Magazine | October 20, 2014, Issue

Viva Susana!

(AP Photo/William Faulkner)
The governor of New Mexico runs for reelection

Las Vegas, N.M. — At the end of the tarmac here at the Moriarty Municipal Airport, a tent has been set up. Moriarty is a little town east of Albuquerque. Outside the tent are two flags side by side: the U.S. and the New Mexico. They look good together, waving in the wind. New Mexico’s flag is one of our most distinctive, with its bright yellow. What is going on here is a little ceremony to mark the opening of a new facility: an outpost of Google, the California-based Internet giant. A building is going up before our eyes. Apparently, the company is going to test drones. The facility will employ something like 200 people, and governmental authorities will provide about $1 million in infrastructure improvements.

The star of the show this morning, other than Google, is New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez. In almost Clinton-like fashion, she is late — but not unpardonably late. A little more than a half hour. No one seems to mind. When she arrives, people light up at her, and she lights up back at them. There are hugs and kisses all around, as well as laughter. The governor is in a jeans jacket and blue jeans, with stylish boots. “New Mexican chic” is the phrase that comes to mind. At the rostrum, a string of local officials praise the new facility, praise Google, and praise Martinez. They thank her for her “pro-business attitude.” They say it in a tone that suggests that such an attitude is unusual. One official notes that, in attracting Google, New Mexico has beaten “the country to the east” — meaning Texas.

When it’s her turn at the rostrum, Martinez apologizes for her outfit: She says she is in jeans because she may have to go inspect flooding in the southeastern part of the state. In the course of her remarks, she says there was a time, not long ago — like before she was elected — when New Mexico could not attract businesses. They went to Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and elsewhere. The reason was, New Mexican taxes and regulations were business-unfriendly. Martinez says that she was recently invited to a conference in Denver, speaking to 1,500 CEOs and other executives. She was the only governor invited to speak. She made her pitch for New Mexico. The participants, she says, were surprised that the state was open for business. The line at the New Mexico booth was long.

Much of her little speech here at the airport is the usual political pabulum. The platitudes numb the ear: “work together”; “as a team, we can do anything.” But then there comes a line unusual for a governor or other politician. Turning to the Google representative, she says, “We will build the infrastructure, then get out of the way to let you do what you do best.”

After the ceremony, Martinez mingles with her colleagues, constituents, and fans. There is more lighting up, more beaming. Old men beam at the governor. Young women beam at her. She beams back at them all. As she mingles, she is both efficient and patient. She moves along but doesn’t rush, leaving no one obviously shortchanged. Many want pictures with her, and she takes note of light angles: “Where’s the sun?” She also helps people with their smartphones. People may be nervous when the moment comes to snap a picture. To a TV reporter, she says, “The pipeline was empty in 2011,” her first year in office. She means that there were no businesses or jobs coming into New Mexico. “Now the pipeline is full.” And “we’re soaring.”

When I greet her, I tell her I don’t buy that her outfit is her grubby work clothes — her inspect-the-floods clothes. The outfit strikes me as New Mexican chic. She says I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Susana Martinez, as you will have inferred, was elected in 2010. She is a Republican — a conservative Republican — in a state that is heavily liberal and Democratic. She won 53 percent of the vote. For those who care about sex and ethnicity — and what American doesn’t? — she is the first Hispanic woman to be the governor of an American state. Born in 1959, she grew up in El Paso, Texas. Her parents were Reagan Democrats. So was she. After law school, she moved to Las Cruces, N.M., about 50 miles northwest of El Paso. She worked in the district attorney’s office. Eventually, she switched from being a Reagan Democrat to being a Reagan Republican. She ran for D.A. herself: winning her first election, and being reelected three times.

When Martinez became governor, New Mexico had a budget deficit of $450 million. The state was ranked dead last in business competitiveness. New Mexico’s motto is Crescit eundo, “It grows as it goes.” What was chiefly growing in New Mexico was the government. Everyone said that Martinez had to be “realistic,” drop her cute free-market principles, and raise taxes, to close the deficit. She refused. She wanted to reform government and stimulate the economy instead. Now the state has a nearly $300 million surplus. And New Mexico is becoming known for, of all things, business competitiveness. Earlier this year, there was a headline in the Albuquerque Journal: “Report: NM No. 1 in West for Manufacturing.”

Furthermore, Martinez was determined to be an education reformer. New Mexico is a poor state, with a crush of social problems, and has long ranked 48th, 49th, or 50th in various categories. The state is liable to fight with Mississippi to keep out of last place. But Martinez holds that any child can learn, no matter how poor (and that is a term she uses freely, by the way — “poor,” instead of euphemisms such as “low-income,” “underprivileged,” or “disadvantaged”). She has promoted high standards. And she boasts of results, including this: New Mexico has the fastest-growing graduation rate in the country.

This fall, Martinez is running for reelection. Her opponent is Gary King, the state attorney general and a pillar of the Democratic establishment. His father, Bruce, was governor here for three terms. Gary King lives in Moriarty, where Martinez had her somewhat in-your-face Google ceremony. The campaign follows predictable contours: King says that Martinez is a ruthless Republican who favors fat cats over the little guy — and that he is a Democrat, like the state itself. Martinez says, in effect, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” And she tells them the answer is yes, for X, Y, and Z reasons.

#page#The term “compassionate conservative” has long been in bad odor on the right. That’s what George W. Bush called himself, and many conservatives associate “compassionate conservatism” with socialism lite. Bush himself said, “It’s compassionate to help our fellow citizens in need; it’s conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” Martinez has always struck me as a compassionate conservative. I know she resists the label, though, along with most other labels: I know this from an interview I did with her in January 2012. This year, she has run a TV ad called “Breakfast.” It touts a program of hers called “Breakfast after the Bell,” which feeds more than 60,000 poor children at their desks at the beginning of the day. Into the camera, Martinez says, “It’s harder for hungry kids to learn. That’s why I started a program that ensures that every child gets a good breakfast.” And “while I believe in a strong safety net for those in need, we can’t allow adults to abuse the system. That’s why we prohibit the use of welfare cards at places like bars and casinos. We can help those in need and protect taxpayers.”

Two weeks ago, Gary King, the Democratic nominee, made waves at a fundraiser. He said, “Susana Martinez does not have a Latino heart.” (King is a standard Anglo guy, just for the record.) Martinez answered with above-the-fray cool. “We certainly have different views on the issues,” she said, “but I know what’s in my heart and I won’t question what’s in his.”

When she was elected in 2010, some of us asked, “Will she be a one-term wonder?” The wind was at her back in 2010. That was a huge Republican year, all over the country. Democrats were falling left and right. Also, the Democratic administration in New Mexico, under Governor Bill Richardson, was inept, unpopular, and none too clean. Could Martinez be reelected in this solidly Democratic state? It seems she will be. A recent poll shows her ahead by 54 percent to 36 percent. What’s more, she is swamping the Democrat in cash: She has almost $4 million on hand, he has a measly $158,000. His campaign manager has just resigned, the third of them to do so. King has had a rocky run.

The day after her Moriarty caper, Martinez is traveling from the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe to Las Vegas — the New Mexico Las Vegas, not the Siegfried & Roy Las Vegas — about an hour east and a little south. I ride along with her. I bring up something she mentioned to me in 2012: At a Walgreens in Santa Fe, liberal ladies would scurry up to her and say, “Don’t tell anyone, but I voted for you.” Do they still do that? Oh, yes, she says: Democrats tell her all the time that they voted for her once and will again. They say things like, “My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was voting Republican!” People who have never voted for a Republican in their lives are voting for Martinez.

I ask her how Republicans can escape the tag of heartlessness — whether the hearts they allegedly lack are Latino or some other kind. I cite the 2012 presidential election. Exit pollsters asked voters what they thought about the candidates’ leadership, vision, values, and caring. Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama on the first three questions. But he got clobbered on the fourth one, caring. Martinez says that Romney is an exceptionally caring person, the author of countless acts of charity and kindness. No one knows about those acts, though. She goes on to tell me something about her own approach to politics.

“I like to get in the middle of crowds,” she says. “I like to meet people. I travel the state over and over.” She does, in this very vehicle: an SUV, a Ford Expedition. She works at a little desk in the back. Sometimes an Internet connection, or phone reception, is a problem. New Mexico is a big state with a small population. It is the fifth-largest state in the Union, with 122,000 square miles. It is No. 36 in population, with about 2.1 million people — fewer than in Houston. Martinez says that she goes where Republicans, traditionally, are uncomfortable being. She says she does not feel uncomfortable anywhere. She is happy at tony country clubs and in squalid barrios. She has seen it all, back in El Paso and during her 25 years as a prosecutor. She believes in asking one and all for their votes — if you don’t ask, and try to persuade, you probably won’t receive.

Driving to Las Vegas, we talk about a range of economic issues. For instance, she is friendly to oil and gas, whereas her predecessor was not. She cleared away obstacles. In July, an Associated Press report began, “Federal statistics are showing what many people in New Mexico already know: The state is in the midst of an oil boom.” There is also the matter of the minimum wage — the state’s minimum wage. Martinez vetoed a hike that she thought was too steep, and the Democrats are using this veto against her. How could the governor take bread out of people’s mouths? Martinez’s answer is that it’s better to have a job than to be laid off because the employer can’t afford higher salaries.

We further talk about some “social issues.” “You’re anti-abortion,” I say, “and that hasn’t hurt you politically?” She gives me one of her pleasant stares, which I’m familiar with from our prior interview. “Nope,” she says. I continue, “And you’re still anti–gay marriage?” Another pleasant stare — maybe longer. Then she says, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, yes.”

The entire time she has been governor, she has tried to get a law repealed, concerning immigration. New Mexico grants driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. Martinez believes this is a public-safety issue, above all. People up to no good come to New Mexico from all over the country to acquire a driver’s license. Then they disperse, to perform their misdeeds. The New Mexico legislature (Democrat-controlled) has not yet repealed the law. I ask the governor about immigration more generally. “There is no desire on the part of Washington to solve the problem,” she says — the problem of illegal immigration, and the 12 million illegal immigrants within our borders now. She believes that a comprehensive solution can be found. “There’s a lot of room between the deportation of 12 million people and amnesty,” she says.

#page#Amnesty, she is firmly opposed to. For one thing, she believes it would be “disrespectful” to those who have waited in line to enter the country legally. She points out to me that she has lived on the border for a long time: first in El Paso, then in Las Cruces. Her father was a policeman; she was a prosecutor. She has looked at the problem of border-jumping her whole life. The border must be secured in order to prevent another “wave” of illegals, she says. At the same time, she is full of sympathy for the illegals we might call “refugees.” She talks of meeting such people, including children, at an immigration center in Artesia, N.M. The tales she relates are poignant and powerful.

About education, she talks at length. But her views come down to a single phrase: “no excuses.” People will always have excuses for a child’s failure, she says: The family is poor, the parents are divorced, the mother or father is drunk. But for seven hours a day, in a school, a child should be able to learn, no matter what, says Martinez. I think of a book by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, the scholars and reformers: No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. I also think of a phrase from George W. Bush (another one): “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Martinez has high expectations. One of the educational results she boasts about is that New Mexico’s Hispanic kids lead the nation in Advanced Placement testing.

On this journey to Vegas, I ask the governor, “What’s a Latino heart?” She gives me a priceless look — one of bemusement, mainly. “I have no idea,” she says. “I don’t know what he meant by that” (meaning her Democratic opponent, Gary King). A little later, she tells me a story: She was on a radio talk show once when the chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic party called in. The chairwoman said, “I can’t believe that you are a woman and Hispanic, and that you’re a Republican.” Martinez replied, “Then you must believe that I cannot think for myself and that I cannot choose my own values. You must believe that I will follow a particular group or party simply because of my heritage and my gender. And that is ignorant.”

Here is another story: Last year, a Democratic candidate in Albuquerque said that Democrats who cross party lines to vote Republican are a “bunch of pendejos.” Pendejo is a very rude Spanish word for “idiot” or “jackass.” Martinez was on another radio show, and a woman heard her. The woman was washing dishes, but she dropped everything and drove to the station. She waited for the governor to come out. And when she did, the woman called out excitedly, “Susana, soy tu pendeja!” (“Susana, I’m your pendeja!”).

As a governor, Martinez deals with such matters as the minimum wage and floods in Carlsbad. But I ask her about her view of America in the world: Does she believe in America as a global power or something else? Is she a Reaganite in her foreign-policy views as in other fields? “America has been the greatest, strongest country in the world for many years,” she says. And she believes that “policies of reducing our military and our strength around the world” are wrongheaded. So too the practice of “apologizing” for the United States. She notes that the Middle East is erupting at the same time our defenses are dwindling: “I am concerned.” I tell her she sounds like the daughter of a Golden Glove boxer in the Marines (which she is). Yes, she says, and also the stepmother of a Navy Special Forces man.

We pull into the plaza in Las Vegas. (The Reagan-era Cold War movie Red Dawn, by the way, was filmed in this town.) Martinez is going to do some campaigning at a restaurant called “El Encanto,” meaning “the charm” or “the spell.” People are gathered on the sidewalk out front waiting to greet her. They have their smartphones poised to snap her as she emerges from the SUV. There are young and old, Hispanic, Indian, and white. It is an American tableau. She is a rare thing, this governor: a one-named pol. She is simply “Susana.” More than a politician, or a government official, she is a celebrity. The enthusiasm for her is beyond politics. She is a star, in this pond of New Mexico. As in Moriarty, she moves easily and happily in the crowd. She eats it up as much as they do. She takes a mother’s toddler and keeps holding the girl as she mingles with other people. Some want to speak to her in Spanish, and she switches languages seamlessly.

Inside the restaurant, I meet Alfonso Ortiz, the mayor of Las Vegas. He is a staunch and lifelong Democrat. He is also a staunch Martinez supporter and fan. He says they saw more of Martinez in Las Vegas during the first months of her governorship than they saw of her predecessor, the Democrat, in eight years. He says that Martinez is constantly rubbing shoulders, listening to concerns, and delivering.

As the governor prepares to speak, a young woman calls out, “Viva Susana!” Martinez gives a little speech about New Mexico’s progress. “We got Google. Google! Here in New Mexico!” Before she wraps up, she says, in disciplined political fashion, “I’m asking for the vote.” She continues, “Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent, I’m asking for your vote. At the end of the day, I work for you. And I treat Democrats, Republicans, and independents exactly the same.” She asks for a show of hands: “How many of you are Democrats?” Most people raise their hands. Then she applauds, and they applaud too. She praises the secret ballot. “You go into the privacy of the voting booth and select whatever candidate you like.”

Someone says, “Susana for president!” Politicians get this a lot, of course. Martinez gets it more than most. She is unquestionably a vice-presidential prospect, and some people think it makes sense for her to run for the top job. She has a number of assets. She articulates firm principles in a soft feminine manner. She practices conservatism in a liberal state. (With Mississippi, New Mexico is tied for first in dependence on the federal government.) During her 25 years as a prosecutor, she saw the dregs. Child-rapists and murderers were her daily fare. She is no babe in the woods. Yet she seems to have a sunny outlook on life. And she has that strange personal magic, which touches people and transcends politics.

First, she has to win reelection, which seems likely. Then, who knows?

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