She likes to say, “New Mexico is open for business.” Many governors like to say that about their states, of course. But for Martinez, the statement has a particular urgency, because New Mexico has been all too closed for business: One study ranked it dead last in competitiveness. The culprit, according to Martinez, is the tax code. Her team has set about reforming it, and doing away with onerous regulations as well. In her recent state-of-the-state address, Martinez bragged that companies were now leaving El Paso for New Mexico. I say to her, “I found that vaguely disloyal” (given her El Paso roots). Laughing, she says that she and Texas governor Rick Perry are engaged in a friendly competition: She tells him she’s coming after Texas jobs, and Perry says, in essence, “Fine — bring it on. Competition benefits everyone.”
Martinez is what we used to call a “goo-goo,” a good-government type, offended by corruption and crusading against it. She has increased transparency in government, and she has required her appointees to wait two years after they leave before lobbying. “Public service should be about serving the public,” she said in her state-of-the-state address, “not setting up a future payday.” She added that both parties have been guilty.
Reading that address, you might find George W. Bush written all over it, as I did. For instance, she said, “As we continue to do more with less, we must never forget that our budget is a statement about our values. . . . Federal Medicare cuts are threatening to close nursing homes, leaving patients, parents, and grandparents with nowhere to go. We promised to be there. That’s why my budget includes $8 million to keep that promise and keep those nursing homes open.” She especially sounds like Bush on the subject of education. He used to rail against “social promotion,” the practice of “waving kids through” the grades, whether they had learned anything or not. This was “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he said. Martinez does the same railing and makes the same complaints. Kids who are waved through without knowing anything? Soon they fill with shame, rage, and hopelessness, she says. She met many of them as a prosecutor: They were living lives of crime.
“So,” I ask her, “are you a so-called compassionate conservative?” This is a dread term for many on the right. She gives me a pleasant stare, then says that she resists any and all labels. “I’m compassionate, absolutely,” she says. She believes that government should step in when people are desperate and have nowhere else to turn. But she does not believe that welfare should become a way of life. She thinks that government, ideally, should lend a person a “helping hand,” pull him back onto his feet, and send him on his way.
I single out a line from her state-of-the-state address: about providing “school clothes for kids most in need.” Is that a government function? She talks of children whose parents are absent or useless. “I’ve seen kids who go to school smelling of urine, because they have several dogs in the house, and those dogs don’t know the difference between inside and outside. The kids have shoes that are too big, because the shoes belong to their sister, and they don’t have socks. They have dirty faces, their hair is matted.” She continues, “No one wants to sit next to you, because you smell so bad. You can hardly stand yourself. You’re being made fun of, you’re not comfortable in your clothes, you’re starving. And you’re expected to concentrate and be productive.” She has no qualms about finding room in the budget for clothes.