Martinez is what you might call a “full service” Republican, a conservative across the board, including on the “social issues.” “You’re pro-life,” I say. “Why?” She answers, “Because I believe that, upon inception, that is a living human being.” “Gay marriage,” I say. “Tough issue?” “No,” she says, quietly, “not a tough issue. I think marriage is between a man and a woman.”
In 2010, she ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in a five-man field. Her most prominent supporter, nationally, was Sarah Palin. She won with an eye-popping 51 percent. She then faced Democrat Diane Denish, the lieutenant governor in the administration of the incumbent governor, Bill Richardson (the former congressman, U.N. ambassador, and energy secretary). It was not a propitious year for Denish: First, 2010 was a lousy year for Democrats across the nation; second, New Mexico was in dire economic straits, with a huge budget deficit, among other problems; third, the Richardson administration was tainted by corruption. Martinez campaigned all over New Mexico, talking to voters who had rarely seen a Republican. This was key to her success, she says. She gave the same message wherever she went, not knowing how she would be received, not knowing whether she would be cheered or hissed. She never asked anyone to change parties. She just asked them to listen to her, and vote for her if they agreed.
A New Mexico Republican has no choice but to appeal to Democrats, certainly if that Republican wants to run statewide. Martinez says that, in ultra-liberal Santa Fe, while she’s shopping at Walgreens, Democratic ladies will scurry up to her and whisper, “Don’t tell anyone, but I voted for you.”
During the 2010 campaign, the Democrats tried an interesting gambit: They ran an ad saying, “Susana es una tejana” — “Susana is a Texan.” Democratic activists nicknamed her “Susana la Tejana.” They were saying that Martinez was a native of Texas, not of New Mexico, sure. But they were also saying something else, as Martinez points out: They were trying to divide Hispanics. Many in New Mexico trace their origins to Spain. Their families have been here for many generations. Saying that Susana was a tejana was a way of saying, “She’s a Mexican, you know.”
In any event, Martinez beat Denish with 53 percent of the vote. The same day, another Republican, Brian Sandoval, was elected governor of Nevada. He beat Rory Reid, a son of the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid. On the campaign trail, the senior Reid had said, “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, okay? Do I need to say more?” He can now say that the governors in both his state and a state to his southeast are Hispanic conservative Republicans.
Once sworn in, Martinez charged hard, doing as much as she could with a Democratic legislature, and doing as much as she could on her own. The budget deficit was turned into a surplus — with no taxes raised in the bargain. She had said during the campaign that she wouldn’t raise taxes. After her election, politicos said to her, “Come on, Susana, be realistic. You’re not campaigning anymore. We have to have tax increases in order to reduce the deficit.” She was told this by Democrats and Republicans alike. But she cut spending instead.
Getting a lot of attention were two symbolic measures: Martinez sold off the state jet, and she dispensed with the two chefs in the governor’s mansion. She does the cooking, she says, although “Hubby helps a bit.”