- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Second-term Gov. Susana Martinez is raising money through a political action committee as if she still is a contender, and lavishing more funds than ever on a Republican strategist while taking her tough-talking agenda on immigration issues and taxes to out-of-state audiences.

The fundraising prowess of the nation’s only Latina governor and potential pick for vice president was on display Thursday night at a New York City gala where the three GOP presidential candidates converged, and Martinez was the guest of honor.

On Friday, Martinez was flying to Florida for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association that raises and distributes funds to influence key gubernatorial and statewide elections. The committee’s fundraising has continued apace since Martinez became chairwoman in November.

Meantime, a New Mexico-based political committee bearing the governor’s name this week reported raising $328,000 in six months. Over the past year, Susana PAC spent $257,000 on unspecified services from a political strategy firm run by the governor’s top political adviser, Jay McCleskey.

The governor’s office referred questions about the fund to McCleskey, who could not be reached immediately for comment. The PAC dates back to Martinez’s first year in office and has largely financed strategy, media buys and fundraising.

Martinez used Susana PAC resources in February to rally support for legislation that ends New Mexico’s practice of providing driver’s licenses to residents regardless of immigration status.

The law figured prominently in a 20-minute speech by Martinez at the gala in New York that dwelled on her own life story and celebrated Republican electoral gains in state legislatures across the country, including the takeover of the New Mexico House in 2014 when Martinez was re-elected. She cannot run for a third term in 2018.

“While it took us five years, we finally ended the practice of giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “These issues were never about immigration, they were about public safety.”

Martinez has steered clear of endorsing any of the three remaining GOP presidential candidates, after campaigning briefly this year for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before he quit.

“Why don’t we do rock, paper scissors and get this over with,” she quipped at the New York gala.

As the fundraiser wound down, the crowd was none the wiser about Martinez’s future ambitions.

She has continually brushed off talk of running for higher office.

The North Carolina Republican Party expects Martinez to attend its state convention in May, amid a raging debate about a state law that reins in local anti-discrimination provisions and a re-election campaign by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Martinez has crisscrossed the country on fundraising forays for Republican causes the past two years. Her tenure as chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association coincides with large contributions, including $1 million from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, though 2016 receipts are not yet public.

At the same time, the former district attorney from Las Cruces cares for a developmentally disabled sister who accompanied her to New York this week.

Speculation about a vice presidential candidacy has been dampened by an embarrassing episode at the governor’s holiday staff party at a Santa Fe hotel in December, as well as a grand jury investigation - recently dropped - into adviser McCleskey’s handling of payments to his company from Martinez’s inaugural committee account.

At the hotel holiday party, an audio recording by police showed a tipsy Martinez badgering hotel staff, radio dispatchers and police to identify who had complained of rowdy behavior by her staff.

Political observers say a nearly $300,000 April balance at Susana PAC may be unleashed in state legislative races in the fall, though no donations were made to state candidates in the past six months.

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