The Magazine

No Susana

New Mexico’s governor is a rising star, but won’t enter the veepstakes.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Carlsbad, N.M.
As we walk through the Department of Energy’s field office in remote Carlsbad, Susana Martinez is explaining the science of nuclear waste management. At the federally managed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, about 25 miles east of here and more than 2,000 feet below the dusty, barren surface, the government deposits much of its radioactive waste. The repository, Martinez tells me, was built underneath a half-mile-thick salt formation. Carved out of the salt are small rooms ideal for holding the waste safely as it decays. She explains that the salt is nonporous, so none of the radioactive material can seep into the soil above.

Photo of Susana Martinez

Susana Martinez


“Isn’t that interesting?” says the 52-year-old Martinez.

To be honest, it really isn’t, but as the governor of New Mexico, America’s ground zero (so to speak) for nuclear research and energy production, Martinez is more or less required to find such topics interesting. In conversation, she approaches policy issues, from nuclear waste to economic development to education, with earnest curiosity. A self-styled wonk, she’s visibly less comfortable reading to preschoolers at a day-care center in Las Cruces than she is talking afterward with the adults and reporters about child abuse awareness. And she looks mortified when joining the preschoolers in the “Tootie Ta” dance, with lyrics imploring dancers to stick their “bottoms up.”

Martinez likes policy. She’s already been tapped as the policy co-chair of the Republican Governors Association. “It’s my training to follow the evidence,” says the former prosecutor. And like a prosecutor on the offensive, she doesn’t suffer legislative nonsense gladly. During a recent debate over education reform, Martinez caught flak from some Democrats in the statehouse who complained that a renewed focus on reading in elementary schools was an “unfunded mandate.” She looks at me incredulously: “I just said, ‘What does that mean? What do we pay [teachers] to do?’ ”

“She’s just a professional, good person from southern New Mexico who wants to do something good for her state,” says Tom Hutchison, a restaurant owner in Mesilla. Jerry Pacheco, a business leader and vice president of the Border Industrial Association in Santa Teresa, calls Martinez “methodical,” “accessible,” and a “good listener.”

Perhaps these qualities help explain Martinez’s cross-party appeal. According to an April 3 poll by Rasmussen Reports, 60 percent of New Mexicans approve of her performance, up 7 points from the 53 percent of the vote she won in 2010. And in New Mexico, nearly half of registered voters are Democrats and only 30 percent are Republicans. According to her campaign’s internal numbers, Martinez won nearly a quarter of Democrats and over 40 percent of Hispanic voters. At a time when the GOP is accused of being antiwoman and anti-Hispanic, the conservative Martinez stands out as a living, breathing counterexample.

So it isn’t surprising that back in January, in an interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show, Mitt Romney mentioned Martinez as someone he would consider for a running mate. Romney also threw in some better-known names (Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal), and reports suggest that these days he is leaning toward someone similar to himself in profile and temperament, like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. Of course, there’s also the looming Sarah Palin precedent. The risk-averse Romney campaign may look at Martinez, see a first-term governor of a small state with a low national profile, and recoil.

But the advantages of a Romney-Martinez ticket are evident. Martinez was born and raised in El Paso by the children of Mexican immigrants. (Her great-grandfather Toribio Ortega fired the first shot of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.) Working at her parents’ small security business, she paid her way through the University of Texas-El Paso and the University of Oklahoma law school. She speaks Spanish fluently; before sitting down to dinner in Mesilla, she steps into the kitchen and converses with the staff, flowing effortlessly from English to Spanish as she glad-hands. Imagine the Spanish-language ads!

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