SANTA FE, N.M. — In 2010, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez made history, being elected the nation’s first Latina governor. Since November, she’s made waves, criticizing Mitt Romney for the harsh rhetoric of his presidential campaign and chiding fellow Republicans for actions that, she says, have needlessly estranged Latinos from the GOP.
“We have to make sure that as Republicans we don’t just visit Latinos during election time, but that we make them part of the solution,” Martinez said in an interview. “It’s extremely important that we elect people that look like the population they serve.”
Martinez is a strong favorite for reelection in 2014. Beyond that, the former prosecutor and Democrat-turned-Republican is touted as a potential U.S. attorney general or even vice president in a future GOP administration.
But here at home, some question Martinez’s ability to advise her party, much less serve as a role model for Republicans grappling with their poor image among Latinos.
The doubts point to the highly charged politics surrounding immigration and related issues and underscore the challenge Republicans face as they try reaching out to Latinos without antagonizing the party’s conservative base, as well as supporters who resist any easing of the GOP’s hard-line stance.
Martinez has advantages other Republicans can’t easily match, including a charismatic personality, a compelling up-by-the-bootstraps history and the benefit of running in a majority-minority state where Latinos have been an integral part of the power structure for decades.
“She can go into rural Hispanic areas and tell [her] story and impress a lot of people,” said Brian Sanderoff, New Mexico’s leading independent pollster. “It’s a lot easier for a female Hispanic Republican to pull off than a middle-aged white guy, frankly.”
But Martinez has also been a surprisingly divisive figure. Though she enjoys strong public approval ratings, she has a contentious relationship with Democrats in Santa Fe, the state capital, as well as with many Latino activists, who accuse her of scapegoating Latino newcomers and exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments for political gain.
“It’s one thing to talk about changing tone and rhetoric,” said Marcela Diaz, head of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a group that has waged protests against Martinez and opposes her efforts to repeal the state law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. “We’d like to see a change in tone and rhetoric, accompanied by action.”
Martinez, speaking by phone from her Capitol office, cited polls that showed an overwhelming majority of New Mexicans — including most Latinos — favored repeal of the driver’s license privilege, passed in 2003 under her Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson. (Another poll, putting the question differently, found a that substantial majority of New Mexico Latinos favored reforming the law, rather than repealing it.)
“It’s not a controversial issue,” Martinez said. “The only ones who seem to call it a controversial issue are the people from the media.”
Martinez won a tough primary by accusing her main rival of favoring “amnesty” for backing legislation, proposed by President George W. Bush, that aimed to stiffen border enforcement, create a guest worker program and establish a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. Any comprehensive bill that passes Congress would probably contain those same elements.
Asked whether the attack on her opponent, a former state GOP chairman, had been a mistake, the governor quickly replied, “No.”
“There are many solutions to people who are here illegally that are between amnesty and deporting 12 million people,” she said.
“I’m very pleased that Mrs. Martinez has come around to my position,” the former chairman, Allen Weh, said dryly.
Martinez, 53, grew up in a bilingual household in El Paso. As a teenager she worked in her father’s security business, toting a .357 Magnum — “That gun weighed more than I did!” — while patrolling the parking lot at church bingos, something she recounted in a well-received speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention.
After college and law school, Martinez crossed the state line into New Mexico, switched parties and was elected district attorney in Dona Ana County, in the far south of the state, where she served four terms as chief prosecutor. She was a distinct underdog in the gubernatorial primary but surged to victory thanks in good part to her tough-on-immigration stance.
Martinez largely abandoned the issue in the general election, but she took a firm stand opposing the driver’s license law — a position shared by the Democrat she beat.
Since taking office, Martinez has made its repeal a centerpiece of her agenda, to the consternation of Latino activists and the puzzlement of Democrats and others who ask why she has invested so much effort, given the state’s struggling economy and troubled schools.
“When did this become the be-all and end-all?” asked Joe Monahan, who writes a widely read nonpartisan blog on New Mexico politics. “Is this what the Latino population of America is focused on and wants to hear from Republicans? I don’t think that’s an olive branch.”
Martinez said the driver’s license issue is just one of several priorities, along with job creation and ending so-called social promotion, the practice of moving students to the next grade regardless of performance. But she said repeal is vital, suggesting that fraud is rampant and the state has become a magnet for criminals.
The issue has been fiercely debated across the country, including California, where a law that took effect Jan. 1 allows some illegal immigrants to obtain licenses.
For many, the matter is cut and dried. Illegal is illegal, opponents say, so why would a state provide official recognition to people who shouldn’t be there? Proponents say it is absurd to ignore people on the roads, legal or not, and cite humanitarian and practical reasons to license drivers.
“You take away licenses, you take away a tool from our families to provide for their children,” said Diaz, the immigrant advocate. “You make the state poorer, and it’s not creating one job.”
Using the issue as a bludgeon, Martinez and her allies spent unprecedented millions in a November attempt to win control of the state House and dislodge the Senate’s Democratic leadership. The effort fell short — the GOP lost House seats — but Republicans managed to oust the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Martinez has indicated she will try a fourth time to pass repeal legislation when the Legislature convenes Tuesday. Democrats, who have offered a proposal tightening restrictions and toughening enforcement, said the governor should accept the deal or move on.
For some lawmakers, the matter has become personal. For Martinez, it’s a political test.
Asked whether Republicans outside New Mexico might learn from watching the governor, Democratic House Speaker Ken Martinez (no relation to her) said it remained to be seen. “She’s finished two years of a four-year term,” said the speaker, who enjoys relatively good relations with the governor. “What happens in the next two years?”