NR Digital

Getting to Know Susana

by Jay Nordlinger
A visit with the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, after her first year in office

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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