Is New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez the Next Sarah Palin?
Petty. Vindictive. Weak on policy. And yet she's being hailed as the Republican Party's great new hope.
As she likes to tell anybody who'll listen, Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, didn't start out a Republican. She and her husband, Chuck, like most everyone else in Las Cruces, had always been Democrats. But she'd long dreamed of running for office, and when word got out that she had her eyes on the district attorney's seat, two local Republican activists asked her to lunch. At the meeting, the story goes, her suitors didn't talk about party affiliation or ideology. They zeroed in on issues—taxes, welfare, gun rights, the death penalty. Afterward, Martinez got into the car, turned to her husband, and said, "I'll be damned, we're Republicans."
It's a tidy little anecdote, and Martinez has put it to good use. During her prime-time speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the biggest stage of her 18-year political career, the I'll be damned punch line brought the crowd to its feet, getting more cheers than anything said by the party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
It's not hard to see why the story is appealing: It suggests that Republican ideas can win over voters, perhaps especially voters who look like Martinez. If only those voters saw through pesky Democratic talking points like the "War on Women" and recognized what the Republican Party actually stands for, the logic goes, they would embrace the party. Just like Susana Martinez and her husband did.
These are trying times for Republicans in search of inspiration. Sure, it looks like they have a shot to take back the Senate. But if the escalating civil war between the establishment and the "wacko bird" tea party wing doesn't tear the GOP in two, changing demographics threaten to push it toward extinction. Every four years, the party turns in poor showings with young people and cedes more ground among unmarried women and Latinos—the fastest-growing parts of the country's population. In the 1988 presidential election, minorities made up just 15 percent of voters; by 2012, that number had risen to 28 percent, and they supported Obama by a 62-point margin. "Devastatingly," the party's 2012 post-mortem concluded, "we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us."
No wonder, then, that many see Martinez, who turns 55 in July, as the party's future. Fox News host Greta Van Susteren touts her "great resume": America's first Latina governor. Former district attorney of a border county. Guardian of her mentally disabled sister. Tax cutter, gun owner, daughter of a sheriff's deputy. The Koch brothers invited her to speak at one of their secretive donor enclaves. Karl Rove singled her out in Time's list of last year's 100 most influential people as a "reform-minded conservative Republican." The Washington Post put her at the top of a list of likely 2016 vice presidential candidates; Romney has boosted her as a presidential contender. "She plugs every hole we've got as a party, and she's got a record to match," says Ford O'Connell, an adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign.
In the media, Martinez is often compared to Sarah Palin—"Susana Barracuda" read the title of a recent profile—a sassy small-town politician with national aspirations, an anti-Washington message, and an everywoman appeal (she loves Taco Bell, shops at Ross Dress for Less, and watches Dancing With the Stars). Her dead certain, with-me-or-against-me governing style draws comparisons to another Southwestern governor who made the leap from the statehouse to the White House, George W. Bush.
But perhaps the best comparison is to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both are former prosecutors and Republican governors in blue states. They serve side by side on the money-raising juggernaut known as the Republican Governors Association (RGA), and they campaigned together during Christie's 2013 reelection campaign; "Is This Your 2016 Republican Ticket?" was a typical headline.
Their public personas, however, differ in an important way. Christie has made Jersey brashness central to his presentation; Martinez, on the other hand, "doesn't posture, doesn't engage in harsh rhetoric," as one of her fundraisers put it. Since her election in 2010, she and her team have meticulously cultivated the image of a well-liked, bipartisan, warm-hearted governor by avoiding tough interviews and putting her in photo ops greeting veterans, reading to kids, or cutting ribbons. "This administration is very disciplined," says New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff.
Despite numerous requests, the governor and her aides declined to comment for this piece. But previously unreleased audio recordings, text messages, and emails obtained by Mother Jones reveal a side of Martinez the public has rarely, if ever, seen. In private, Martinez can be nasty, juvenile, and vindictive. She appears ignorant about basic policy issues and has surrounded herself with a clique of advisers who are prone to a foxhole mentality.
Martinez doesn't look like any of the governors who came before her, and members of her inner circle sometimes feel that she has been subject to unfair attacks. Jay McCleskey, her closest aide, once sent a text message complaining about an opponent's negative mailing: "They're trying to keep the brown girl down!!!"
Still, interviews with former Martinez aides, state lawmakers, Democratic and Republican officials, fundraisers, and donors show a governor whose prosecutorial style and vindictiveness have estranged her from leaders in her own party and from the Democratic lawmakers she must work with to get anything done. Martinez and her staff, they say, have isolated themselves in her fourth-floor office inside the modest state capitol known as the Roundhouse. As one major Republican donor in New Mexico puts it, "They've got this Sherman's march to the sea mentality, burning everything in sight until they get to the finish."
Martinez grew up among fighters. Her father, Jake, boxed in the Marines, served as a deputy sheriff in El Paso, and later started his own private security company. Her mother was a telephone operator and bookkeeper. Susie, the youngest of three, worked for her dad as a teenager, patrolling the parking lot and guarding the register at church bingo nights. The .357 Smith and Wesson Magnum she packed was, she once said, "bigger than the hip bone I was carrying it on."
The Martinezes were Democrats, and Jake was active in El Paso politics (though his daughter proudly notes that he voted for Reagan). He and Susie volunteered on campaigns, stuffing envelopes and walking precincts. When a teacher at Riverside High School asked about Susie's career dreams, she mentioned one day running for mayor. "Well, why not president?" her teacher replied.
The politicians Martinez saw on the nightly news all seemed to be lawyers, she once told an interviewer, so after getting her degree in criminal justice from the University of Texas-El Paso, she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma's law school, where she became president of her second-year class. In 1986, fresh out of school, she went to work for Doug Driggers, the Democratic district attorney for Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico. He hired her as the only female prosecutor in his office, and Martinez quickly carved out a reputation for handling tough cases involving sexual and child abuse. She was an aggressive prosecutor with an unwavering sense of right and wrong, Driggers recalls, a woman who saw the world in black and white and often won. In one case, she told the same interviewer, a father who had drowned his two-year-old in front of his four-year-old brother testified that he'd only held the boy down for a minute. Martinez kept the court in silence for one long, agonizing minute to make her point. "She could sing to the jury," says Michael Lilley, a criminal defense attorney in Las Cruces.
When voters tossed Driggers out in 1992, his replacement, a local defense attorney named Greg Valdez, fired Martinez after she was asked to testify against him in an internal grievance case. She sued for wrongful termination—in the process, she says, she learned that Valdez had put a note in her personnel file complaining Martinez was a poor dresser—and settled out of court for about $120,000. In 1996, she ran against him on the Republican ticket. Local pols remember her as a skilled campaigner with a knack for pressing the flesh, and she won by 18 points.
As district attorney, Martinez displayed the kind of hard-driving tactics that would come to define her. She was known for demanding harsh penalties, and didn't hesitate to lock up defendants awaiting trial. (In 2012, the county said that Martinez's office was partially responsible for an incident in which a mentally ill man named Stephen Slevin was left in solitary confinement for nearly two years without trial, and later agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement.)
In 2002, the kind of case that makes celebrities out of DAs landed on Martinez's desk. Five-month-old Brianna Lopez had been raped, bitten, dropped, and abused to death by members of her family in one of the worst child abuse cases in state history. "Baby Brianna" dominated the headlines for months, and Martinez ultimately secured convictions sentencing Lopez's father to prison for 57 years, her uncle for 51, and her mother for 27. Believing that the existing statute wasn't strong enough, Martinez lobbied the state Legislature for three years until it passed a law permitting life sentences for child abuse resulting in death.
People who worked with Martinez or squared off against her in the courtroom praise her conviction and commitment, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable. "But if you ran afoul," says Darren Kugler, a state judge who once worked as a prosecutor under Martinez, "you were pushed off into purgatory or oblivion or Siberia. If you cross a certain line, you're beyond redemption."
It wasn't long before the zealous, popular prosecutor caught the state party's eye. In 2001, McCleskey, the New Mexico GOP's executive director and a canny Republican operative with a record of scorched-earth wins, gathered a group of Republicans to talk about improving the party's Latino outreach. But when Martinez stood up to speak, she blasted Gov. Gary Johnson's push to relax penalties for minor drug infractions. "The way we attract Hispanics is we don't talk about legalizing heroin and cocaine," McCleskey recalls her saying.
McCleskey was smitten. He kept in touch with Martinez, nagging her every election cycle about running for higher office. Martinez didn't bite, even as the Baby Brianna case and standout speeches at campaign rallies for Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008 elevated her statewide profile. Then, on July 14, 2009, she celebrated her 50th birthday and decided to run for governor. Almost from the start, national Republicans backed her, quietly providing her with support her primary opponents could only have dreamed about, sending her policy briefings and polling data and giving her access to advisers to major party figures like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Still, Martinez struggled to stand out. Her fundraising was mediocre, and she lacked the wealth to self-finance like her main rival, a former Marine colonel and state party chairman named Allen Weh. Weh believed the job was his, according to an email McCleskey sent to campaign staffers, and at one point suggested Martinez was better suited for lieutenant governor. "What a narcissistic grandiose 'tool'!" she replied.
But things began to turn around as major party figures from outside the state put their weight behind Martinez. In May 2010, Texas megadonor Bob Perry and his wife, Doylene, cut the first of several checks that would eventually total $450,000, making them her biggest individual donors by far. And then, on a Sunday morning just two weeks before the primary, Sarah Palin rolled into Albuquerque at the behest of the RGA. As "Start Me Up" pumped out of the hotel ballroom speakers, Palin walked onstage with Martinez and declared to a crowd of 1,300 screaming fans, "You have a winner right here." The endorsement got more press than anything Martinez had said or done in the race to that point. "This event was a grand slam," McCleskey wrote to the campaign that night. "Let's get some rest tonight and then fix bayonets at sunrise."
Martinez easily won the Republican primary in June, and then money began pouring in. Over the summer and fall, according to a copy of the 2010 campaign calendar obtained by Mother Jones, her usual diet of small-town meet and greets made way for fundraisers in Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, and DC. She flew on private jets and met executives at Fortune 500 companies (Intel, UnitedHealth Group, ExxonMobil) and powerful corporate lobbyists.
In the general election, Martinez ran as the clean-government advocate who would do away with everything New Mexicans disliked about her predecessor. Once hugely popular, Bill Richardson had been dogged by grand jury investigations, corruption allegations, rumors of sexual misconduct, and growing disenchantment over his perennial presidential aspirations. Martinez's campaign slogan ("Bold Change") was straight out of the Obama playbook, and it was all the more cutting given that her Democratic opponent, Diane Denish, had spent eight years as Richardson's lieutenant governor.
On policy, Martinez drew on borrowed ideas (her education plan largely came from Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education) and flashy initiatives such as repealing a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get state driver's licenses.
Internal campaign records and interviews with former aides suggest that she didn't dig too deeply into the details of her own proposals: "Aren't we the ONLY state in the US that provides a NM drivers license to illegal aliens?" she asked in a November 24, 2009, email. (At the time, seven other states had similar policies.)
In another email, in August 2009, she asked an aide, "What is podash? Or ashpod? WIPP?" Potash mining is a multibillion-dollar business in New Mexico, and WIPP refers to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear waste storage site for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been a topic of statewide controversy for decades.
During an October 2010 campaign conference call, Martinez said she'd met a woman who worked for the state's Commission on the Status of Women, a panel created in 1973 to improve health, pay equity, and safety for women.
"What the hell is that?" she asked.
"I don't know what the fuck they do," replied her deputy campaign manager, Matt Kennicott.
"What the hell does a commission on women's cabinet do all day long?" Martinez asked.
"I think [deputy campaign operations director Matt] Stackpole wants to be the director of that so he can study more women," Kennicott said.
"Well, we have to do what we have to do," McCleskey chimed in, as Martinez burst out laughing. (As governor, she would line-item veto the commission's entire budget.)
Listening to recordings of Martinez talking with her aides is like watching an episode of HBO's Veep, with over-the-top backroom banter full of pique, self-regard, and vindictiveness. As Martinez and her campaign staff rewatched a recent televised debate, Martinez referred to Denish, her opponent, as "that little bitch." After Denish noted that the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce had given her an award, McCleskey snapped, "That's why we're not meeting with those fuckers."
In a September 2009 email mentioning one of Martinez's 2010 primary opponents, a former state representative named Janice Arnold-Jones, McCleskey wrote: "I FUCKING HATE THAT BITCH!" And in yet another debate prep meeting, Kennicott mocked the language skills of Ben Luján, a former state House speaker and a political icon to New Mexico Latinos: "Somebody told me he's absolutely eloquent in Spanish, but his English? He sounds like a retard."
Martinez's crew saw enemies everywhere. A former staffer recalls the campaign on multiple occasions sending the license plate numbers of cars believed to be used by opposition trackers to an investigator in Martinez's DA office who had access to law enforcement databases. In one instance, a campaign aide took a photo of a license plate on a car with an anti-Martinez bumper sticker and emailed it to the investigator. "Cool I will see who it belongs to!!" the investigator replied.
The campaign emails and audio recordings also show how Martinez and her team strategized to maintain her straight-shooting image while avoiding actually being up-front with the public. Throughout the campaign, Martinez praised teachers and insisted she'd "hold harmless" funding for public education. In private, Martinez implied teachers earned too much: "During the campaign, we can't say it, I guess, because it's education, but…they already don't work, you know, two and a half months out of the year." She and McCleskey acknowledged that cuts to education could well be necessary, so her aides plotted about how to respond if they were ever called out for it once elected: "Put up a YouTube video that no one will ever see where you talk about making everyone feel the pain," McCleskey suggested. "And when you win, we say, 'See, we said this shit the whole time. What are you guys talking about?'"
"It's on YouTube," Kennicott said. "C'mon, bitches."
On January 1, 2011, a subzero wind gusted through the 400-year-old Santa Fe Plaza, a setting befitting the inaugural speech of the country's first Latina governor and the descendant of a Mexican revolutionary. Ringed with shops and offices built in the Pueblo and Spanish styles, the plaza marks the end of several pioneer-era trails and lies near some of the West's oldest buildings, relics of Spain's once formidable North American holdings. Icicles dangled from the snow-covered roof of the bandstand where Martinez was to deliver her speech before a crowd of bundled-up supporters. She pledged to fight corruption and cronyism, to "shine a light into the dark corners of state government." To the lawmakers in attendance, Democrats and Republicans alike, she said, "Let us be brave together."
Like many in the Roundhouse, Bill O'Neill began the new year eager to work with the new governor. O'Neill, a Democrat, had just won a 163-vote squeaker to take a state House seat representing a GOP-leaning swing district in northeastern Albuquerque, where many lawns bore both O'Neill and Martinez signs. When Martinez said she'd work with legislators from both parties to get New Mexico back on track, he believed her.
The good will didn't last long. One of the Legislature's first acts was an attempt to make good on Martinez's pledge to revoke driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Within hours of the bill being voted down in committee, O'Neill and another legislator who opposed it found their districts hammered with hard-hitting robocalls, and the governor's campaign committee flooded statewide radio with ads blasting her opponents for "protecting a bad law."
Martinez immediately began purging state government of any trace of Bill Richardson. She sold the state plane (Richardson's "personal air taxi," she called it), fired his chefs and reassigned his security officers, and was even rumored to have ordered his name removed from the lead car of the Albuquerque-to-Santa Fe commuter train he'd helped create. She showed little interest in tradition, canceling a customary dinner with the state's bishops on multiple occasions. Allen Sanchez, the executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, says he was told McCleskey advised her not to attend.
Before long, McCleskey was known as the shadow governor. Even though he never took a job in her administration nor played a formal role on Martinez's transition team, she told a former aide that "Jay is going to be calling all the shots from behind the scenes." Martinez has surrounded herself with McCleskey friends and clients—her chief of staff is Keith Gardner, a former state representative and client of McCleskey, and Gardner's deputy, Scott Darnell, worked with McCleskey on the Bush 2004 campaign. McCleskey even kept a desk in "a hidden, closet-like antechamber" in the governor's office suite, according to National Journal. The running joke inside the four-story Roundhouse is that there's a secret fifth floor where McCleskey goes to work pulling the strings.
McCleskey occupies a peculiar, if enviable, position: shaping the administration's message on the inside, and getting rich off Martinez's success on the outside. Since Martinez became governor, campaign finance records show that nearly $1.1 million has flowed from her political committees into McCleskey's consulting firm, McCleskey Media Strategies; Public Opinion Strategies, where his wife, Nicole, works; and McCleskey-affiliated entities called CD Productions and M3 Placement.
McCleskey's influence on Martinez's administration has roiled state government. In her resignation letter, deputy tourism secretary Toni Balzano cites allegations that McCleskey called her "a Democrat Terrorist Al Qaeda member, a Richardson girlfriend, a spy poised to take down the administration." And Martinez's first appointee to run the influential department of finance and administration, Richard May, found himself cut out of budget meetings; he served just eight months before being pushed from his post after clashing with his deputy, an ally of McCleskey and Gardner.
Prominent Republicans around the state have blamed McCleskey for devising a political strategy that's left the Martinez administration estranged from its natural allies. In a 2012 state Senate election, the governor endorsed a primary challenge to a Stetson-wearing rancher named Pat Woods, whom Martinez and McCleskey didn't like; they bankrolled their candidate, Angie Spears, with money from SusanaPAC. In an unprecedented move, Martinez herself traveled to Woods' district to campaign for his opponent. The plan backfired: Woods made the campaign about McCleskey, a "slick…Albuquerque political consultant" meddling with local politics, and won easily.
The Woods-Spears race infuriated members of the New Mexico GOP. State Rep. Anna Crook, a Republican whose district overlaps with Woods', wrote in the local newspaper that the "nastiness, misinformation, innuendo, slanderous mailings, robocalls, and, in some cases, flat-out lies have created a toxic political environment the likes of which I have never seen before." Without naming them, Crook pointed the finger at Martinez and McCleskey: "Even worse, it appears this kind of politics is being driven by outsiders—people who do not live here, don't work here, and don't raise their children here."
As the state GOP prepared to elect a new chairman in December 2012, Martinez informed Republican activists that if they didn't support her preferred candidate, John Rockwell, she wouldn't raise money for the party. He lost, and Martinez sent a letter that, according to two party operatives who have read it, threatened to sue the New Mexico GOP if it used her name or image to solicit money. While she has headlined events for Republicans in Florida, Ohio, and Texas, she has not since attended a single fundraiser for her own state party. Martinez's office hired away much of the state GOP's staff after Rockwell's loss, a move that some Republicans saw as an effort to gut the party.
Janice Arnold-Jones, the former state representative who lost to Martinez in the 2010 primary, knows Martinez's vindictiveness firsthand. In 2012, Arnold-Jones was the party nominee in a tough but winnable race to represent an Albuquerque-based congressional district. But Martinez not only didn't campaign for her—according to Arnold-Jones, the governor told donors not to give to her campaign. Arnold-Jones says that late one night, a month after she'd lost, Martinez called her out of the blue to explain, in a meandering ramble, that she'd withheld her support because Arnold-Jones' campaign had hired staffers that Martinez felt were her enemies. "How sad is that?" Arnold-Jones told me.
On the eve of the 2012 elections, Harvey Yates, a former state GOP chair and éminence grise of local Republican politics, gave Martinez a 10-page letter critiquing her tenure and advising her to cut ties with McCleskey. The letter described Martinez's administration, in the words of a National Journal reporter who talked to Yates, as "tone-deaf, exclusionary, and unnecessarily ruthless." Yates blamed Martinez for relying too much on her top aide: "Not many voters remember voting for Jay McCleskey for governor," he wrote.
What had Yates especially concerned was the growing evidence of business as usual from a governor who'd campaigned as a good-government reformer. In late 2011, the state awarded a 25-year lease worth an estimated $1 billion to a company largely owned by a pair of major Martinez backers, the Downs at Albuquerque, to operate a racetrack and casino at the state fairgrounds. To hear critics tell it, the bidding was rigged: Martinez met with the donors privately during the campaign and again during the selection process. The governor-appointed bid committee was stacked with McCleskey allies, and leaked files show the Downs' attorney emailing with administration staffers to secure votes on the fairgrounds commission. Andrea Goff, a former Martinez fundraiser, has said McCleskey pressured her to get her father-in-law, who served on the commission, to switch his vote. "Everything about the whole process was controlled by the governor's office," Charlotte Rode, a Martinez appointee to the commission, told me.
Martinez has had some key legislative accomplishments: In 2011, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a bill to grade New Mexico's public schools on an A-to-F scale, a pillar of Martinez's education reform plan. She signed a tax reform bill lowering the rate for corporations to 5.9 percent from 7.6 percent and increasing tax incentives for TV shows that shoot in New Mexico. She also signed off on an expansion of Medicaid and the creation of a state-run health insurance exchange. Martinez says both decisions illustrate her bipartisan bona fides. Her critics counter that Martinez had no choice: New Mexico is the sixth-poorest state in the nation, with the third-highest rate of uninsured citizens, and expanding health coverage was wildly popular.
One day in early 2013, Allen Sanchez, the Catholic bishops official, sat next to Martinez at the bishops' annual legislative breakfast. The archbishop read a letter from a teenage boy thanking him for backing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Without them, the boy wrote, his parents couldn't have driven him to St. Jude's in Tennessee for cancer treatment. The boy, Cesar Quesada, had since passed away. Martinez, Sanchez says, turned to him and said, "Give me a break. He's going to read a bleeding-heart letter? What the hell am I doing here?"
Like any smart state pol with national aspirations, Martinez deflects any mention of running for higher office. She says she's "focused on New Mexico," and stresses that as the guardian of her mentally disabled sister, Leticia, it would be a challenge for her to leave the state. Yet all signs point to a bigger stage for Martinez. She was elected to the Republican Governors Association's executive committee and attends plenty of out-of-state fundraisers and speaking gigs. She's also agreed to co-chair the "2014 Future Majority Project," a party initiative to elect 150 women and 75 "diverse candidates."
Despite the growing discontent among New Mexico party leaders, Martinez enjoys approval ratings in the high 50s and low 60s—among the highest of any Republican governor. Her advisers seem keenly aware of how those numbers could help her achieve higher office, and appear determined to maintain them. Martinez's aides have closely guarded her travel schedule and her media appearances, protecting her from tough and unflattering questions. Unlike such popular Republican governors as Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, Martinez has for more than three years largely avoided the Sunday talk shows; the lone national news figure to get substantial time with her is Fox's Van Susteren. As she runs for reelection this fall with a full war chest and no strong contender among the Democrats challenging her, Martinez is well positioned to shape the debate and control her own image.
Yet Democrats and Republicans alike wonder if she has what it takes to succeed at the national level. A major postelection interview with Latina magazine became a punch line after Martinez asked her interviewer to "remind me" what the DREAM Act was. Like Richardson, she could end up with a bit of legal baggage: The FBI has interviewed witnesses about the Downs deal, and a case involving a former aide intercepting emails between members of the governor's inner circle could go on trial this summer, with the embarrassing prospect of Martinez having to take the stand.
The question on everyone's mind is this: Can Susana Martinez overcome all these shortfalls should 2016 come calling? There's still time for her to harness the charisma and keen strategic instincts that won over both juries and voters, and to curb her worst impulses and rid herself of the advisers who have indulged them. Can Martinez follow the path of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, two governors who rose from provincial acclaim to national stature—or will her ascent end more like Palin's?