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Gov. Susana Martinez: A Rising GOP Star In A Democratic State

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Gov. Susana Martinez: A Rising GOP Star In A Democratic State

Gov. Susana Martinez: A Rising GOP Star In A Democratic State

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is a rising star in the Republican Party. She's the popular leader of an important swing state. The GOP hopes that key leaders like Martinez will draw in more of the Hispanic vote ahead of this year's presidential election.

But some Hispanic voters accuse her of pushing an anti-immigrant agenda despite her own family's Mexican heritage.

Martinez is, arguably, the ultimate immigrant success story. Her grandparents left their native Mexico to take modest jobs in the United States, where they hoped their children would have a better future. Two generations later, a young Martinez was the second in her family to go to college. She went on to law school and a decade later was elected district attorney of Dona Ana County, which includes Las Cruces, New Mexico's second largest city.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was a cheerleader at her high school in El Paso, TX.

As a student at Riverside High School in El Paso, Martinez walked the halls in a blue and orange cheerleader uniform. She was student council president and graduated at the top of her class. To her younger cousin Cindy Retana – who is now a school principal – Martinez was a role model.

"You know, the big joke in our family is when they were all little, even before I was born, our grandma…would always call her the little lawyer,” Retana said. “Because she was always the one gathering everyone around, being the spokesperson.”

Martinez grew up in a bilingual household just blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. At 18, she worked in the family business as a security guard carrying a .357 revolver outside a bingo hall. They were Democrats and she never questioned that party affiliation.

Then, just before her run for district attorney, some Republican friends sat her down for a talk. She told the story last year in a speech in Albuquerque.

“We talked about values. We talked about where we stood in reference to where the economy was going... We talked about welfare as being a hand up and not a way of life. We talked about the freedoms, the Second Amendment,” Martinez said. “I remember walking out of there and getting in the car with my husband Chuck and saying: ‘Well I’ll be. I’m a Republican.'"

That’s in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly three to one. Despite that, Martinez won 60 percent of the vote to become district attorney. When running for governor, she beat Lt. Governor Diane Denish by 8 percentage points, with significant help from Latino voters.

Though some Latinos crossed party lines to vote for Martinez, statewide protests erupted during her first year in office. Hundreds of angry New Mexicans protested a bill – supported by Martinez – that would repeal a law that allows illegal immigrants to get a state driver’s license.

The bill failed three times in the legislature, but Martinez has said she will keep pushing. She’s adamant that the bill is strictly about public security, namely preventing identity fraud. New Mexico is one of only two states that allow illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license. State police have made multiple arrests of people allegedly selling fraudulent driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who live out of state.

Photo courtesy State of New Mexico.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

But some voters are confused and upset that Martinez would support legislation that would also hurt immigrant families who came to the United States for the same reasons as her grandparents.

Andrea Serrano is an Albuquerque based poet who wrote a piece that expresses how some Hispanics feel about the governor’s views. She read the poem aloud recently at the University of New Mexico. Here is an excerpt:

"This poem is titled, 'An Open Letter to Governor Martinez:’ Dear Susana, I want to understand you...It would be wonderful to be proud of you, to hold you up, to celebrate you. I wish I could say: ‘Mira she’s one of us.’ But you feel so far away, so unlike a sister…”

Martinez has not revealed her views on larger immigration issues, although she has spoken out against Arizona's SB 1070, which allows local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Some suspect her advocacy for the driver’s license bill has more to do with Republican politics than real conviction.

“(Martinez) could be a player among the party elite and weigh in on important policy debates," said Christine Sierra, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "She could also continue a trajectory of rising importance and maybe reconsider things in the 2016 presidential election.”

Despite questions over her immigration stance, Martinez’s popularity in Democratic New Mexico is on the rise. The latest poll has her with a 66% approval rating – a more than 15 percent rise from when she first gained office.