James B. Lewis: Not the retiring type

By Leslie Linthicum

After decades in government, James B. Lewis has an ambitious agenda for the Alumni Association

The new president of UNM’s Alumni Association is a familiar name to New Mexico voters.

James B. Lewis (’77 MPA) recently retired from a political career that spanned nearly four decades. He was elected twice as Bernalillo County treasurer in the early 1980s and then served as state treasurer for 13 years—New Mexico’s longest-serving treasurer and also the first (and still only) African-American to be elected to statewide office in New Mexico.

Lewis also served on boards and in executive positions in the cities of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, the state of New Mexico and the federal government. He was appointed by mayors, governors and presidents of the United States.

In his years of public engagement, Lewis became known for his hard work, impeccable ethics, quiet charisma and closet-full of fine suits.

“There is no greater honor than being a public servant,” Lewis says, while acknowledging that politics and government are taking a beating in public opinion polls.

“Do what’s legal, do what’s ethical and do what’s good for the community” has always been his motto. With that in mind, he has approached his government postings like a repairman.

My concern was to get in on the inside and work hard and repair things,” he says. “And when people said, ‘Oh, you’re a politician.’ I always said, ‘No, I’m a public servant.’”

Lewis, who was born in Roswell, didn’t grow up in a political family. His grandfather served for 31 years in the U.S. Army and Air Force and his grandmother and mother were housekeepers at the New Mexico Military Institute.

Lewis went to first grade in a racially segregated school in Roswell before his mother moved to Albuquerque to open a restaurant, Moore’s, in the South Broadway neighborhood. She moved to Gallup when Lewis was a sophomore in high school to open another restaurant and he became a sports star—lettering in football, basketball and track—at Gallup High School.

Lewis got involved in Democratic politics when he was asked to help a candidate for district attorney. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call to public service, he ran for county treasurer in 1982 and won.

“I’d heard all these derogatory things about government and I said to myself, ‘Either be part of the problem or part of the solution.’ I am a firm believer that you can be anything you want to be, so I decided to venture off and run for public office.”

Lewis campaigned door to door and studied the speeches of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Ronald Reagan and the Rev. Martin Luther King to develop his own style of energized campaign speech, which he took to all corners of the state in his decades in politics and government.

About to turn 69 and officially retired, Lewis is not slowing down. The UNM grad (’77 MPA) arrives for an interview on campus in a gray pinstripe suit and with a full calendar. He is active in his church, God’s House, belongs to a roster of civic and professional organizations and has jumped into his role as president of the Alumni Association with the same energy and thoroughness he brought to his government work.

Since being appointed the association’s president-elect last summer, Lewis has been studying the organizational structures of both the Alumni Association and the university and meeting with student and alumni groups.

“I see that there’s a lot of different silos here,” Lewis observes. “Engineers go to engineering events. Lawyers go to lawyer events. We want to collaborate so we can provide services to all entities and get them to work on things together.”

His theme for the coming year can be characterized as “communication, collaboration and cooperation.”

Lewis is coming aboard in a period of transition. Karen Abraham, who had served as director of the Office of Alumni Relations for decades, retired at the end of 2015. Dana Allen, who most recently worked in alumni relations at Penn State and Old Dominion University, took over the office in February.

Meanwhile, with both enrollment and state funding in decline, the university is in budget-cutting mode. The Office of Alumni Relations staff has seen its numbers reduced even as its mission to serve more than 180,000 alumni has become more ambitious.

“We want to work to enhance engagement with our alumni,” Lewis says. “These are our ambassadors and these ambassadors can help to tell the story of the university and build UNM pride.”

Lewis’s goals for the coming year include completing the Dr. Karen Abraham Courtyard landscaping project just east of Hodgin Hall; continuing to work with the UNM Foundation on centralizing and updating the alumni database; working with Allen to review the Office of Alumni Relations organizational structure to enhance efficiency and reviewing all of the association’s programs for effectiveness; increasing collaboration with UNM and the UNM Foundation; establishing new alumni chapters or affiliates and helping existing chapters with fundraising and outreach; and getting members of the Alumni Association board and the smaller executive committee more engaged in UNM and Alumni Association activities.

“It is a very ambitious plan for a year,” Lewis acknowledges. “But we’re at this crossroads and we need to all work together to maximize our resources.”