When she takes the oath of office Saturday morning in Santa Fe's historic plaza, Susana Martinez will become New Mexico's — and the nation's — first elected Latina governor.
The 51-year-old, four-term Doña Ana County district attorney is also a rising star in national Republican circles, already being mentioned in the blogosphere as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2012.
But as she takes over from Bill Richardson — a termed-out Democrat whose final two years in office were clouded by federal investigations into pay-for-play allegations — Martinez faces stiff challenges as New Mexico deals with a high unemployment rate and a hefty budget deficit.
"We have to start cutting back on the wasteful spending," Martinez said in a telephone interview last week as she drove to her hometown of Las Cruces. She wants to sell the state's $5.5-million jet, pare administrative costs in the education budget and put the state's generous film industry incentives under the microscope.
Martinez is also considering scaling back the Rail Runner Express commuter train service and is looking to privatize operations at Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic soon hopes to launch suborbital space flights. She has also promised to reverse a policy of issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and to fight for reinstatement of the death penalty.
Each of these proposals could be seen as a repudiation of Richardson and his expansive approach to state government. "We're asking people to cut back and not spend as much, but government has not been able to do that," Martinez said.
Martinez defeated her Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, by a 54% to 46% margin. Sarah Palin, who spoke at one of her campaign rallies, lent support, and Martinez received a $450,000 campaign contribution from Houston developer Bob J. Perry, a major GOP contributor.
Voters were ready for a change, said state Democratic Chairman Javier Gonzales. But he warns that if Martinez hews too closely to a budget-slashing, tax-cutting agenda she will quickly alienate New Mexicans, many of whom rely on government-funded programs. "There is a real concern among the Democrats about how she is going to prioritize solving the state's problems," he said.
It is "exciting" to have the first Latina governor, Gonzales added, but "we haven't seen her emerge as a leader on Hispanic issues."
Gabriel R. Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico who is reviewing voting patterns in Martinez's victory, said the state's Hispanics mainly tilt Democratic, but their moderate views on issues such as immigration and spending make them willing to support certain Republicans.
Martinez seldom mentioned her ethnicity while campaigning, but her surname didn't hurt, Sanchez said. "That's a significant appeal in New Mexico — that 'she's one of us.' "
Martinez, the daughter of a sheriff's deputy in El Paso, Texas, helped care for a developmentally delayed older sister while her parents ran a successful security business.
Upon graduating from the University of Oklahoma's law school in 1986, she joined the Doña Ana County district attorney's office, mainly prosecuting crimes against children.
"What impressed me about her the most was her unmatched dedication to her cases," said Kelly Kuenstler, then a clerk in the office and now director of the statewide Administrative Office of the District Attorneys.
When Martinez's boss was defeated for reelection in 1992, she clashed with the new district attorney and left the office to work for the state Children, Youth and Families Department, said Susan Riedel, Martinez's longtime chief deputy district attorney.
Martinez decided to run against the incumbent district attorney in 1996 while still a registered Democrat, like most voters in Doña Ana County. Local Republicans invited her and her husband, Chuck Franco, to lunch to discuss issues such as the death penalty, taxes and government spending. Martinez suspected they were on a recruiting mission.
"I remember telling my husband, 'We're going to be very polite. We're going to say thank you very much and we're going to leave,' " she said. Afterward, "We got in the car, we looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God, we are Republicans! Now what do we do?' "
She switched her party registration, fully expecting to lose the election, but drew enough Democratic crossover votes to defeat her opponent. She handily won three reelection races — the last time running unopposed.
As district attorney, she was known for her tough prosecution of child abuse cases and crimes committed by illegal immigrants. During her gubernatorial campaign, she said she was opposed to tough Arizona-style immigration laws.
Martinez said she didn't realize she might be blazing a trail for Latinas to the statehouse until a few months ago, but wants to serve as a role model. "I hope I've been able to show other young girls that as long as you work hard and you're committed to fight for your education, that anything's possible," she said.
She expects to be judged for her accomplishments rather than her background, however. "At the end of the day it's going to be how I impact and improve New Mexico," she said.
Martinez, meanwhile, expresses surprise that bloggers have touted her for national office in 2012. "I'm honored that they're talking about it, but as I've said to them and to anyone else who asks, my commitment is here, to New Mexico," she said.
Christine M. Sierra, a University of New Mexico political scientist who researches Latino political participation, said national GOP leaders are "showcasing" newly elected officials like Martinez in hopes of broadening the party's appeal to people of color.
"It's going to take a lot more to have Hispanics gravitate toward the Republican Party," Sierra observed. "It will depend on their policies."
Haederle writes for The Times.