Republican Susana Martinez becomes first female Hispanic governor

By Kate Nash | The New Mexican

LAS CRUCES — A year ago, Susana Martinez was just a few months into her nascent gubernatorial campaign, a district attorney largely unknown outside her hometown here.

Just six months later, it was unclear whether she could elbow through the primary, facing well-known Republicans who had more money, and some said, more muscle. To say the least, things have changed dramatically.

Her ascent as a rising Republican star was marked at the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, where Tuesday night she gave an acceptance speech as New Mexico’s governor-elect.

Martinez and lieutenant governor candidate John Sanchez bested Democrats Diane Denish and Brian Colón by 54 to 46 percent, with 21 of 33 counties reporting, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

“At the end of the day, New Mexicans chose a different direction and I thank them for their trust and their courage,” Martinez told a crowd of about 1,000 supporters, as many wearing cowboy boots as dress shoes.

“This victory tonight says something that someone who grew up in a working family just a few miles from the border can achieve anything,” she said.

The rise will take Martinez, an El Pasoan by birth, from a neighborhood not too far from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe. From high school student-body president to the fourth floor of the state Capitol. From a prosecutor known in legal circles to the biggest name in the state — and to one now mentioned by syndicated columnist George Will as a potential vice presidential candidate.

It means the 51-year-old lawyer will rule more than a Doña Ana County prosecutor’s office. It means she will be the chief executive of a state where she pledged during her speech to “create jobs, get our books in order, eliminate the corruption and turn our schools around.

“We’re going to get our books in order and end the shell games that have taken place in the Roundhouse for the last eight years,” she told a crowd of supporters, many of whom wore “I ‘heart’ Governor Martinez” T-shirts, or buttons, or both, and waved the campaign’s black and yellow signs for TV live shots.

So how did the once teenage security guard who patrolled the parking lots outside bingo games become New Mexico’s first female governor and the country’s first Hispanic female governor?

Observers say it was a grueling campaign schedule, a no-holds-barred debate style and a play-to-win-no-matter-what mentality.

The slumping economy, and an anti-incumbent sentiment also helped, local political scientists said.

“I’m absolutely sure a number of voters picked Martinez as an anti-(Gov. Bill) Richardson vote,” University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Sierra said. “And Diane Denish got caught in the crosshairs.”

Denish for a good part of the campaign worked to distance herself from Richardson, but Martinez constantly tried to tie Denish to him and what Martinez said were his failures as governor.

Lonna Atkeson, another a UNM professor, said Martinez also had a nationwide movement behind her. “She had the wind behind her of the national Republicans,” Atkeson said.

The movement was large. Across the country, the GOP picked up 11 governor’s offices, including the one in Santa Fe that Democrats have held for the past eight years and where many thought a year ago Denish would be a shoo-in.

While Martinez was nothing but smiles at the swanky hotel, where mariachis greeted guests on plush carpets, the job she starts Jan. 1 will be tough. She and her husband, Doña Ana County Undersheriff Chuck Franco, move to the City Different at a time of sagging revenues, angry voters and general dislike of what’s happened in Santa Fe.

“They really are going to have to make some hard choices,” Atkeson said. “If she (Martinez) isn’t going to raise taxes, she’s going to have to make cuts, and that’s not popular.”

As she campaigned, Martinez rolled out various ideas for dealing with the budget, education, crime — albeit short on details.

Martinez will face another complicating factor: the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“It will be a very tough job, both in the challenge of cutting down the deficit and balancing a budget with money we don’t have,” Sierra said. “But before that even, she still has to work with a Democratic majority in the Legislature.”

Part of the rub, no doubt, will come as the state delves into the task of political redistricting based on new census numbers, something Sierra predicted would end up in court, as it did a decade ago after former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson become locked in his own battle with a Democratic Legislature.

And, part of her new work may mean persuading some who didn’t vote for her that she can do the job, and persuading everyone else that she can get up to speed on the intricacies of the Capitol’s fourth floor, and pronto.

“We don’t know a lot about executive women because there haven’t been too many of them,” Atkeson said. “But I’m assuming she’s going to run the state like she did her district attorney’s office.”

Whatever her work entails starting in 2011, for now, her goal no doubt is to rest. And to get ready. Between now and then, she will leave the job to which she was first elected in 1996, and Franco will retire from his.

At the end of her 14-minute speech, Martinez asked for supporters to continue their prayers for her and her campaign.

She then shook hands in the crowd, and was off, likely to more sleep than she’s had in months.

Published Nov. 2, 2010.