New Mexico’s governor is a rising star, but won’t enter the veepstakes.
Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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.”