Susana Martinez — changing New Mexico and looking ahead
When scheduling problems April 26 forced New Mexico’s Gov. Susana Martinez to cancel an interview with Human Events at the last minute, I was left disappointed, but also determined. After repeated conversations with Martinez’s office in Santa Fe, an interview with her by cellphone from mountainous Bernalillo County finally took place last week.
It is not so much that the 53-year-old Republican was avoiding the national press but, rather, that Susana Martinez is very much in demand as a speaker and a subject for interviews these days.
Less than two years after her election as the nation’s first female governor of Hispanic heritage, conservative Republican Martinez is watched closely and reported on far beyond the borders of New Mexico. Like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and fellow Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, former prosecutor Martinez is considered one of her party’s brightest future stars. Many say that her life story and unique political role make her the most intriguing and attractive prospect to be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
“Martinez would make an excellent vice presidential pick for two reasons: she would help Republicans make inroads with Hispanics and women, two key demographics, and she is a popular chief executive with a solid record from a left-leaning state,” said Republican political consultant and television news analyst Ford O’Connell recently at a private luncheon of foreign correspondents covering the U.S. election.
All true — and then adding her personal saga.
A life in law enforcement
The great grand-daughter of a revolutionary general who led a 1910 uprising against Mexico’s strongman Porfirio Diaz and the daughter of a deputy sheriff in Texas, Martinez graduated from the University of Texas El Paso and earned her law degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Like Rudy Giuliani and the late Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia, Martinez has spent much of her professional life in law enforcement. After six years as an assistant district attorney in Dona Ana County, New Mexico, Martinez was fired in 1995 by the district attorney because she testified against him in an employment case. She thereupon filed a lawsuit against him, won, and then Democrat-turned-Republican Martinez was elected district attorney herself, over her former boss. Her husband, Chuck Franco, who spent a lifetime in law enforcement, retired as county undersheriff when Martinez took office as governor.
“Half my felony caseloads were on illegal immigrants,” recalled Martinez, noting that her county is in the Southern part of New Mexico and on the border with Juarez and El Paso. “These are people who came to this country with ill intent: trafficking narcotics, trafficking in humans, trafficking in stolen property, domestic violence, you name it. More than half our county jails had illegal immigrants,” said Martinez.
Elected to four terms as her county’s top law enforcement official, Martinez won 51 percent of the vote in a five-way primary for governor in 2010 over three opponents — including the namesake son of much-loved former GOP Sen. Pete Domenici. In November, she rolled up 54 percent of the vote over Democrat Diane Denish, the lieutenant governor and daughter of 1972 Democratic Senate nominee Jack Daniels.
Any discussion of Susana Martinez’s nearly two years in the governor’s office usually begins and focuses on her Democratic predecessor Bill Richardson. To use a phrase of onetime House Speaker John McCormack, Martinez holds the former governor and Clinton-era Cabinet official “in minimum high regard.”
Cleaning up Richardson’s mess
“You know, (Richardson) left me with the largest deficit in the history of New Mexico — $450 million,” Martinez told Human Events, “And at the same time, he was trying to hide millions of documents from the United States attorney for the purpose of a criminal investigation. My parting gift to him was releasing all of the documents the U.S. attorney wanted.” Richardson had been the subject of a federal “pay-to-play” investigation that forced him to withdraw his nomination as Barack Obama’s secretary of Commerce in 2009. Eventually, the U.S. attorney decided not to prosecute him.
Martinez balanced the state’s budget by slashing spending which, she explained, involved “cutting back on what the governor had been living on. Gov. Richardson had two chefs, a jet, and four other airplanes, and government under him grew by 53 percent despite the fact that the population and inflation justified growth by only 23 percent. He was spending and spending and spending, and expanding and funding programs that were unnecessary,” said Martinez
Along with cutting back salaries of most of the state government — Cabinet secretaries took a 10 percent pay cut — the new governor reduced the number of employees in her office to half of Richardson’s highest number. She also oversaw a round of fresh tax cuts, notably those on the construction industries. Martinez recalled that “New Mexico was the worst state in terms of pyramiding (taxes on equipment as well as the business itself) and it hurt our construction industry. If you rent a back hoe, you have to pay taxes on it. We eliminated pyramiding as well as taxes on consumables. And that brought back the construction industry, and attracted manufacturers.”
Completing her second budget year, Martinez proudly recalled that her state had a balanced budget and a $200 million surplus. Moreover, she noted, unemployment was at 8 percent when she took office and was now at 6.7 percent “and in some parts of the state, it’s below 4 percent.” And, she added, “we did not raise a single tax.”
Another problem left to her by Richardson was the state law providing special driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Martinez strongly believes that this “allowed for New Mexico to become a magnet for illegal immigrants to come here, pay for documents that include contractual agreements and bank records, to see that ‘I am an illegal immigrant and I am entitled to a driver’s license’ — which looks no different from mine or anyone else here legally. People all over the U.S. are trafficking humans to New Mexico where that license is provided. And then they leave with that very valuable commodity, switch it to another state such as Florida or New York, and so they are under the radar.”
Martinez’s solution is simple: repeal the law under which New Mexico has issued 90,000 licenses to foreign nationals since the law was passed.
Would she support a law such as Arizona’s that permits law enforcement authorities to ask suspects for proof of citizenship?
“No, that’s not anything I would propose,” she replied. “Here’s why: If you were an illegal alien incarcerated here, under the plan by Bill Richardson, you could not be asked whether you were here illegally or not. You could have been trafficking a hundred pounds of cocaine and the officer could not have asked if you were here illegally.
“What I did was withdraw that sanctuary policy. If you are committing crimes in our state and you were here illegally, you were turned over to federal authorities for deportation to your country. It’s that simple.”
As for published reports that she was critical of Romney’s concept of “self-deportation,” the governor explained that “I was just saying that doing things in pieces is not the way to address the problem. Some people are supportive of the DREAM Act and then they just want to leave the problem alone. We have to have a very comprehensive plan but not a piecemeal plan. I wasn’t being critical when I said ‘what is self-deportation?,’ as though millions would go home voluntarily and then we would know anyone left behind is here lawfully. We have to come up with a better plan. That would start with border security. If we don’t seal up that border, there will be a second wave of illegal immigrants who are going to get preferential treatment and it will continue over and over again.”
“Why are you running up to hug me when you should be playing with dolls?”
Turning to national politics, Gov. Martinez insisted that Romney can carry New Mexico’s five electoral votes in spite of the state’s Democratic registration edge of 3-to-1 over Republicans. This can be done, she explains, “by having an honest discussion with voters and stop talking about Republicans versus Democrats. What the person hearing our message must say is ‘do I want more of the same or do I believe this person is going to bring the type of change necessary to turn New Mexico around. I had to win over a lot of Democrats and independents to win in 2010 and if we do what we did in 2010 — that is, have honest conversations with voters and go places where Republicans have not gone before — we can win.”
She particularly believes Republicans have lost voters among Hispanic Americans by “checking off a town and saying ‘they’ll never vote Republican so I’m not going.’ That’s a bad idea. You show up and your message has to be the same as it is everywhere else. And lose the rhetoric. What does it mean to lower taxes for my husband and me when we make $45,000 together? Where? How? The rhetoric has become so deafening, nobody listens. Look, I was willing to go places where no Republicans had gone, I was honest with voters, and I followed up on my promises.”
The inevitable last question comes: Does she want to be Mitt Romney’s running mate?
“No,” she replies without hesitation, “and here’s why. I’m very focused on New Mexico and making sure I fulfill my promises. So often I am introduced as the first female Hispanic governor in history and with that, little girls everywhere come up and hug me and know my name at the age of four. And I ask ‘Why are you running up to hug me when you should be playing with dolls?’ So it’s my obligation to lay this path of promises kept so that these little girls can follow this path knowing I have done it in an honorable way.”