The tale of how Gov. Susana Martinez came to join the Republican Party has become the stuff of New Mexico political lore.
As Martinez was preparing to make her first run for public office, to be district attorney of Doña Ana County, local conservatives invited her and her husband to lunch. “I remember telling my husband, ‘We’re going to be very polite. We’re going to say thank-you very much, and we’re going to leave,’ ” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, shortly after being elected governor. “We got in the car, we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God, we are Republicans! Now what do we do?’ ”
The story could be a blueprint for the Republican Party’s efforts to win over Latino converts—by convincing them that the GOP principles of self-reliance and cultural conservatism aren’t all that different from the values that many Latinos hold dear.
It should be no surprise that the first Latina governor of New Mexico was given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. Party leaders have widely acknowledged that the GOP can no longer afford to be seen as the party of white males if it hopes to remain viable with a rapidly diversifying electorate.
Enter Martinez, 53, whose biography is about as different as possible from Mitt Romney’s affluent background.
The great-granddaughter of a famed Mexican revolutionary general, Martinez was born and raised in the border town of El Paso, Texas, where her family lived in public housing for a number of years. When she was a teenager, her father, a boxer-turned-deputy-undersheriff, and her mother opened a mom-and-pop security company. At 18, Martinez learned to tote a .357 Magnum while patrolling bingo-game parking lots.
Starting at a young age, she also took responsibility for her disabled sister, Leticia, and is still Leticia’s legal guardian. Earlier this year, Martinez cited her responsibilities as caretaker as the reason she was not interested in joining the Romney ticket.
The four-term district attorney won the Governor’s Mansion in 2010, promising to get New Mexico’s fiscal house in order. But befitting a Western politician, she has also exhibited an independent streak: Martinez distanced herself from neighboring Arizona’s tough immigration law, pumped an additional $6 million into her state’s Medicaid program, and has said she likes parts of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“She has nuanced views that may be seen as straying from Republican ideology,” said New Mexico political blogger Joe Monahan. “That ideology is seen as a straitjacket on politicians like Martinez who see that they’re going to have to broaden their policies if they want to broaden their appeal.”
It’s unlikely that the lineup of Hispanic elected officials slated to speak in Tampa will be enough to attract large numbers of Hispanic voters to Romney this election cycle, but it could serve as an important cue to voters and to other Latinos eyeing runs for public office.
“The Republican Party is not changing fast enough to keep up with America’s changing demographics,” said Christine Sierra, a University of New Mexico political scientist. “Governor Martinez could be symbolically important to send the message that women, and women of color, can find a place of support in the Republican Party.”
This article appears in the August 29, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.