Glass-ceiling-breaking. History-making. A future Republican leader and maybe even president.
Embarrassing. Palinesque. Caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Donald Trump.
Depending on who you talk to or what part of her career you focus on, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) is either a rising star or a fallen one. And now she’s at the center of Trump’s ire. Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, accused Martinez of not doing her job when he showed up in her back yard Tuesday night for a rally that Martinez declined to attend.
“She’s got to do a better job. Okay? Your governor has got to do a better job,” Trump said. “She’s not doing the job. Hey! Maybe I’ll run for governor of New Mexico. I’ll get this place going. She’s not doing the job. We’ve got to get her moving. Come on: Let’s go, governor.”
Her office said she was busy, but Democrats gleefully point out she is the head of the Republican Governors Association and still hasn’t yet endorsed Trump. They argue that her hesitancy on Trump is indicative of the party’s struggle with him at large. And that’s a fair point to make, given the number of vulnerable GOP senators also ducking questions about Trump.
As an update, on Wednesday afternoon, Marco Rubio entered the fray by defending Martinez:
Martinez is term-limited after 2016, but her clash with Trump is heavy on symbolism and political pressure. And it’s worth watching moving forward.
So here’s a primer on Martinez and her complicated, often contradictory political life.
She’s got the profile for office
When Republicans want to counter Democratic attacks that they’re not diverse enough, they point to Martinez.
She’s not only the first woman to be elected governor of New Mexico and the nation’s only Republican Latina governor. She’s the nation’s only Latina governor, period.
She comes from humble beginnings. Her father was an award-winning boxer with the Marines. They grew up, in her words, as “lower middle class,” and she’s the caretaker of her older, developmentally disabled sister, Lettie.
In short, on paper, Martinez has the near-perfect personal profile for politics, especially higher office (we’ll get to all that in a moment).
And she has dreamed big. According to a 2010 Albuquerque Journal profile, Martinez was a law school intern at a Texas state district courthouse in El Paso when she said she wanted to be the first female president of the United States. (Back then, she was a Democrat growing up, like her dad, but after law school, she became a Republican.)
She came onto the stage in New Mexico at the right time
Barack Obama supporters will remember her predecessor, former governor Bill Richardson (D), likely with a bad taste in their mouths. Richardson was a former diplomat who was President-elect Obama’s first choice to run the Commerce Department, but he had to withdraw in light of a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme.
Richardson was term-limited anyway, but his downfall meant an open 2010 election suddenly became very open.
Enter Martinez, an upstart district attorney for Doña Ana County, which borders El Paso, with almost the exact opposite story to tell. She was the only Latina lawyer when she was first hired for the county, and she soon developed a case record of going after public corruption. Oh, and when she became deputy district attorney, she sued her boss for wrongful termination after being fired when she was called to testify against him. And then she twice defeated him for his job by double digits.
Martinez’s demographic profile and record as an all-star prosecutor helped catapult her to the front of the field when she entered the race for governor in 2010. Her entrance was a “game-changer,” said Jose Z. Garcia, a New Mexico State University government professor and Democratic political analyst, at the time. “She would be a formidable candidate.”
She has an impressive electoral record
Martinez scraped away 51 percent of the vote in a talented, five-candidate Republican primary (that included the son of a former U.S. senator) to go onto the general election.
It was relatively smooth sailing from there, despite running in a blue-leaning state. Sarah Palin endorsed her. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham praised her. Campaigning on securing the state’s border from illegal immigration and cutting state spending, Martinez beat Richardson’s No. 2, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, with 53 percent of the vote — incidentally only the fourth woman-vs.-woman gubernatorial race in U.S. history — and turned New Mexico’s governor’s mansion from blue to red.
A rising star was born.
Like, a really big star
The Economist even ran this headline: “Susana Martinez shows how Republicans might one day woo Latinos.”
The praise kept coming as she tried to live up to her campaign promises. She tried to privatize a costly spaceport project on a New Mexico ranch. She sold the state’s luxury jet. She barred all state agencies from hiring lobbyists. She signed an executive order rescinding sanctuary status to undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes.
But Martinez tried to balance conservative politics with the moderate politics of her state. She opposed the Affordable Care Act but didn’t join many of her colleagues’ calls for repealing it. She opposes same-sex marriage but didn’t try to fight it when her state Supreme Court legalized it.
It appeared to be working. In 2012, our very own Aaron Blake named her one of the 10 most popular governors in the nation, noting her 60 percent approval rating at the time and writing: “Martinez is certainly a rising GOP star, who as the nation’s only female Latino governor should have a big voice in the party going forward — if she wants it.”
And in 2013, Time Magazine named her one of its 100 most influential people in the world, with Karl Rove predicting: “If she is reelected in 2014, her reputation as a reform-minded conservative Republican could grow even more in a second term.”
The veep talk
Okay, let’s delve into this, which is what Martinez is perhaps best known for outside New Mexico. In part thanks to her profile, vice presidential buzz started even before Martinez took office in 2011.
But in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal before she was elected, she batted away speculation by wondering what message hopscotching from governor to vice president would send to girls in New Mexico who see her as a role model.
“If I don’t do this (job as governor) right, then what are they going to think of me and the path that I’ve paved for them?” she said.
Veep speculation manifested for real in the 2012 presidential election, when Martinez was prominently mentioned as Mitt Romney’s running mate. What she would decide was the talk of the political town in April of that year.
But Martinez firmly and unequivocally took herself off the list. She said it would be “devastating” to separate her sister — whom she’s described in interviews as perpetually 5 years old — from the rest of her family.
Why there’s not as much veep talk today
On paper, it would seem Martinez’s star power has risen since her first term. This year, she’s the leader of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which served as a launching pad for three other recent past chairs who would run for president: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Mitt Romney.
But things haven’t gone so smoothly for Martinez since getting the job.
Shortly after the announcement came that she’d be leading the RGA, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported the FBI was investigating political fundraising tied to one of her high-profile political consultants. In March, a grand jury dropped the investigation.
Then the hotel incident happened. Just before Christmas, police claimed they found Martinez drunk in a Santa Fe hotel room during a call they responded to for noise complaints and guests throwing bottles off the fourth-floor balcony. Martinez denied she was drunk, but the headlines stuck. We named her the fifth (out of five) most interesting governors of 2015 — and not in a good way.
And a March Pew Charitable Trusts poll found that New Mexico has made the worst economic recovery in the nation.
Outside New Mexico, it’s possible Martinez may not have won over Washington insiders. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann wrote in December that she has a reputation as being “Palinesque: gaffe-prone, not intellectually curious and not up for the rigors of a national campaign.”
The Trump factor
Martinez is also one of just a handful of Republican governors who hasn’t said whether she’d support Trump as the nominee.
Here’s a recent interview she had with CBS4 in New Mexico that would seem to epitomize her struggle on whether to support Trump: “I’ll tell you one thing. I can tell you I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton,” Martinez said.
“Do you think you’ll make up your mind who you’ll endorse before the primary?” the reporter asked.
“I will not be endorsing Hillary Clinton,” Martinez said
Which is how we got to where we are today.