(Editor's Note: As the end of 2013 approaches, the Washington Examiner is shining a spotlight on its top stories of the year. Today, it's political correspondent Rebecca Berg on the breakout stardom of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. This story first ran on Dec. 9 and can be found in its original form here.)
The people are less abrasive; the desert landscape, more so. A population four times smaller is scattered across an area 15 times as vast.
But New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has lately been bracketed with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Republican who has had success in a Democratic state and won national attention for it.
The two recently appeared side-by-side in New Jersey as Christie campaigned for his re-election, which he won by a historic margin. Christie gushed to reporters about Martinez, fanning speculation that they might hit the campaign trail together again during the presidential election cycle.
“We’re like-minded Republicans,” Christie said. “In fact the only other person I asked to come out and campaign with me was [former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani], and I asked Gov. Martinez if she would come because we confront similar types of things.”
“I was really particular about who I wanted to come and campaign with me,” he added.
Both governors are sharp, no-nonsense former attorneys, she a district attorney and he a U.S. attorney, and they have counted each other as friends since Christie traveled to New Mexico in 2010 to campaign for Martinez. But, while Christie, 51, is giving serious thought to a bid for president in 2016, Martinez might not consider filling the slot as his running mate in a general election.
In 2012, Mitt Romney's campaign asked Martinez to be vetted for the position, and she surprised insiders when she declined the preliminary offer.
“I had no intentions of leaving my state, and no intentions, vetted or not, offered or not, of that position,” Martinez explained in an interview with the Washington Examiner at the Republican Governors Association conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month. “So it would have been a waste of their time.”
Asked whether she would consider being vetted for the job in 2016, her response was no less Shermanesque, if more succinct: She shook her head “no,” somewhat wistfully, followed by a firm, “Nuh uh.”
“I am so focused on doing what I have promised the people of New Mexico I would do,” she said.
The buzz about Martinez, 54, among Republicans isn’t surprising. She is a popular governor, with approval ratings in the mid-60s, and she is a Hispanic and a woman, two demographics that have so far eluded Republicans on the national level.
Martinez’s rationale for not running is rooted not only in her role as governor, but also because she has taken primary responsibility for taking care of her elder sister, Lettie, 56, who is severely mentally disabled. Lettie lives with Martinez and her husband, Chuck Franco, in their Las Cruces, N.M., home, and also receives help from a full-time professional caregiver.
Martinez has helped look after her sister since they were children living in El Paso, Texas, with their brother and parents in a “very, very middle-class” household, as Martinez put it.
A favorite story Martinez tells, or surrogates tell for her, is about her first job, at a security company started by her parents when she was 17. Martinez, a cheerleader and student council president at her high school, toted a .357-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver around the parking lot of a Catholic church outside El Paso on bingo nights.
“At one point I told my dad, ‘Dad, this is really heavy. I have a bruise on my hip from where the holster hits,’” Martinez recalled. “And he’s like, ‘No, you’ve got the right gun. You’ll be fine.’”
Today, she still has a permit to carry a concealed firearm, and often does. “She’s a really good shot,” bragged her chief of staff, Keith Gardner.
She’s maintained a tough-but-compassionate persona through her career, including as an attorney with the Children, Youth and Families Department in New Mexico, where she prosecuted child abuse cases, and later as a district attorney, an elected office she sought to challenge a boss who had fired her for testifying against him.
It's a biography that is well-suited to a national stage, and Republicans knew it when they invited Martinez to speak last year at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
“It was an opportunity for folks to see her, and opportunity to introduce herself,” a source close to Martinez said of her decision to accept the speaking slot. “When you're a western governor, media is driven by Eastern Standard Time. They're not as aware of the work that's being done across the Mississippi River.”
She took the stage immediately before Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Romney's running mate, and she was introduced as “the first female Hispanic governor,” a distinction in which she takes great pride.
“In America, todo es posible,” she told an enthusiastic crowd. Anything is possible.
The speech catapulted Martinez into the national political conversation. Suddenly she had a “tracker,” a Democratic staffer hired to trail her with a camera to document any controversial statements or gaffes. National media outlets wanted to speak with her. But she insists it wasn’t by her design.
“It’s humbling, but I don’t seek the attention,” Martinez said. “There’s a lot of work to get done in New Mexico, and I like the policy, I like getting in the weeds, I like doing that sort of thing. Taking me out of the state to do all of these national interviews and things like that, that’s not appealing. It just isn’t.”
“She’s not someone who has set out to make herself a national figure,” echoed one former Martinez aide. “Just by virtue of her success she’s become one, maybe reluctantly.”
A higher national profile has provided fodder for Democrats in New Mexico, who charge that she cares more about traveling out of state to fundraisers than taking care of business at home.
Martinez hosted a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., during the summer that attracted a host of congressional leaders and other bold-faced names, and she attended a hush-hush retreat in New Mexico hosted by the GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch.
Were her state record subjected to further scrutiny, New Mexico Democrats say, it would not hold up.
“Anyone considering her as a running mate should be aware, she will be the Sarah Palin of New Mexico,” said New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman.
Martinez’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, declined an interview because he has “a very negative opinion of Martinez,” a spokesperson said.
What might be most controversial about Martinez's performance as governor is her willingness to break with the Republican Party on high-profile national issues -- a trait she shares with Christie.
Martinez, whose husband is in law enforcement, supports a national gun registry to prevent sales to people with proven histories of mental illness. And she approved an expansion of Medicaid in New Mexico that was an option under President Obama's signature health care law, a step some conservative Republicans have likened to embracing the law in its entirety.
“As governor, you have an absolute responsibility to do what’s best for the people in your state, not the people in your party, because that is who you represent,” Martinez said. “So we may not agree at all times on all things, even as Republicans.”
Martinez is a prohibitive favorite for reelection next year. She will face one of at least five Democratic candidates, including New Mexico Attorney General Gary King.
The election might very well present Martinez with an opportunity to build the kind of bipartisan support that Christie did in New Jersey this year. The key for Republicans, says Martinez, a former Democrat herself, is to talk to every voter about policy over party — and to resist being pigeonholed.
“People say, Hispanics really are more conservative, a lot of Catholics are really conservative, blah blah blah, they're Republicans, they just don't know,'” Martinez said. “Really? Talk to people about issues, don't talk to people about parties, and I think you end up getting people who look at candidates as individuals and are willing to crisscross.”