WEEKLY STANDARD: New Mexico’s governor is a rising star, but won’t enter the veepstakes

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Michael Warren
April 23, 2012


Carlsbad, N.M. As we walk through the Department of Energy’s field office in remote Carlsbad, Susana Martinez is explaining the science of nuclear waste management. At the federally managed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, about 25 miles east of here and more than 2,000 feet below the dusty, barren surface, the government deposits much of its radioactive waste. The repository, Martinez tells me, was built underneath a half-mile-thick salt formation. Carved out of the salt are small rooms ideal for holding the waste safely as it decays. She explains that the salt is nonporous, so none of the radioactive material can seep into the soil above.

“Isn’t that interesting?” says the 52-year-old Martinez.

To be honest, it really isn’t, but as the governor of New Mexico, America’s ground zero (so to speak) for nuclear research and energy production, Martinez is more or less required to find such topics interesting. In conversation, she approaches policy issues, from nuclear waste to economic development to education, with earnest curiosity. A self-styled wonk, she’s visibly less comfortable reading to preschoolers at a day-care center in Las Cruces than she is talking afterward with the adults and reporters about child abuse awareness. And she looks mortified when joining the preschoolers in the “Tootie Ta” dance, with lyrics imploring dancers to stick their “bottoms up.”

Martinez likes policy. She’s already been tapped as the policy co-chair of the Republican Governors Association. “It’s my training to follow the evidence,” says the former prosecutor. And like a prosecutor on the offensive, she doesn’t suffer legislative nonsense gladly. During a recent debate over education reform, Martinez caught flak from some Democrats in the statehouse who complained that a renewed focus on reading in elementary schools was an “unfunded mandate.” She looks at me incredulously: “I just said, ‘What does that mean? What do we pay [teachers] to do?’ ”

“She’s just a professional, good person from southern New Mexico who wants to do something good for her state,” says Tom Hutchison, a restaurant owner in Mesilla. Jerry Pacheco, a business leader and vice president of the Border Industrial Association in Santa Teresa, calls Martinez “methodical,” “accessible,” and a “good listener.”

Perhaps these qualities help explain Martinez’s cross-party appeal. According to an April 3 poll by Rasmussen Reports, 60 percent of New Mexicans approve of her performance, up 7 points from the 53 percent of the vote she won in 2010. And in New Mexico, nearly half of registered voters are Democrats and only 30 percent are Republicans. According to her campaign’s internal numbers, Martinez won nearly a quarter of Democrats and over 40 percent of Hispanic voters. At a time when the GOP is accused of being antiwoman and anti-Hispanic, the conservative Martinez stands out as a living, breathing counterexample.

So it isn’t surprising that back in January, in an interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show, Mitt Romney mentioned Martinez as someone he would consider for a running mate. Romney also threw in some better-known names (Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal), and reports suggest that these days he is leaning toward someone similar to himself in profile and temperament, like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. Of course, there’s also the looming Sarah Palin precedent. The risk-averse Romney campaign may look at Martinez, see a first-term governor of a small state with a low national profile, and recoil.

But the advantages of a Romney-Martinez ticket are evident. Martinez was born and raised in El Paso by the children of Mexican immigrants. (Her great-grandfather Toribio Ortega fired the first shot of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.) Working at her parents’ small security business, she paid her way through the University of Texas-El Paso and the University of Oklahoma law school. She speaks Spanish fluently; before sitting down to dinner in Mesilla, she steps into the kitchen and converses with the staff, flowing effortlessly from English to Spanish as she glad-hands. Imagine the Spanish-language ads!

After law school, Martinez moved to Las Cruces, where her first husband lived. They had no children, but her current husband, Chuck Franco, has a 24-year-old son. Martinez worked as a prosecutor for 10 years in Las Cruces, focusing on child abuse cases. Registered Democrats both, Martinez and Franco reluctantly agreed to meet with two Republican party officials one day in 1996 as Martinez was considering a political future. The story, now familiar to observers of New Mexican politics, goes something like this: Martinez and Franco planned to listen politely, thank them for lunch, and leave. Instead, both left the meeting amazed to discover that their conservative views made them de facto Republicans. Later that year, Martinez won the first of four elections for district attorney in Democratic Doña Ana County—as a Republican.

“When my husband told his mother he changed parties, I mean, that was devastating to her,” Martinez says. “Although, she’s conservative!” Martinez says Hispanics are far from a lost cause for the GOP; the challenge is making a practical case that conservative policy can work for them.

“The first thing you have to do is have honest conversations with people,” Martinez says. “ ‘I’m not asking you to change your party. I’m asking you to consider voting for me.’ Sometimes that bigger ask is more difficult because they’re lifelong Democrats.”

Martinez says the GOP would do well to seek out Hispanic candidates for local offices, in the same way she was recruited 16 years ago. “There needs to be good strong recruitment of good candidates,” she says. “If you’re filling in positions or slots just for the sake of filling them with people who don’t have good leadership skills or aren’t good, qualified folks, then you end up doing the reverse. ‘See, we elected somebody who is Hispanic, and look what we ended up with: failure.’ They have to be qualified people.”

Martinez has a simple, one-word answer when I ask if she would consider accepting the vice presidential nomination: “No.” Emphatically no? “Emphatically,” she says. What will she say if Romney calls her in late July to ask her the same question? “I am going to say that I am very honored and very humbled but I must decline,” she says.

She and Franco are the primary caretakers for her developmentally disabled sister, and Martinez recently told the Albuquerque Journal she “just couldn’t” consider moving her sister to Washington. She’s a little more than a year into her first term, and there’s plenty left to do in Santa Fe: education reform, tax reform, bringing “the people to the process” (a populist trope she repeats often).

She’s also no doubt haunted by how New Mexicans perceived the national ambitions of her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. W. Ken Martinez, the Democratic majority leader in the statehouse, says locals felt Richardson’s run was a “distraction,” and he believes the current governor is aware of this. “On the other hand, it would be great to have someone from New Mexico close to the White House,” he admits. Former governor Garrey Carruthers, a Republican, when asked about Martinez’s veep potential, shakes his head and sighs. “We’d hate to see her go.”

But there’s another reason Susana Martinez says a run in 2012 doesn’t interest her. “I’m often introduced as the first Hispanic female governor in the country, and with that comes enormous responsibility that I get this done right,” she says. “I’m paving a path where other little girls will look up and say, ‘I can be this or I can be that.’ And if I don’t do it right, if I’m not successful in delivering the promises that I’ve already made, then I end up just being another politician.”

At this, her eyes narrow. “And I don’t want to be a politician,” she adds. “I want to be a leader.”

Martinez has maintained support in New Mexico by sticking to fiscal issues and her good government pledges, portraying herself as an outsider with the facts, figures, and arguments on her side and the people’s best interests at heart. Soon after she was inaugurated, she famously sold the governor’s jet and fired the two chefs employed at the governor’s mansion—both favorites of Richardson. Now she travels by SUV and cooks for her family. “Ramen noodles!” she laughs.

Symbolic measures, to be sure, but when it came to the serious work of bridging a $450 million gap in the budget, Martinez faced a difficult choice between raising taxes and cutting spending. Except, she says, it wasn’t that difficult. “Raising taxes is unnecessary,” Martinez says. “One, because we are living within our means, and two, it is not something that needs to be done during a recovery period.”

Ken Martinez, the Democrat, tells a different story. He says the legislature had “already done all the tough stuff” in cutting spending the two years prior to Susana Martinez’s becoming governor, even levying a small tax to balance the budget. (New Mexico is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget.) The storm, he argues, was mostly weathered by the time she came into office.

“We scrubbed all the way to the bottom,” the governor says, noting unnecessary fleets of government vehicles, fancy cell phones for government employees, and outlandish salaries for cabinet secretaries that had accrued during Richardson’s two terms. Working with Democratic majorities, she found other waste to cut and plugged the budget hole, all the while increasing funding for Medicaid and education. The legislature, especially the senate, resisted the cuts initially but eventually passed balanced budgets two years in a row—without raising taxes.

Martinez has found other ways to shake things up in Sante Fe. The New Mexico legislature has no legal obligation to keep a public record, so she sends an intern with a video camera to tape floor debates and committee meetings. The governor’s office uploads the videos to its website. At first, some legislators mocked this as a gimmick while mugging for the camera. But now, Martinez says, they’re coming to terms with the new transparency.

“I was willing to make them angry for a little while, because at the end of the day, what were we getting?” she says. “Accountability on their votes on education reform. And people were watching that. And they see that. I think commonsense legislators on both sides of the aisle will say, ‘All right, we had our three days of screaming at her. At the end of the day, we’re still on camera. Are we going to be held accountable by the people back home if we don’t start doing what’s right?’ ”

Sincerity, Martinez says, is what people are looking for in their elected officials, and most haven’t liked what they’ve seen in a while. Republicans, she says, have an opportunity. “You have to stay steady,” Martinez says. “You either mean it or you don’t. And you have to follow through when you say it. People have to start believing in their elected officials.”

If Martinez is to be believed, then, her next campaign will be for reelection in 2014. After that? Well, that could be interesting.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.