Susana Barracuda: Does Bigger Stage Await Martinez?

Susana Barracuda: Does Bigger Stage Await Martinez?
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SANTA FE, N.M. -- On Susana Martinez's unlikely path to becoming the nation's first Hispanic female governor, no day was more impactful than Sunday, May 16, 2010.

Early that morning, the Albuquerque Journal published a poll that showed Martinez -- an underfunded and relatively unknown district attorney -- trailing former New Mexico GOP Chairman Allen Weh by a single point in the five-way Republican gubernatorial primary.

The poll results were a boon for Martinez, but they were nothing compared to the boost her campaign would receive hours later in the form of the single most powerful weapon upstart Republican candidates could hope for that year: the endorsement of Sarah Palin.

It had been a whirlwind weekend for the former Alaska governor. Two days earlier, Palin had been in South Carolina to bestow her official blessing upon 38-year-old state Rep. Nikki Haley, turning that long-shot contender into an overnight frontrunner for the governorship that she would win in the fall.   

Then, after a quick sojourn to Arizona to speak in defense of that state’s controversial illegal immigration law, Palin touched down in Albuquerque. There, almost 1,300 people crowded into a Marriott ballroom for an appearance that had been announced just a day earlier.

After delivering some low-key introductory remarks, Martinez relinquished center stage to Palin. The candidate appeared as if she could scarcely believe her good fortune, given the sudden arrival of the rhetorical bomb-thrower with a Midas touch in GOP primaries.

With her jumbo-size American flag pin adding a sparkling accent to her distinctive leather jacket, Palin lavished praise upon the “fearless, tenacious, no-nonsense crime-busting prosecutor” whom she was pulling onto the fast track of  politics.

From that moment on, Martinez had no problems raising money or generating attention. And when she went in for the kill by launching a negative TV ad that accused Weh of supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, her impending victory was a done deal.

Two weeks later, Martinez defeated Weh by a 23-point margin and was on her way to Santa Fe in the year of the Tea Party.

If there had been any doubt about Palin’s impact on the race, Jay McCleskey, Martinez’s longtime consigliere, made it abundantly clear in a private message he fired off shortly after the primary results came in.

“Thank you. You guys were the turning point,” he wrote to a Palin aide in an email obtained by RealClearPolitics.

In the years since their paths first crossed on that memorable day, Martinez has built an impressive political resume that in several respects mirrors the one that once made Palin the nation’s most popular governor among home-state voters.  

Like Palin, Martinez was elected on an anti-corruption platform. Upon entering office, she took a page from the former Alaska governor’s playbook by putting up for sale the state-owned luxury jet that had become as much of a symbol of waste and abuse in Santa Fe as had the Juneau-based plane that Palin put on eBay four years earlier.

Mirroring her backer’s early legislative successes, Martinez has worked with adversaries in New Mexico’s state capitol, known locally as the Roundhouse, to build a budget surplus while keeping income taxes down. As a result, she has at times earned some of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, just as her benefactor from the north once did.

And when it comes time for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to consider potential running mates, Martinez is likely to be a strong contender -- if not the consensus early favorite -- to become the second female Republican vice-presidential nominee in the nation’s history.

But here in the Land of Enchantment, interviews with strategists, state legislators of both parties, and longtime observers of New Mexico politics highlight a unique challenge she will also confront, as the 2008 experience continues to linger over Republican presidential politics.

Sarah Palin’s blessing may have raised Martinez from relative obscurity within New Mexico politics, but the association with Palin these days threatens to keep her there instead of elevating her to the national stage.

“She looks great on paper, and that’s what the national operatives see,” Joe Monahan, who publishes a widely read blog about New Mexico politics, said of Martinez.  “I think really the Achilles’ heel here that she has to overcome is that perception of being the Sarah Palin-type figure. The national political community is not going to risk that again.”

To Martinez supporters, the Palin comparison reeks of cheap superficiality and thinly veiled sexism -- a charge that the governor’s hard-nosed political team has brandished when pushing back against unwelcome scrutiny in the past.

But the less appealing commonalities between Martinez and Palin -- including the pervasive charge that each fostered a culture of bullying and questionable ethical standards after taking office -- make the negative comparisons as salient as the positive ones.

The Santa Fe Savior?

With no Republican women at this point expressing interest in a 2016 presidential run, Martinez’s appeal as a vice-presidential prospect is hard to ignore.  That she also happens to be Hispanic and the governor of a blue state makes it unique. 

In the 2012 election, President Obama defeated Mitt Romney among Hispanics by a 71 percent-27 percent margin. Perhaps even more devastating, Obama bested Romney among female voters -- who composed a majority of the electorate -- 55 percent-43 percent. In order to retake the White House in 2016, whoever becomes the Republican nominee will have to do much better than that.

A candidate’s ethnic identity is no solution in its own right to what has become one of the GOP’s most pressing problems in winning national elections. But Republican strategists are already entranced by the idea of making some history in a 2016 battle they widely expect to wage against the nation’s first major-party female presidential nominee.

If Hillary Clinton does become the Democratic standard-bearer, many influential GOP operatives believe that Susana Martinez could be the best way to mitigate that gender gap, which may be even wider than it was in 2012.

When Time magazine last year cited Martinez as of one of the 100 most influential people in the world, it was none other than Karl Rove who penned the magazine’s blurb on the “reform-minded conservative Republican.”

 And just as tellingly, other than local hero Rudy Giuliani, Martinez was the only out-of-state surrogate that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie invited to campaign with him during his re-election bid last fall.

Though she has carried out an increasingly busy out-of-state schedule, Martinez largely has avoided the kind of national attention-seeking that is common among other ambitious governors. She has granted interviews with prominent national print publications, but her assiduous avoidance of the Sunday show circuit has led Democrats here to question whether she is ready for prime time. (Martinez’s aides declined repeated RCP requests to interview her for this story, citing her busy schedule during New Mexico’s legislative session.) 

With a re-election battle looming this year, Martinez and her political team see no compelling reason to become a national household name just yet -- a savvy move, in the view of influential Republicans who remain high on her wider prospects. 

“I think she is smart to avoid feeding the early D.C. stuff,” GOP strategist Mike Murphy said. “That is a low-upside game. She will be interesting at the right time. Meanwhile, the smart move is to keep building and polishing and improving her New Mexico story, so when discovery time comes in late 2015/2016, she is as strong as she can be.”

The average American may not yet know who she is yet, but prominent Republican leaders are lining up to associate themselves with the first-term governor. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all have trips planned to raise money for Martinez in New Mexico later this year, according to a Martinez adviser.

For the governor’s allies in the Roundhouse, however, the buzz is a double-edged sword.

“I think she would be a great candidate for national office, but to be honest with you, we need her here,” said Republican state Rep. Nate Gentry. “She’s doing such a bang-up job that the state would be much worse off if she were to do that.”

But to Martinez’s detractors, the reality is a lot less sunny in a state that continues to suffer from some of the nation’s lowest quality-of-life measures.

A Contentious Record

With Democrats in control of both the state House and Senate, Martinez’s ability to enact her agenda has been limited since the day she took office in 2011.  And in even-numbered years, the state’s part-time legislators convene only for an abbreviated 30-day session, narrowing the scope of potential achievement in 2014.   

Still, when House Speaker Ken Martinez (no relation) banged the gavel at the stroke of noon last Thursday to close this year’s legislative session, the Republican governor and state Democrats alike were able to tout an 11th-hour $6.2 billion state budget compromise as a bipartisan accomplishment.

But the budget agreement’s inclusion of pay raises for New Mexico’s teachers belied the intense, ongoing ideological debate over Martinez’s education reform agenda, which has been perhaps the single biggest source of contention within state government.

New Mexico Democrats have for years held up the confirmation of Martinez’s nominee for secretary of education, Hanna Skandera, who has nonetheless served as the secretary-designate since the start of the governor’s term. 

Mirroring Chris Christie’s efforts to take on teachers’ unions in New Jersey, Martinez has charged forward with an education package in New Mexico that includes a teacher evaluation system based on standardized test scores, performance-related pay for educators, and a system for assigning grades to assess schools.

Education reformers in and out of the state have cheered that agenda as much as some Democratic groups have decried it, but gaining measurable results has not been easy. Earlier this year, New Mexico had the dubious distinction of being ranked dead last in the nation in providing an environment for students to achieve success, according to the Education Research Center.

Martinez’s allies cite Democratic obstruction as the reason things haven’t improved more quickly.

“When I hear teachers in a protest screaming, ‘We’re going to take back education,’ I say, ‘To where?” said Kathy Sandoval-Snyder, a principal at an Albuquerque charter school, whom Martinez appointed to lead a teaching task force. “We’ve tried the same things for so many years. Let’s try something new.”

But education isn’t the only quality-of-life measure in which New Mexico lags far behind almost all of the country -- a troubling reality that Martinez would have to confront in any national campaign.

Over the last year, independent studies have ranked New Mexico next-to-last in job creation and 50th in childhood hunger, overall child welfare and poverty rate.

Republicans in the legislature blame the Democratic majority for these continued woes.

“We tried to do everything we can to improve the quality of life, including job creation, but you have to understand that more often than not job creation is the result of stimulating your economy,” said House Minority Leader Don Bratton. “And stimulating the economy is the result of various tax proposals that incentivize the private sector to move jobs to your state, and we’re blocked at every turn by the majority party because they’re not much into reducing taxes.”

To Martinez’s many critics in Santa Fe, that argument amounts to nothing more than passing the buck. And so the two sides have dug in their heels.

Martinez may enjoy a budding reputation nationally for bipartisan problem-solving, but the prevailing tenor in the Roundhouse is the caustic sort increasingly associated with state capitals like Trenton and Madison, where Republican governors are mulling 2016 presidential bids.

Commonly held perceptions of Martinez outside the state have long frustrated New Mexico Democrats.

“The picture that she paints that she works well with this Democratic-controlled legislature is just a fallacy -- it’s her way, or no way,” said New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman. “The first two years of her governorship, she maintained some pretty high favorable ratings, but the luster is coming off. People are upset about education. People are terribly upset about the economy.”

A poll conducted last month by Albuquerque-based Research and Polling showed Martinez’s approval rating at 55 percent -- down from 66 percent in a SurveyUSA poll in May of last year but still an impressive number for an incumbent.

Stirring the Pot

While state Democrats insist that Martinez is vulnerable to defeat in this left-leaning, “majority minority” state that is home to some of the country’s most stubborn poverty, Democrats beyond the New Mexico border don’t see it.

The Democratic Governors Association has no current plans to invest in the race, though DGA officials add that New Mexico is a relatively cheap state, which suggests they could make a late push if the chance of an upset arises.

Martinez may be the heavy favorite, but a view from the ground suggests that her re-election is not a foregone conclusion. And if such an opportunity does present itself for Democrats, it may have much to do with a long-simmering saga involving the expansion of a gambling hub in Albuquerque -- an episode that Martinez detractors think could boil over as a full-blown scandal.

For more than two years, the Martinez administration has faced questions about the circumstances surrounding the State Fair Commission’s granting of a 25-year lease to the Downs Racetrack & Casino over a competing bidder. The deal allowed the Downs to continue to operate its “racino” at the fairgrounds in Albuquerque and expand it.

A long list of  political opponents and former allies-turned-enemies have accused the governor’s inner circle of rigging the bidding process, favoring a firm whose owners contributed to the Republican’s 2010 election -- a “pay-to-play” charge that the administration has denied emphatically.

State and federal investigations have been looking into various aspects of the deal, which has been covered in depth by The National Journal, Albuquerque Journal and other media outlets.

For a taste of the acrimony that permeates the case, one need only speak to the former Martinez allies who have turned on her because of how it was handled. Tom Tinnin, for example, is a former state Board of Finance member who was appointed by Martinez to that position and donated to her campaign but who had a falling out with her during the review of the racino lease.

According to Tinnin, Martinez on three occasions told him that she’d “take it personally,” if he disparaged the winning bidders publicly.

“Absolutely, it was a threat -- there was no doubt about it,” Tinnin told RCP. “She was trying to intimidate me. I guess she didn’t do her homework on me. I don’t get intimidated. I don’t care who it is.”

Tinnin ended up resigning from his Board of Finance position in light of what he labeled a “very stinky deal” regarding the Downs.

When such ethics charges have arisen, the Martinez press operation has denounced them time and again as “wild-eyed” accusations. But despite widely varying views on the circumstances surrounding the lease agreement, New Mexico Republicans and Democrats alike agree that Martinez and members of her administration have been particularly pugnacious and personal in confronting adversaries, going far beyond standard hardball politics.

 The charge echoes back to tactics Palin was known to employ against those she and her team referred to as “haters” during their 2½ years in Juneau.

In one particularly notable incident two years ago, a young public schools lobbyist, Carrie Menapace, accused Martinez Chief of Staff Keith Gardner of “painfully” holding her arm and berating her “in an extremely aggressive manner” inside the Roundhouse.l

Gardner denied the charge, pointing to low-quality surveillance footage that captured snapshots of the incident and a discrepancy in the chain of events that Menapace described. A witness corroborated Menapace’s story, however, and two Albuquerque police officers said that the video footage Gardner pointed to was inconclusive.  

In an interview with RCP, Republican House Minority Leader Bratton suggested that the governor’s office had been working to improve its dealings with the Democratic legislature, though he did not deny there have been problems.

“With regard to the bullying tactics, there are different management styles that people use,” he said. “I perceive what we may have seen in the first year, that tone has changed as far as time has progressed. And that’s part of the learning curve and understanding the governor has to deal with the legislature.”


Despite the attention that these issues have received among Santa Fe politicos, the accusations of bullying and ethical breaches have not resonated deeply with either New Mexico voters or national Republican operatives, who remain unconvinced that Martinez will be tarnished by them.  

At least two of the five Democratic candidates pining for Martinez’s job, however, seem hellbent on changing that.

Given his two decades of experience in state government and political pedigree as the son of three-term New Mexico Gov. Bruce King, Attorney General Gary King is the nominal frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Though his spokesperson has said that the AG’s office does not comment on ongoing investigations, King departed from that policy when speaking to RCP about the circumstances surrounding the racino agreement.

“There certainly seems to be a lot of information out there that would indicate that there were significant campaign contributions that were given in cycle with the discussions about the racino,” King said. “There have been allegations that information from the other bidder, from Laguna Industries, were inappropriately given to the other party, and so those are the allegations that we’re ripping into. And I think that there are certainly questions that have been raised there.”

King said he did not want to imply that there are “imminent indictments, or something like that,” but added that his office’s inquiry is occurring on top of a federal investigation that remains ongoing “to the best of my knowledge.”

“We try in the AG’s office not to prejudge whether there’s any criminal wrongdoing or not,” King said.

Martinez’s aides insist that her meetings with the FBI took place solely as a victim in an open criminal case, which followed a left-leaning PAC’s release of hundreds of emails exchanged by members of the governor’s political team, who were shown to be conducting public business over their private accounts.  (Jamie Estrada, Martinez’s former campaign manager, was indicted last year on federal charges related to hacking the governor’s campaign email system.)

Upon being notified of Attorney General King’s comments, Martinez’s political consultant Danny Diaz issued a detailed statement to RealClearPolitics.

“Governor Martinez met with federal prosecutors last year to discuss her anticipated testimony as a victim in the criminal case regarding her stolen emails,” Diaz wrote in an email. “She was informed that the defense was likely to try to smear her in the case on a variety of irrelevant and ridiculous issues, including the Downs racino lease. The Governor was never questioned about it, but made it abundantly clear that she would not be bullied by the defense and was willing to do whatever is appropriate as a victim to pursue justice. Governor Martinez is a former prosecutor who understands that criminals commonly launch false attacks against the victim and she is not concerned with this defense tactic and has confidence that federal authorities are properly preparing to hold the defendant accountable. Likewise, we are fully confident that New Mexicans will not be fooled by politicians using the same false attacks in their campaigns as a criminal defendant charged with four felony counts of lying to the FBI.” 

No subpoenas have been issued to the governor’s office or to anyone on her campaign team, but state Sen. Linda Lopez, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, threatened to file one earlier this month when the Martinez-appointed general manager of Expo New Mexico (as the state fairgrounds are known), Dan Mourning, initially declined to appear before her Senate Rules Committee to answer questions about the Downs deal.

Mourning eventually did agree to appear before the committee, despite the administration’s repeated characterizations of the examination of the deal as a “political circus.”

In an interview at her office last week, Lopez -- a 17-year veteran of the Senate -- leaned over her desk and smiled broadly, reveling in having gotten the Martinez administration “to react” after being threatened with the subpoena.

Eager to share her own story of surviving domestic abuse at the hands of her now ex-husband, Lopez was unusually candid in revealing that she has been “dreaming about running for governor” since high school.

The only Hispanic woman of the five Democratic candidates in the June 3 primary, Lopez was just as forthright in stating why she considers herself the best equipped contender to go up against Martinez in November.

“Why can I win? It’s because I neutralize Susana Martinez,” Lopez said. “She’s the only Hispanic woman elected to a governorship in our country. With my candidacy, I neutralize that whole factor.”

The state senator concedes that she is not yet well-known around the state and that her unproven ability to compete on the fundraising front is “the only really big negative that I’ve heard,” though she predicted that once the crowded primary field is thinned out and Martinez is seen as beatable, the money and exposure will follow.

Like Attorney General King, Lopez is unabashedly determined to make campaign issues out of Martinez’s aggressive style -- which she characterized as Chris Christie-esque bullying -- and lingering questions about the racino deal. 

Lopez also invoked Martinez’s Democratic predecessor -- scandal-tarnished former governor and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson -- in making a case against the incumbent Republican.

“This woman -- this governor -- Susana Martinez, she’s outshone him,” Lopez asserted. “The governor ran on issues of transparency, being open, et cetera, but with the [racino] deal that was made, the way votes were handled, the emails that are out there -- that is going to be an issue that will be brought up during this campaign.”

To this charge, Martinez’s political team had an answer that may foreshadow the likely acidic tone of the general election campaign to come.

“Governor Martinez is running the most transparent administration in state history and it is amusing that Senator Lopez would try to bring up the issue of emails when she voted to shield all of her legislative emails from the public and media,” said Danny Diaz, a Martinez consultant. “New Mexicans are not going to be fooled by a legislator whose voting record is littered with contradictions and the complete absence of political courage.”

Though Republicans may question Lopez’s political courage, there is little doubt about the Democratic candidate’s pluck.

Back in her third-floor office, Lopez leaned forward even further over her desk as she motioned toward the governor’s office one floor above hers.

“This Latina is not afraid of the Latina on the fourth floor,” she said.

A Shrewd Operator

During her 2008 presidential run, Sarah Palin faced two ongoing ethics investigations back home, which were related to her dismissal of a public safety commissioner who had refused to fire Palin’s ex-brother-in-law, an Alaska state trooper. She was found to have violated state ethics laws in one of the investigations and cleared in the other.

Though the so-called “Troopergate” scandal in Juneau consumed an outsized amount of Palin’s time and energy on the campaign trail, the issue never resonated much with voters nationally. Instead, it was her struggle to answer basic questions in a series of interviews with Katie Couric and her propensity to go off script to negative effect that solidified perceptions that she was not up to being vice president.

Lacking a savvy team of political operators in Alaska, Palin essentially was on her own after being plucked by John McCain team to enter the national stage overnight.  But unlike the woman who helped her become governor of New Mexico in 2010, Martinez is methodical rather than instinctive, and averse to shooting from the hip.

When organizers behind ShePAC -- a super-PAC that aims to elect conservative women -- approached Martinez staffers recently about their boss participating in a video to commemorate Palin’s 50th birthday earlier this month, they were rebuffed: The New Mexico governor’s aides offered the reasonable explanation that Martinez was too busy with the legislative session to record a greeting for Palin.

And so, the resulting four-minute birthday video montage -- which featured a long list of Republican well-wishers, ranging from Sens. Ted Cruz and McCain to Govs. Nikki Haley and Jan Brewer -- did not include Martinez.

Within hours of the video’s release online, according to a Palin aide, Martinez did find the time to reach out to the woman who had helped her get elected -- albeit via a private phone call rather than a public statement.

After all, Martinez has an election to win in a blue state this year.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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