Shari V. Hill/Las Cruces Sun-News
Carlos Martinez remembers District Attorney Susana Martinez as a friend who made it her personal mission to deliver justice after two men murdered his sister Carly in 1998.
Susana Martinez waited in a line of more than 1,000 people at Carly’s memorial service to hug and cry with the slain NMSU student’s loved ones after her body was found with more than 30 stab wounds in the desert west of Las Cruces. Martinez gave Carly’s family members her cell phone number and, at her home, she filled a room with trial materials so she could work extra hours on the prosecution of Carly’s killers.
When she won convictions, Martinez and her husband Chuck invited Carly’s family members into their home, along with detectives and others involved in the case. They cooked everyone a meal.
“The antiseptic feeling of courtrooms was replaced with a humble meal, hugs and time shared among family,” Carlos Martinez, who is not related to Susana Martinez, told New Mexico In Depth.
Today, Susana Martinez is the first elected female Hispanic governor in the United States. She’s a popular Republican in a Democratic state; nearly every poll has found her approval rating in the 60s since she took office in early 2011. Some see her as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The story of the bond Martinez created with Carly’s family may help explain who she is and why New Mexicans like her. As governor, she has appealed to voters as a champion of the people taking on a corrupt and bloated political system. And many, including Carlos Martinez, say they appreciate that she remains, in many respects, a regular person.
Susana Martinez shops for clothes at Ross, prefers a Taco Bell drive thru to a fancy meal and does some laundry and grocery shopping herself. Her husband recently went back to work so they could make ends meet. Martinez is responsible for her developmentally disabled sister, who lives in Martinez’s home in Las Cruces with a caregiver.
Two years after Martinez became governor, she recently sat down with NMID to discuss her tenure. She said she’s the same person who won the love of Carly Martinez’s family nearly 15 years ago, the same person who, when she was district attorney, would be at Sam’s Club in high heels pushing a shopping cart and tugging her sister around.
“This hasn’t changed me because there’s no reason for it to change me,” Martinez said during the interview at her home in Las Cruces.
Many say they see a different person, however. In interviews, some described a governor who is disrespectful, one who is constantly attacking legislative opponents with mailers, radio spots, TV ads and automated phone calls funded by her super PAC.
Threatening to “drop an anvil on their head” is how former Sen. Steve Fischmann, D-Las Cruces, described the attacks. Fischmann says he quit the Legislature last year in part because of a polarized climate created by Martinez and leaders of his own party.
Last fall, two longtime Democratic Senate leaders – President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell and Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia of Doña Ana – were among those who lost re-election bids after Martinez’s PAC attacked them because they stood in the way of her proposals. The governor also worked behind the scenes to push out others, including Republican Sen. Clinton Harden of Clovis.
With Martinez’s third regular legislation session starting Jan. 15, some say her combative attitude toward lawmakers – do what I want or I’ll take you out – could harm any legacy she hopes to leave. Some Democrats and even Republicans suggest she might accomplish more by building better relationships with lawmakers.
“I think maintaining a respectful relationship with the Legislature does pay off,” said former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican. “She’s got the charm and the intellect to do that, and if I were to recommend one thing, I’d turn that charm on.”
Harvey E. Yates, an oilman who was state GOP chairman when Martinez was elected governor, said her administration has “too often been a divisive force rather than a uniting force” in its dealings with the Legislature.
Yates credited Martinez with hiring more qualified agency heads, creating a reasonable regulatory environment, making progress on education reform and reducing “the aura of corruption” in state government.
But unless Martinez starts working better with the Legislature, “she risks ending her tenure as governor with little permanent change to show for her efforts,” Yates said.
‘I don’t abandon my principles’
A fight is exactly what New Mexicans should have expected when they sent the confident and sometimes stubborn Martinez, who calls herself an “advocate,” to Santa Fe.
“I will debate issues. I compromise. I negotiate. But I don’t abandon my principles,” Martinez said.
Martinez admitted that she didn’t do enough to reach out to lawmakers early on. She said her administration was “somewhat overwhelmed” with hiring staff, crafting a budget, preparing for a 60-day session, and planning an inauguration.
“I wish I’d done that better,” she conceded. “We’ve certainly learned. We adjust as we learn.”
Martinez said she’s gotten better at working with lawmakers and pledged to continue to do so. But she said she would not stop attacking those who block her reform efforts.
Martinez isn’t always in attack mode. Her super PAC defended a handful of conservative Democratic incumbents who faced primary challenges from the left last year and hit their opponents. In a blue state, Martinez needs Democratic votes to pass any bills.
And she doesn’t always dig in her heels. Faced with opposition from many educators and Democrats to her proposal to hold back third graders who cannot read at grade level, Martinez has given ground, but an agreement has been elusive.
Martinez cited 14 achievements of which she’s most proud. The most important, she said, was closing a $450 million budget gap after she took office in 2011. That required working with lawmakers to cut spending.
Other legislative successes Martinez is proud of include winning larger funding increases for education and Medicaid than the Democratic-controlled Legislative Finance Committee sought both years she’s been in office, exempting some products and services from the gross receipts tax to help construction and manufacturing businesses, and establishing an A-F grading system for schools, which Martinez said is simpler and easier to understand than the federal No Child Left Behind system it replaced.
Critics say Martinez’s accomplishments can’t rival those of her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, who led the campaign to create a spaceport, commuter rail, and the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority to attract alternative energy companies to New Mexico and help them sell power to other states. He also raised teacher salaries and drew greater spending from the film industry with incentives that Martinez later worked to cap.
Martinez said she isn’t seeking flashy projects to tout as accomplishments. She’s piecing together “a big puzzle” that includes improving education to better equip New Mexicans to land higher-paying jobs and making the state competitive through tax, regulatory and education reform so companies will relocate here.
Local officials in Las Vegas and Santa Teresa described what they called Martinez’s hands-on approach to pursuing her goals. Martinez personally toured Las Vegas’ Peterson Dam in northern New Mexico to learn about structural problems, Mayor Alfonso Ortiz, a Democrat, said. When she visited the industrial area in Santa Teresa on the state’s southern border, she took notes and asked questions, said Jerry Pacheco, vice president of the Border Industrial Association.
“Even as a prosecutor, the smallest detail can turn a case in a different direction,” Martinez said. “So I am very capable of being detail-orientated, with a big vision in place. … I’m hands-on because I want to understand the policy.”
Though Martinez hasn’t yet won legislative funding for Las Vegas’ dam, Ortiz described the governor as a champion of the city’s people. He said she has also visited to read to elementary students – something she’s done in dozens of schools statewide as governor – and to celebrate the opening of a meat-packing plant, a rare bright spot for Las Vegas’ economy.
“The governor is very sincere. She’s followed up on things,” Ortiz said. “That’s how I know she’s going to help us if she’s able to.”
‘Let the people decide’
Martinez’s efforts to shake up the Roundhouse may help explain why voters like her, as may the moments she sits cross-legged – “crisscross applesauce,” as she calls it – to read to children.
From the start, Martinez has shown little tolerance for government that doesn’t serve people. She personally oversaw an investigation into the Children, Youth and Families Department’s handling of an abuse complaint after the agency failed to act and a child died. She has webcast legislative hearings and meetings of many of her own boards and archived that video online to allow people easier access to what’s happening at the Roundhouse.
She has avoided some contentious battles other Republican governors have fought, such as trying to diminish the power of unions and cutting funding for health care and education. Martinez says she supports a government safety net.
Martinez’s administration has certainly not been blemish-free. A scandal erupted in late 2011 related to the awarding of a lease of land at the state fair grounds to a campaign contributor who hired a GOP insider to help it win the award. Martinez has also faced criticism for her administration’s use of private e-mail to conduct some public business – a practice she has since ordered stopped.
Some critics wonder if she is more focused on politics than policy.
Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, a Democrat, said Martinez has missed opportunities to create jobs while focusing on right-wing wedge issues like repealing the law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Though communication has improved, Coss, who ran for Legislature last year and lost after being attacked by Martinez’s PAC, said the administration took too much time to reach out early on, when the economy was faltering.
Martinez said she’s focused on improving the state. She hopes she is popular with voters because “what I said to them when I was campaigning is what I’m fighting for, and that they see me as a leader, not as politician who will say whatever it takes to get elected and then forget what got you there,” she said.
All Martinez wants from lawmakers, she said, is an up-or-down vote on her proposals.
“Have the courage to vote, and then stand by your vote and let the people decide,” Martinez said.
Lawmakers shouldn’t take offense at her attacks, she said. In a courtroom, she said, both sides argue their cases and don’t take attacks personally.
In the world of politics, many do take offense, however. Independent Andy Nuñez of Hatch championed Martinez’s thus-far unsuccessful push to repeal the driver’s license law. But last year Martinez targeted Nuñez, who disagreed with her on other issues. He was running against Mike Tellez, a Republican who is Martinez’s friend.
Phillip Archuleta, the Democrat in the three-person race, won.
“I got along with her real well. I was in her office more often during the last two sessions than the Republicans were,” Nuñez said. “Then she comes out against me big time. That really bothered me.”
‘It’s not about me versus the Legislature’
Martinez said she hopes lawmakers get on board with “what New Mexicans are demanding as far as reform,” adding that she “can’t imagine that graduating only 63 percent of our children is satisfactory to any legislator.”
“It’s not about me versus the Legislature,” Martinez said. “It’s about the Legislature and the governor working together to accomplish something very different from the mediocrity that we are accepting.”
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, thinks Martinez has lots to learn and said lawmakers “have become impatient waiting for that learning to mature.”
“It’s difficult to disregard the fact that many of the legislators have vastly more experience and know the subject matter far better than the governor can,” Cervantes said. “I think it would be wise for her to recognize that and rely on the legislators to guide her.”
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, who Democrats have nominated to replace Jennings as pro tem, agreed that Martinez had a learning curve but he said she is “is becoming better acclimated to her role” and reaching out to lawmakers. Martinez’s PAC supported Campos in last year’s primary, but he said the governor’s efforts to unseat others “will remain with us.”
“Our task is much larger than ourselves. It is to get back to what’s important to the people of our state,” Campos said. Doing that, he added, will take good communication, manners, “and putting our personal feelings aside to the best of our ability.”
“I’m committed to that, and I believe that’s where the governor is coming from right now,” Campos said.
Carruthers, who was governor from 1987-1991, had some advice for lawmakers: “Yeah, you get wounded in a campaign. But then you get elected and you have to move on.”