Santa Fe, N.M — In her spacious office on the top floor of the “Roundhouse,” as the state capitol is called, Governor Susana Martinez greets a group of schoolchildren. Excitedly, they have their picture taken with her. As they leave, she calls out to them, “Be good!” One of the teachers answers, “You too!” She says, “I’m trying my best, every day.” After they leave, the governor says how enjoyable it is to meet and mingle with happy schoolchildren: It’s one of the nicest parts of her job. In her former job, as a district attorney, she often met with children who were far from happy: They were victims of crime. She has seen a lot in her career, as prosecutors and other law-enforcement people tend to.
Susana Martinez was elected governor of New Mexico in 2010. For those keeping score, she is the first Hispanic woman to be the governor of any state. A conservative Republican, she is a star of her party, nationally. There is even talk that she should be the vice-presidential nominee this year. She has said, firmly, that she wouldn’t accept the position: She is committed to her state and her term. Besides which, you could say, it’s way too early for Martinez to be on a national ticket: She has had just a year as governor. Still, you can forgive Republicans their excitement over this woman, whose gifts and appeal are undeniable.
She was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1959, and she was raised in that city too. Her father was a Marine, a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a deputy sheriff, and, finally, a businessman. One of the governor’s great-grandfathers was Toribio Ortega, a general in the Mexican Revolution. When in high school, she was the student-council president. She went to the University of Texas at El Paso, and then to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Why did she go to law school? When she was a child, she noticed that congressmen and senators tended to be lawyers. She herself was interested in a life of politics and public service. She never had a doubt that she would go to law school.
Her parents were Democrats, she was a Democrat, and so was just about everyone they knew. But the Martinezes were conservatives. The future governor was raised very strictly, she says, with her parents emphasizing education and hard work. She and her brother went to Catholic schools. She had the great responsibility of helping to care for her sister, who was “special needs,” as she says: She bathed her, slept with her, and so on. Then, too, there was the fact that her parents were running a business. It was a security-guard company, which began with three employees: Mom, Dad, and Susana. Her parents realized, she says, “how much of their own capital they needed to keep in order to go after the next contract.” They also realized how jobs were created. Eventually, the company grew to 125 employees in three states.
Martinez remembers that her father once “sheepishly” admitted that he had voted for Reagan. Susana voted for Reagan, too. She says she has always been a believer in looking at the individual, and crossing party lines “as you see fit.”
In 1986, she began her life in New Mexico, moving to Las Cruces. She worked in the DA’s office. Then, in the mid-Nineties, she decided to run for DA herself. Two Republican leaders in the county invited her to lunch. She said to her husband, “I know what they want.” (Her husband is Chuck Franco, a former undersheriff, now referred to by the governor as “the First Gentleman.”) “They want us to change parties. Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to be nice to them, we’re going to let them buy us lunch, we’re going to thank them, and we’re never going to see them again.” Over lunch, the group discussed a range of issues: crime, welfare, the Second Amendment, economic policy, the works. Afterward, Martinez looked at her husband and said, “I’ll be damned: We’re Republicans. Now what?” The problem was, the county was three to one Democratic. The state as a whole is overwhelmingly Democratic. A life in politics seemed challenging, at best. But after a while, Martinez said, “We’ve got to be true to ourselves. Let’s re-register.” She won her first election, and was reelected three times.