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Under Fire, Senator Montoya Insists That 'Little Joe' Is Mister Clean

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For 39 of his 60 years, Sen. Joseph Montoya (D.-N. Mex.) has been a working politician. And yet, before he served on the Senate Watergate committee, almost nobody outside his state had ever heard of him. Fame has proved a mixed blessing. Montoya was sipping coffee at O’Hare Airport in Chicago just after the Watergate hearings, when some teenaged girls began eyeing him and giggling. Finally one approached. “I know you,” she squealed, “Hawaii Five-O! Right?” (He is actually of Spanish-American descent.)

Montoya now has far more serious problems. He has been under a cloud of suspicion since the Washington Post accused the Internal Revenue Service of giving Montoya’s tax returns the kid-glove treatment. The fact that Montoya chairs the subcommittee which oversees the IRS and approves its budget is a further embarrassment.

Montoya, protesting the charge is false, says it was leaked by “some bastards in New Mexico” who were angry that he had uncovered mishandling by IRS subordinates of several tax cases involving his constituents. As to his alleged chuminess with IRS chief Donald Alexander, the senator says: “I never talked to Alexander about my returns. I never asked him for a favor, and I never received one.” Montoya says he would welcome an audit.

His wife of 36 years, Delia, agrees. “I know there’s nothing wrong,” she says. She has been at Montoya’s side through a career that began when he was elected to the New Mexico state house of representatives at 21, while still studying law at Georgetown University. He spent 12 years in the legislature, eight as lieutenant-governor, seven as a U.S. congressman, and the last 11 as a senator. Montoya acknowledges he is a millionaire, mostly from New Mexico real estate, but any implication of riches gained through public service riles him. “I started working in a drugstore at the age of 9,” he says proudly. He paid for college by tending 1,500 chickens. “I had to feed them, water them, and clean the coop,” he says. “After that, I couldn’t eat an egg for 10 years.”

He can now. Breakfast is often a dish called huevos rancheros (fried eggs topped with chili), served by Delia in their small suburban Maryland house. He also likes seafood, green chili and sherry and works them off by jogging and karate lessons. The senator and his wife have three grown children, no hobbies, and a tough election coming up next year. Montoya isn’t worried. Known back home as Little Joe, he was in New Mexico last week shaking hands and munching tortillas. “Everywhere I speak,” he said, “the audience stands up and applauds me. I tell them the IRS has been zeroing in on me, but I’m not afraid, because I’m indestructible. And the reason I’m indestructible is that I’m clean.”