff Tucker may be reached at managingeditor@ hobbsnews.com.