Buoyant, bilingual, upbeat and the first female Hispanic governor of any state, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez seems a good fit for chief executive officer of a Western state where almost half the 2.1 million population is Hispanic.
But will major campaign donors and 2016 GOP presidential primary voters see the former prosecutor and daughter of a Texas deputy sheriff as a good fit for president of a nation where Hispanics account for 54 million out of a total population of 316 million?
The answer will become clearer as next summer approaches.
For now, she’s running for a second term as governor this November with a personal story that excites the GOP faithful and right-leaning independents everywhere: she and her husband, Chuck, both former Democrats, had turned Republican for philosophical, not knee-jerk partisan, reasons.
“Before I ran for district attorney, two Republicans invited my husband and me to lunch,” she says in one version of the personal tale. “I knew a party-switch was what they wanted from us. So, I told Chuck, ‘We’ll be polite, we’ll enjoy a free lunch and then we’ll say goodbye.’”
At lunch, the conversation turned on issues with no mention of “Republican,” “Democrat,” “liberal” or conservative.”
Instead, they talked about whether “welfare is a helping hand up or a way of life.” They talked about the “size of government and how much should it tax families and small businesses.”
In public gathering, such as her prime-time 2012 Tampa, Fla., GOP presidential nominating speech to millions of TV viewers and 20,000 delegates and credentialed members of the press, she wraps up the story this way: “When we left that lunch, we got in the car, and I looked over at Chuck and said, ‘I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans.’”
In small groups, her delivery is tailored a bit differently. She bubbles over with enthusiasm, and her eyes sparkle as she says, ” and I looked at Chuck and said, holy s—-, we’re Republicans!” Her small audience invariably breaks into laughter.
Right now, campaign consultants put her on the long list of potential 2016 White House candidates. Rising onto the shortlist will require something special — that unanticipated something that is the soul of American politics.
Some political consultants will ultimately explore what she brings to a ticket in terms of demographics.
In New Mexico’s Hispanic-rich Guadalupe, Mora, Rio Arriba, and San Miguel counties, Mrs. Martinez’s 2010 share of the total votes — including non-Hispanics — was 57 percent, 46 percent, 41 percent, and 38 percent respectively. That was probably not a majority share of the Hispanic population, but from her supporters’ viewpoint, remarkable nonetheless.
She’s also got the kind of gubernatorial record conservative and establishment Republicans alike love to love — seemingly sparse to nonexistent in pandering to ethnic groups and other special interests.
As soon as she and her husband unpacked their clothes in the governor’s residence, she began crusading to repeal a state law that granted illegals immigrants a driver’s license. She also signed an executive order requiring state law enforcers to check the immigration status of everyone arrested in the state.
But it’s her personal story that offers a strong connection should she gamble on 2016.
“My dad was a Golden Gloves boxers in the Marine Corps, then a deputy sheriff,” she says. “My mom worked as an office assistant. One day they decided to start a security-guard business. I thought they were crazy. We had absolutely no savings. My dad worked the business. My mom did the books at night.”
“At 18, I guarded the Catholic Church’s bingo games held in the church lot. My dad made sure I could take care of myself. I carried a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum,” she says.
She says with palpable pride that her parents grew their security business that started with one teenager guarding a bingo game to 125 employees in three states.
“I went to law school and became a prosecutor — prosecuted child-abuse cases, gut-wrenching cases,” she says, adding that doing so was for her “a privilege of a lifetime.”
At this point, she’ll usually say in Spanish, “In America, anything’s possible.” Regardless of the linguistic skills of her audience at the moment, her meaning is clear enough to elicit applause and whistles of approval.
Her checklist as the chief manager of her state includes closing a record-sized structural deficit “by requiring state employees to contribute more to their retirements.”
She boasts of having sold the state’s luxury jet used by her predecessor, “capped salaries for Cabinet secretaries and eliminated the chefs in the governor’s residence.”
On the hottest issue of the election cycle so far, she moved to end the state’s sanctuary policy for illegal immigrants who commit crimes and to crack down on driver’s license fraud by foreign nationals.
One achievement, in particular, may make her stand out among an American electorate that polls show is sick of seeing, over five decades, an inverse relationship between the public money spent on education and the quality of the resulting education. She is credited with putting into effect a teacher-evaluation system that measures actual student progress. She went on to defeat a teachers union attempt to use the courts to block the reform.
One wildcard may be her agreement to increase teachers’ salaries as a quid pro quo for increasing accountability in the state’s classrooms.
Her re-election team today boasts that when she took office, she ended “years of inaction at the state and federal level to recover any of the taxpayer money that was lost as a result” of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration scandals.
Since the change in administrations, Mrs. Martinez’s team touts a successful agreement to “recover more than $26 million for taxpayers from companies and individuals related to the scandals.”
Mrs. Martinez, as a former district attorney, is said to have taken great delight in banning corrupt contractors from doing business with the state. She signed legislation requiring nearly 30,000 new local government employees to be covered by ethics laws and “reinstituted the use of minimum qualifications for state government positions to ensure that those who are hired are qualified for their job.”
That she campaigned hard among New Jersey’s Hispanics for Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election is hardly conclusive evidence that she’s got the magic touch with that growing segment of the U.S. electorate. But it doesn’t hurt the impression that she can pass the laugh test when it comes to envisioning her as not only the first female president or vice president, but the first Hispanic elected to either post.