New Mexico is a poor state, and it lags far behind in education. Eighty percent of fourth-graders can’t read proficiently, says the governor. She wants an end to social promotion. She wants merit pay for teachers. She does not want Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, finding it too restrictive. New Mexico has asked for a waiver from it. The Martinez administration has devised a different way of evaluating schools and their progress. In common with other governors, Martinez has had several conversations with Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and an education specialist, about education reform.
This governor is the first Latina governor, as you know. And I ask her how she feels about that: Is it a big deal, a small deal, no deal? “There’s an enormous responsibility that comes with it,” she says. Little girls will run up to her on the street or in a store, asking, “Are you Susana?” And the governor’s thinking, How do you know who I am? You’re five. You should be playing with your Barbies. You shouldn’t know who the governor is
. But they do. Martinez feels an obligation to “do this job right,” for the sake of little ones looking up to her, not least. One of her main aspirations is to make New Mexico a place that people don’t have to leave, in order to better themselves. (By the way, I have long heard similar words from Third World leaders.) Also, Martinez feels she must not “abandon this job early.”
Obviously, she is not beloved of La Raza, MALDEF, and other Hispanic pressure groups. I ask whether she has been called bad names. She says that, during her 25 years as a prosecutor, she was called every name in the book, often by the criminals she was putting away, so she is relatively inured. She has taken tough stands on issues related to immigration. For example, she is trying to repeal a law that allows illegals to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses. She says this is a public-safety issue above all. She has required that the state police ascertain the immigration status of those they arrest for crimes. Her policy views are shaped by her experience as a prosecutor, and she can tell you in excruciating detail what happens when the law is lax.
She is solidly for legal immigration, solidly against illegal immigration, and insistent that the border be secured.
For years, some people on the right have said, “Hispanics are natural conservatives, you know. They’re hard-working, they’re religious, they’re family-oriented, they serve in the military.” Others say, “Give it up: They are by and large a grievance group, feeling entitled to welfare, and Republicans will never reach them.” Governor Martinez issues a verdict: There are all sorts of people within the category of Hispanics, as there are within other categories. Republicans should compete for as many votes as possible — otherwise, “we are cheating ourselves.”
I wonder, out loud, whether Martinez can win again, when she’s up in 2014. The year 2010 was an annus mirabilis for Republicans. Can she really continue to sell her conservatism in a poor and Democratic state, when the other side is offering more generous, or putatively generous, government? When MALDEF, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and the rest of them are breathing down her neck? She says she can. She says she has discovered, all over the state, that when she talks sincerely to people — not using such words as “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” and “conservative” — they tend to nod in agreement. They are more conservative than they may realize. She has seen this phenomenon in her own family. For instance, she got a cousin’s husband to see it her way on driver’s licenses for illegals. He said to her, “You sold me on the one issue I thought I could never be sold on.”
About the vice-presidential nomination, she is calmly unbudging. I say, “Come on: If you’re asked to be on the ticket, you’re going to say, ‘Go jump in a lake’?” “I would never say, ‘Go jump in a lake,’” she responds, softly. “But I would say no.” She has wanted to be in politics ever since girlhood, true — but she says she felt fulfilled when she became a prosecutor. She was able to help many people who were in the worst of circumstances. If she had never climbed to a higher position or done more, she says, that would have been enough.
I myself wouldn’t be surprised if she ran for president someday. And she would be formidable. Some national Republicans may be particularly interested in her sex and ethnicity, but they would quickly find that those things are the least of her. She is principled and pragmatic. She has a sure sense of philosophy but is also keen on the details. She expresses some quite hard-line views in a lovely feminine voice. She knows how to talk to people who think they’re allergic to Republicans. She’s a lawyer who is exceptionally business-friendly. She both advocates and exemplifies the American Dream. Yes, you can forgive people their excitement over Susana Martinez.
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the February 20, 2011, issue of National Review.