News Column

Susana Martinez Woman of the Year 2011

April 6, 2011

David Roybal, Contributing Writer

The wind chill was below zero Jan. 1 on Santa Fe's historic downtown plaza -- fitting weather, considering all the hardened men over the years who insisted it would be a cold day indeed before a woman would take charge of the rugged land's future.

On Jan. 1, 2011, Susana Martinez, 51, became New Mexico's first woman governor and the nation's first Hispanic woman governor.

"We were prepared for it," Ms. Martinez, a Republican, said of inauguration day's bone-rattling cold. "I had good long underwear." The El Paso, Texas, native is determined to prove she is prepared, too, for what follows.

Three months into her new job, Ms. Martinez already is mentioned as a hot prospect for national office. Keep your eye on her, advised Ruben Navarrette Jr., writing for The Washington Post Writers Group. Mike Schrimpf, communications director with the Republican Governors Association, told HispanicBusiness magazine. "Governor Martinez's agenda ... will vault her toward the top of any list of influential national figures."

Ms. Martinez's historic achievement and her potential to figure prominently in the nation's civic discourse have made her HispanicBusiness magazine's 2011 Woman of the Year.

"The fact that I am a woman and the fact that I am Hispanic," she said from a couch in her Capitol suite, "I'm proud of that. But what is going to prove whether I'm a good governor is what results I produce as governor and not by virtue of being Hispanic or female."

Can she help other Hispanic women progress in their chosen fields? "Only if I do a good job," she said.

It's early, but so far Ms. Martinez has presented herself well while addressing populist issues, said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc. in Albuquerque. "She's a photogenic, articulate governor, and she has some good instincts when it comes to focusing her message," he said.

And there's something else that people are likely to learn about Ms. Martinez, said New Mexico Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Republican. "She has a real genuine warmth that has nothing to do with politics," he said.

Ms. Martinez had to jump into her new job with both feet even before reciting the oath of office. Elected in November, she promptly assembled an agenda for her first legislative session. Lawmakers convened in mid-January with a state budget shortfall approaching $500 million.

Ms. Martinez proposed administrative cuts through much of government, saying she wanted health care for the poor and public school classrooms spared. Not all agreed it would be possible.

But Ms. Martinez hasn't backed down. "I love the fight because I'm fighting for what New Mexicans want," said the woman who served three terms as an aggressive district attorney in Las Cruces. "It's important to me to always know what New Mexicans want me to fight for, and it has nothing to do with me personally."

Ms. Martinez acknowledged that she relies on "detailed polls that ask lots of questions," but also on casual conversations with people she meets and visits with away from the Capitol. "They're conversations in the grocery store; conversations that I have while standing in line to buy coffee; at meetings that I attend in communities," she said.

Ms. Martinez smiled broadly when asked how she differs from her Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson: "I am more conservative. I am very law and order.

"I believe the citizens of New Mexico deserve to know what their government is doing, how they're doing it, and how they're spending their money," she said of her repeated calls for more transparency and an end to public corruption. "I always have a clear understanding that (the citizens') money is not mine."

Mixed reviews follow Ms. Martinez's efforts. "I think she's done pretty good," Mr. Ingle said in the closing days of the legislative session. "She comes from a world of being district attorney and that's a very defined world. For all of us, it's an adjustment to go from a campaign to (working) in the actual seat of government."

Jerry Apodaca, who served as a Democratic governor in New Mexico from 1975 to 1978, said Ms. Martinez should "open her door up a little bit more." Longtime House Speaker Ben Lujan, a Democrat, said Ms. Martinez, who was a Democrat until 1995, has shown little interest in collaboration. "We have yet to see a well-articulated and delineated agenda that outlines strategies for job creation, business development, economic growth, energy security ... and other pressing issues," Mr. Lujan said as the Legislature approached adjournment.

Ms. Martinez brushed aside such criticism. "The Democrats I'm working with closely are your average New Mexicans," she said. "There are so many issues that cross party lines ... I want to bring people to the process."

Creating a "positive economic environment" is one issue that should get bipartisan support, said Ms. Martinez. New Mexico's regulations and tax system must be more businessfriendly and competitive with surrounding states, she said. "Texas has a great tax environment and a great regulatory environment. We are the opposite." Her opponents say Texas guts laborers' interests and that Ms. Martinez promotes corporate excess.

Supporters are equally vocal. Republican Garrey Carruthers, governor from 1987 to 1990, said opposing tax increases and cutting administrative costs "signals that we're very serious about running state government as efficiently as possible."

Nearly 45 percent of New Mexicans are Hispanic; women constitute more than half of the U.S. population. "There aren't good reasons" why it took so long for a Hispanic woman to win election as a U.S. governor, said Ms. Martinez.

"I think there are a lot of firsts that are taking place (and) I think that we are moving forward at a much faster pace," she said. "I don't think I've been held back. I think I've had to prove myself because I worked in a field that is 95 percent male, which is law enforcement," she said of her 14 years as a district attorney. "I had to prove that I was tough, that I was willing to work hard, but I don't think that being a woman or being Hispanic helped or hindered."

Hard work, perseverance and education are common themes in Ms. Martinez's advice to younger women. "As a woman, there are lots of things you're juggling. ... I still do the shopping, pay the bills; I go to the dry cleaners, all the things that you have to do to maintain a home. But if you have a good supportive husband, as I do, it makes it more possible."

"Like anything," Ms. Martinez said, "if you have a good example, then others will follow. If you don't, then it becomes more challenging."

David Roybal is a journalist and author who has worked as an aide to government and university administrators in New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

Source: (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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