The Man Who Discovered Susana Martinez Could Also Be Her Downfall

Jay McCleskey, an ingenious political operative in New Mexico, turned a county D.A. into the GOP’s Latina savior. But with him as her consigliere, she may never get that far.

Portait of Jay McCleskey at his office in Albuquerque, N.M.
Steven St John
Add to Briefcase
Daniel Libit
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Last Oc­to­ber, Har­vey Yates, the former chair­man of New Mex­ico’s Re­pub­lic­an Party, tried to stage an in­ter­ven­tion with Susana Mar­tinez, the gov­ernor he helped elect.

The 71-year-old oil­man from a wealthy south­ern New Mex­ico fam­ily had led the state GOP dur­ing Mar­tinez’s his­tor­ic 2010 elec­tion, donat­ing $25,000 to her cam­paign ef­fort through his com­pany. But over the next few years, he watched her polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion, which he saw as in­creas­ingly hack­ish, with deep­en­ing alarm. Then, last fall, when the gov­ernor wanted to hit up one of Yates’s cous­ins for a big cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion, she asked him to tag along for a meet­ing at a steak house not far from the Round­house, Santa Fe’s stuc­coed state Cap­it­ol build­ing.

Harvey Yates (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal) Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal

Sens­ing this as his best chance to speak his mind, Yates traveled here from his home in Al­buquerque, armed with a 10-page let­ter that laid out his com­plaints about her ad­min­is­tra­tion: It was tone-deaf, ex­clu­sion­ary, and un­ne­ces­sar­ily ruth­less, and was squan­der­ing a golden op­por­tun­ity to ef­fect­ively re­form state gov­ern­ment, as Mar­tinez had prom­ised. Demo­crats had been grip­ing about these things since Mar­tinez’s com­bat­ive first ses­sion with the Le­gis­lature, but in­creas­ingly, Yates was hear­ing sim­il­ar ac­counts from Re­pub­lic­ans, too. If Mar­tinez was to cor­rect her course, Yates thought, she would first have to put some day­light between her­self and her polit­ic­al ad­viser, whom many ac­cused of set­ting a di­vis­ive tone. “Not many voters re­mem­ber vot­ing for Jay Mc­Cle­s­key for gov­ernor,” Yates wrote in his let­ter. “There are many who hope that you with­draw the reins of power from his hands and lim­it his in­volve­ment to a prop­er polit­ic­al role while mak­ing it clear that you run the gov­ern­ment and he does not.” Har­vey Yates (Roberto E. Ro­s­ales/Al­buquerque Journ­al)

It may have seemed like an odd time to re­buke Mar­tinez. The na­tion’s first Lat­ina gov­ernor looks aw­fully like the fu­ture of her party. Demo­graph­ic­ally, she neut­ral­izes key Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­ages. She is re­garded as a canny and “wonk­ish” (The Eco­nom­ist) op­er­at­or, a self-pos­sessed prag­mat­ist coast­ing in a sea of wild-eyed ideo­logues. Con­ser­vat­ives cred­it her with trim­ming the state budget, lower­ing taxes, and im­ple­ment­ing school-re­form meas­ures; lib­er­als like that she ex­pan­ded Medi­caid and al­lowed a state-based health in­sur­ance ex­change. She has a 60-plus per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing and the in­side track to a second term next year. A typ­ic­al pro­file head­line, this one from New­s­week last May, pro­posed, “What New Mex­ico’s Gov­ernor Can Teach the GOP.” Re­pub­lic­ans reg­u­larly men­tion her as a fu­ture vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, if not something lofti­er. Mar­tinez was on Mitt Rom­ney’s veep short list last year, and she de­livered a widely praised prime-time speech at the Re­pub­lic­an con­ven­tion in Tampa about the im­port­ance of polit­ic­al cour­age.

But back home, some of her key al­lies were find­ing that cour­age in short sup­ply. They had be­gun to see Mar­tinez not as a fresh-faced tech­no­crat, but as a cal­low fig­ure who had placed far too much trust in a single polit­ic­al aide, the 39-year-old Mc­Cle­s­key, whom many here view as the “Karl Rove of New Mex­ico.” Yes, he dis­covered her and trans­formed her from a county dis­trict at­tor­ney in­to a na­tion­al force. But these Mar­tinez al­lies say that his mer­cen­ary, dog-eat-dog style of polit­ics now su­per­seded the act of gov­ern­ing, and that he had ef­fect­ively walled off any oth­er voices from prick­ing the gov­ernor’s eardrums, let alone her con­science. They tell a grow­ing num­ber of stor­ies about what they say is Mc­Cle­s­key’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­volve­ment in the state’s af­fairs. “Tra­di­tion­ally, it is in­cum­bent upon a seni­or pub­lic ser­vant to have trus­ted ad­visers and chiefs of staffs that give them the facts and provide ad­vice — and give them all of the facts in a truth­ful, forth­right, broad man­ner,” says Mark Murphy, one of the state’s biggest Re­pub­lic­an donors and the chief bank­roller of Mar­tinez’s 2010 primary cam­paign. “But, [ideally, these ad­visers] ul­ti­mately al­low that pub­lic of­fi­cial to make his or her own mind with re­gards to the fi­nal de­cision.”

The in­tra­party cri­ti­cism, many in­siders told me dur­ing ex­tens­ive con­ver­sa­tions, is some­what muted by a fear of re­pris­al from Mc­Cle­s­key and a de­sire not to harm Re­pub­lic­ans’ chances to win the state House for the first time since 1953. (Demo­crats cur­rently main­tain a four-seat ad­vant­age.) But Mc­Cle­s­key has seemed to prize au­thor­ity over unity, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to cam­paign money. Last month, for in­stance, Ari­zona Gov. Jan Brew­er was sched­uled to fly to Al­buquerque for a state-party fun­draiser. The host was Tom Tin­nin, a former Mar­tinez ap­pointee on the state’s Board of Fin­ance, who had resigned in protest two years ago over a con­tro­ver­sial casino/racetrack deal. An email ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al ap­pears to be part of an ef­fort by Mc­Cle­s­key to get the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation to con­vince Brew­er to can­cel. “He’s not a uniter, not some­body who tries to bring people to­geth­er,” says the cur­rent state GOP chair­man, John Billings­ley (who did not leak the email), in his most dir­ect pub­lic cri­ti­cism to date. Mc­Cle­s­key de­clined to com­ment dir­ectly on the in­cid­ent.

“As is the job of any polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, my role is not to be loved, but rather to be ef­fect­ive at win­ning cam­paigns and gar­ner­ing sup­port for the policies pur­sued by those who have been elec­ted,” Mc­Cle­s­key says. “I am proud of that re­cord of suc­cess, and the petty whin­ing, snip­ing, and re­sent­ment of mal­con­tents doesn’t both­er me.” He de­scribes frus­tra­tion with the ad­min­is­tra­tion this way: “Any lead­er who breaks the mold and chal­lenges the status quo, like Gov­ernor Mar­tinez does, will face cri­ti­cism, even from with­in her own party. In fact, the gov­ernor routinely talks in pub­lic about how after win­ning elec­tion, she was ad­vised by some Re­pub­lic­ans to ig­nore the prom­ises she made to the people of New Mex­ico…. Sim­il­arly, Gov­ernor Mar­tinez re­fuses to tol­er­ate in­com­pet­ence or dis­hon­esty, as some former cam­paign work­ers have dis­covered.” 

Every politi­cian has her share of de­fect­ors and in­tern­al crit­ics, but Susan­a­land these days is riv­en by a level of mis­giv­ing and dis­har­mony be­fit­ting a pub­lic ser­vant who has already crashed and burned, not one rid­ing high. At the start of this year, six of 22 gov­ernor-ap­poin­ted Cab­in­et sec­ret­ar­ies and 10 of the 21 ori­gin­al top staffers had already headed for the exits. The com­plaints against Mar­tinez aren’t the sort of pulling-the-strings nar­rat­ive some­times told by miso­gyn­ists who can’t handle a wo­man’s suc­cess. Wo­men and men across the state party who once held great hope for Mar­tinez are now air­ing their griev­ances to Na­tion­al Journ­al — partly, they say, to reach her con­science and partly to warn na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans of what bag­gage she might carry onto the na­tion­al stage. “It is not typ­ic­al that a can­did­ate, after they win an elec­tion, car­ries a polit­ic­al con­sult­ant with them in­to their ad­min­is­tra­tion the way Susana has,” says An­drea Goff, who served as the fin­ance dir­ect­or for Mar­tinez’s reelec­tion cam­paign and polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee, Susana PAC. “I think her ad­min­is­tra­tion has suffered be­cause the slash-and-burn tac­tics that make Jay an ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al con­sult­ant have hurt her staff’s abil­it­ies to be ef­fect­ive and re­spons­ive.”

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Mark Wilson AFP/Getty

Yates, the party’s pa­ter­fa­mili­as and Dutch uncle, had be­come a re­pos­it­ory for many of these frus­tra­tions, and fi­nally he had a chance to vent them with Mar­tinez. He would soon learn just how ser­i­ously the gov­ernor and her top aide took the cri­ti­cism. New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez (Mark Wilson/Getty Im­ages)

In 2001, Mc­Cle­s­key was the state GOP’s wun­der­kind ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. Even at 27, he was sharp enough to real­ize that, if his party wanted a fu­ture in the Land of En­chant­ment, it needed to deep­en its ap­peal to Lati­nos. So that year he con­vened a group of New Mex­ico Re­pub­lic­ans to dis­cuss His­pan­ic out­reach ef­forts, and he in­vited Mar­tinez, then the little-known dis­trict at­tor­ney of south­ern Doña Ana County. In­stead of pro­pos­ing a mes­saging cam­paign, she used the for­um to rail against a drug-de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion bill then be­ing ad­voc­ated by Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Gary John­son. “She gets up there and rips [John­son] and the state chair­man and says the way we at­tract His­pan­ics is, we don’t talk about leg­al­iz­ing heroine and co­caine,” Mc­Cle­s­key re­calls. “She al­most got me fired. It’s like: Who in­vited this wo­man?” Af­ter­wards, Mc­Cle­s­key asked Mar­tinez to run for of­fice, an of­fer he says she re­fused re­peatedly for al­most a dec­ade.

In the mean­time, Mc­Cle­s­key climbed the ranks. Kev­in Moomaw — the trans­form­a­tion­al Texas Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant who led the New Mex­ico Re­pub­lic­an Party in the 1990s be­fore re­turn­ing to the Lone Star State — trained him as an ad­viser. In 2002, Mc­Cle­s­key helmed the los­ing gubernat­ori­al bid of John Sanc­hez, an­oth­er His­pan­ic Re­pub­lic­an once thought to have na­tion­al po­ten­tial but who got beat up dur­ing the primary after it was dis­covered he had hired il­leg­al im­mig­rants for his roof­ing busi­ness. Bill Richard­son trounced him in the gen­er­al elec­tion. (Sanc­hez is now Mar­tinez’s lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor.) Two years later, Mc­Cle­s­key served on the vic­tori­ous 2004 Bush-Cheney New Mex­ico team, where he worked with a num­ber of rising GOP op­er­at­ives, in­clud­ing Danny Diaz, who even­tu­ally be­came the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. (Later, Mc­Cle­s­key hired Diaz to be the gov­ernor’s D.C.-based op­er­at­ive, a role Diaz con­tin­ues to play.)

Mc­Cle­s­key joined the Ari­zona-based Lin­coln Strategy Group in 2009, team­ing up with a con­tro­ver­sial Phoenix con­sult­ant named Nath­an Sproul. Like Sproul, Mc­Cle­s­key had ce­men­ted his repu­ta­tion as a polit­ic­al pu­gil­ist, scrap­ping with the state party and talk­ing about those who had crossed him as res­id­ents of his “ice box.” That same year, Mc­Cle­s­key served as the brains be­hind Re­pub­lic­an Al­buquerque May­or Richard Berry’s win­ning bid against a split Demo­crat­ic field.

By then, Mc­Cle­s­key was chan­ging Mar­tinez’s mind about run­ning. Only 33 per­cent of New Mex­ic­ans ap­proved of Richard­son, the scan­dal-plagued out­go­ing Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, and Re­pub­lic­ans had a real chance to take the of­fice. Mc­Cle­s­key, Mar­tinez, and their aides set about it in the sav­vi­est and most op­por­tun­ist­ic way pos­sible, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign in­siders. A former top aide who worked on the cam­paign’s early days says the planks and plat­forms were al­most en­tirely left to Mc­Cle­s­key and his poll­ster wife, Nicole, a part­ner at the Vir­gin­ia-based Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies. “Everything was poll-tested,” said the former top staffer, who left on good terms. “Everything from the primary to the gen­er­al; we used Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies a lot and Nicole a lot.” They had Mar­tinez run not as a policy wonk but as a re­former set on clean­ing up Richard­son’s mess. She pledged on the trail to be the “trans­par­ency gov­ernor.”

Among the things that most dis­tinctly bore Mc­Cle­s­key’s mark, say those fa­mil­i­ar with the cam­paign’s in­ner work­ings, was Mar­tinez’s hawk­ish and pop­u­list stance on il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion. Sev­er­al cam­paign sources say that Mc­Cle­s­key — per­haps mo­tiv­ated by his ex­per­i­ence with Sanc­hez and the il­leg­al roof­ers, they spec­u­late — was re­spons­ible for mak­ing the is­sue a pri­or­ity. Be­gin­ning in the 2010 primary, Mar­tinez’s most spe­cif­ic pro­pos­al was to re­peal a Richard­son law al­low­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants to ob­tain driver’s li­censes. She cast her primary op­pon­ent, Al­len Weh, as pro-am­nesty, be­cause he sup­por­ted George W. Bush’s im­mig­ra­tion-re­form plan. Emails from the time, ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al, show Mar­tinez to be plainly un­fa­mil­i­ar with a cent­ral as­pect of the law she was stump­ing loudly to re­peal. In one ex­change, from Nov. 24, 2009, she wrote to her ad­visers: “Aren’t we the ONLY state in the US that provides a NM drivers li­cense to il­leg­al ali­ens?”

An aide  replied, ex­plain­ing that New Mex­ico was in fact one of eight states with such a pro­vi­sion. Then Mc­Cle­s­key chimed in: “Voters are hugely op­posed to giv­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants driver li­censes … es­pe­cially Re­pub­lic­an primary voters and we should take ad­vant­age of every op­por­tun­ity to dis­cuss the is­sue.” Mar­tinez did, in spades. 

Yates says he and Mc­Cle­s­key began fall­ing out dur­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion, when the oil­man re­fused to send out mail­ers un­der the state party’s im­prim­at­ur ac­cus­ing the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, Di­ane Den­ish, Richard­son’s lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, of giv­ing driver’s li­censes to 40,000 il­leg­al im­mig­rants. Since Mar­tinez’s elec­tion, she and her le­gis­lat­ive al­lies have tried three times to re­peal the driver’s-li­cense bill. Each ef­fort failed.

Mc­Cle­s­key dis­putes the no­tion that he was re­spons­ible for sharpen­ing the cam­paign’s bor­der-se­cur­ity talons. “Gov­ernor Mar­tinez is her own per­son and was a pro­sec­utor on the bor­der for 25 years, which shaped her views on bor­der se­cur­ity and, more spe­cific­ally, her be­lief that we must re­peal the law that grants driver’s li­censes to il­leg­al im­mig­rants,” Mc­Cle­s­key says. The gov­ernor’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on her role in mak­ing bor­der se­cur­ity a cam­paign pri­or­ity.

Susana Mar­tinez for Gov­ernor ori­gin­ated as a small and lightly staffed un­der­dog cam­paign, and it wasn’t dif­fi­cult for Mc­Cle­s­key to keep hold of the reins. “He went every­where with her,” says the former top aide. Still, Mc­Cle­s­key says, Mar­tinez was mak­ing the big de­cisions. “Frankly, I think it is a bit sex­ist to sug­gest that the gov­ernor doesn’t make up her own mind,” he says. Mc­Cle­s­key at­trib­utes Re­pub­lic­an grumblings about his in­flu­ence to Mar­tinez’s re­fus­al to con­form to the “status quo.” But Mar­tinez her­self has not been shy in say­ing that she owes her polit­ic­al life to Mc­Cle­s­key. “I could not have won [the 2010] elec­tion without Jay be­ing my polit­ic­al con­sult­ant,” she told New Mex­ico polit­ic­al blog­ger Heath Haus­samen in 2011. “I knew what I wanted to do as gov­ernor, but I didn’t know how to get that mes­sage out statewide. He did.” 

After Mar­tinez eas­ily de­feated Den­ish (with 54 per­cent of the vote), she tapped former Rep. Heath­er Wilson to be her trans­ition chair­wo­man. But mul­tiple sources say she made it clear to her staff that Mc­Cle­s­key would be in charge. An­issa Ford, who was Mar­tinez’s per­son­al aide dur­ing the cam­paign but was not re­tained af­ter­ward, says Mar­tinez flatly told her dur­ing a din­ner after the elec­tion, “Jay is go­ing to be call­ing all the shots from be­hind the scenes.” An­oth­er per­son in the con­ver­sa­tion con­firmed Ford’s ac­count. The gov­ernor’s of­fice calls this ac­count “bogus” and says that Ford is un­re­li­able be­cause the FBI had in­vest­ig­ated her be­fore char­ging Jam­ie Es­trada, Mar­tinez’s former cam­paign man­ager, with in­ter­cept­ing the gov­ernor’s per­son­al emails.

The ar­range­ment with Mc­Cle­s­key made Wilson very un­com­fort­able, say sev­er­al know­ledge­able sources, a char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion she did not dis­pute when I asked her about it. “It is up to the gov­ernor to de­cide who she wants as ad­visers and how she wants to run her ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Wilson, now a col­lege pres­id­ent in South Dakota, says. “There is no ques­tion Jay is a very close ad­viser to the gov­ernor.” Oth­ers in­volved in the trans­ition team say they ul­ti­mately came to feel as if their vet­ting ef­forts for gubernat­ori­al ap­point­ments were just win­dow dress­ing for what Mc­Cle­s­key de­sired. A num­ber of mem­bers chosen for the gov­ernor’s Cab­in­et came as total sur­prises to the trans­ition com­mit­tees tasked with their se­lec­tions, in­siders say.

In­stead of join­ing the Mar­tinez ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mc­Cle­s­key left Lin­coln Strategy Group and hung his own shingle, Mc­Cle­s­key Me­dia Strategies. “There were ques­tions about why he didn’t be­come chief of staff,” says the former top aide. “I think he could con­trol more from out­side, in­stead of be­ing on the in­side. But it was very evid­ent that no mat­ter who was chief of staff, he was go­ing to be run­ning the show.”

This ar­range­ment also en­abled Mc­Cle­s­key to ink a raft of luc­rat­ive con­tracts. In ad­di­tion to main­tain­ing his un­of­fi­cial role as Mar­tinez’s polit­ic­al ad­viser, he also took con­trol of Susana PAC and a pro-Mar­tinez su­per PAC called Re­form New Mex­ico Now. Both polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions had been ad­vert­ised to donors as vehicles for pro­mot­ing Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ive can­did­ates and the gov­ernor’s agenda, but they seemed equally ef­fect­ive as profit cen­ters for Mc­Cle­s­key. Cam­paign fil­ings show that, since early 2011, Mc­Cle­s­key Me­dia Strategies has re­ceived reg­u­lar monthly pay­ments of either $10,700 or $13,375 from Susana PAC for “pro­fes­sion­al ser­vices.” These re­tain­ers es­sen­tially amoun­ted to a monthly salary for Mc­Cle­s­key and were re­mit­ted even when the polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee was do­ing very little in the way of polit­ic­al ac­tion. “Nor­mally, a con­sult­ant that far in [ad­vance] of an elec­tion wouldn’t get a re­tain­er,” says Goff, who has served as the top fun­draiser for GOP Rep. Steve Pearce and who raised money last year for Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Since April, Mc­Cle­s­key has also been re­ceiv­ing a $13,375 monthly con­sult­ing re­tain­er from Mar­tinez’s reelec­tion cam­paign.

An ana­lys­is of cam­paign fin­ance re­ports shows that, since Mar­tinez’s elec­tion, the two polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees have paid more than $850,000 in ex­pendit­ures to Mc­Cle­s­key Me­dia Strategies (which he at times lists un­der oth­er trade names) and Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies (where Mc­Cle­s­key’s wife is a part­ner). Mc­Cle­s­key says the setup is sim­il­ar to “vir­tu­ally every high-rank­ing elec­ted of­fi­cial in the coun­try.” He adds that the gov­ernor’s polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion ex­ists out­side of state gov­ern­ment and is in full com­pli­ance with cam­paign fin­ance laws. “To avoid con­flicts of in­terest, I do not lobby, nor do I so­li­cit or ac­cept gov­ern­ment con­tracts,” he says. “Fur­ther­more, I do not ac­cept polit­ic­al cli­ents in the state that are at all in con­flict with Gov­ernor Mar­tinez.” But skep­tics call this an es­pe­cially tangled web and point out that Mc­Cle­s­key has near-uni­lat­er­al con­trol over all the purses as­so­ci­ated with Mar­tinez’s name.

Oth­er moves by Mar­tinez’s polit­ic­al ma­chinery have seemed to make sense only in the con­text of Mc­Cle­s­key’s per­son­al en­rich­ment, sev­er­al close ob­serv­ers say. Yates ad­dressed one such ex­ample in his let­ter to Mar­tinez: Dur­ing the 2012 cycle, the gov­ernor and her polit­ic­al team frayed party nerves by wad­ing in­to a con­tested state Sen­ate primary between Re­pub­lic­ans Angie Spears and Pat Woods. Mar­tinez and her polit­ic­al ma­chinery lined up be­hind Spears in a bit­ter race. Al­though their can­did­ate lost, the bid wasn’t a com­plete de­feat for Mc­Cle­s­key, whose firm was paid $47,149 of the $56,465 she raised. (Mc­Cle­s­key de­clined to com­ment on the re­cord about this.)

There have also been un­re­solved ques­tions about Mc­Cle­s­key’s in­volve­ment — fin­an­cial or oth­er­wise — in a new 501(c)(4) group called New Mex­ico Com­petes, cre­ated earli­er this year to pro­mote con­ser­vat­ive causes in the state. En­tit­ies with this tax des­ig­na­tion, which de­notes a “so­cial wel­fare” or­gan­iz­a­tion, are not re­quired to dis­close donors or de­tail ex­pendit­ures, but they are barred by the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion from co­ordin­at­ing with politi­cians or their cam­paigns. Mc­Cle­s­key has pub­licly denied any in­volve­ment with the group, but sev­er­al sources say they’ve en­countered evid­ence to sug­gest oth­er­wise. Goff says that Mar­tinez, in a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion earli­er this year, spe­cific­ally told her that Mc­Cle­s­key was launch­ing it. (Through her spokes­man, En­rique Knell, Mar­tinez denied any in­volve­ment in the group.) And in early 2011, Mc­Cle­s­key sent an email to an­oth­er former Mar­tinez op­er­at­ive call­ing (c)(4)s the “vehicles we’ll use.” Sara Lister, the New Mex­ico Com­petes ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, was formerly in Mar­tinez’s Cab­in­et and has a long his­tory with Mc­Cle­s­key. Pat Ro­gers (the state GOP’s na­tion­al com­mit­tee­man) and Rich Beeson (the former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for Rom­ney’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign) are both on the board. Beeson worked with Mc­Cle­s­key at the RNC; Susana PAC and the gov­ernor’s cam­paign have routinely used the Min­nesota-based voter-con­tact firm FLS Con­nect, where Beeson was a part­ner.

Al­though Mc­Cle­s­key was not ac­tu­ally em­ployed in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mar­tinez’s of­fi­cial in­ner circle was staffed by a homegrown net­work of his loy­al­ists: Keith Gard­ner, the gov­ernor’s chief of staff, was a Mc­Cle­s­key cli­ent while he served in the state House; Scott Dar­nell, who began as Mar­tinez’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or and now serves as deputy chief of staff, has known Mc­Cle­s­key since their days on the Bush cam­paign; Dar­nell’s wife, Alex­is Valdez Dar­nell, was hired as the gov­ernor’s dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions; and Adam Feld­man, a Mc­Cle­s­key dis­ciple from Lin­coln Strategy, served for a time as dir­ect­or of boards and com­mis­sions.

Staffers say that, when the Le­gis­lature was in ses­sion, Mc­Cle­s­key was seen in the of­fice al­most every day, nearly holstered to the gov­ernor’s hip. “They were al­ways to­geth­er,” says an­oth­er former staffer. “You didn’t see her without him.” Goff, the cam­paign’s former chief fun­draiser, re­calls an in­cid­ent dur­ing last year’s ses­sion when she dis­covered that Mc­Cle­s­key was op­er­at­ing out of a hid­den, closet-like ante­cham­ber in­side the gov­ernor’s state­house suite. “Step in­to my of­fice,” Goff re­calls Mc­Cle­s­key boast­ing, as he re­vealed a small work­space con­tain­ing a desk and his laptop. He told her he reg­u­larly worked there, phys­ic­ally closer to the cen­ter of power than any of Mar­tinez’s state-paid aides. “Jay Mc­Cle­s­key is a val­ued polit­ic­al ad­viser to the gov­ernor who op­er­ates out­side of state gov­ern­ment, mean­ing he’s nev­er had an of­fice in the Round­house dur­ing the Mar­tinez ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Knell said in a state­ment. “In fact, [he] hasn’t been in the state Cap­it­ol in six months.”

But Mc­Cle­s­key’s prox­im­ity struck a large num­ber of close ob­serv­ers as a form of con­tain­ment, they say. In early 2011, Yates emailed the op­er­at­ive that he was “clois­ter­ing the gov­ernor.” Mc­Cle­s­key fired back, “I have NEV­ER at­temp­ted to shield her from cred­ible in­form­a­tion. If you ever asked her, she would tell you that I of­ten in­vite people with views op­posed to mine so she can eval­u­ate both sides and make an in­formed de­cision.” To Yates, Mc­Cle­s­key’s re­sponse alone be­trayed his ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tion­al powers: He was the one who de­term­ined what was cred­ible; he was the one is­su­ing in­vit­a­tions.

Sev­er­al in­siders also de­scribed how Mc­Cle­s­key mi­cro­man­aged the gov­ernor’s state-paid press team. An­oth­er former ju­ni­or staffer said that Mc­Cle­s­key per­son­ally vet­ted every in­di­vidu­al Face­book post and tweet from the gov­ernor’s of­fi­cial ac­counts. At the dir­ec­tion of Mc­Cle­s­key and Diaz, the staffer would send out a clip dossier each morn­ing to a war room of about 50 staffers and in­ter­ested parties, mak­ing sure to use private or cam­paign email ad­dresses, which are not sub­ject to the state’s pub­lic re­cord laws. “What I did was very polit­ic­al,” the former staffer, who quit the ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2011, said with re­gret. (Mc­Cle­s­key says that the clip dossier is done out of his of­fice and that the so­cial-me­dia ac­counts are man­aged by Mar­tinez’s polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions.)

Mc­Cle­s­key’s de­fend­ers ar­gue that while he de­serves cred­it for help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans win races in an in­creas­ingly blue state, he is also a vic­tim of that suc­cess. “I don’t know what’s go­ing on with the gov­ernor’s of­fice or Jay and the state party,” says state Rep. Nate Gentry, the Re­pub­lic­an House minor­ity whip, “but when people such as the gov­ernor come in very quickly, [oth­er] people are threatened by that — and some­times, un­for­tu­nately, it is people in your own party.”

In­deed, Mc­Cle­s­key has used his po­s­i­tion to zeal­ously pro­tect and pro­mote the gov­ernor — and very ef­fect­ively. Mar­tinez has in­sinu­ated her name in­to the top ech­el­on of na­tion­al GOP polit­ics while avoid­ing many of the tra­di­tion­al steps and risks a politi­cian must un­der­take to at­tract the spot­light. For in­stance, last month, Mar­tinez starred in a Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation ad cam­paign, “The Amer­ic­an Comeback,” along with a bold-name roster that in­cluded Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, Ohio’s John Kasich, South Car­o­lina’s Nikki Haley, and Louisi­ana’s Bobby Jin­dal. And yet, she hasn’t penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journ­al or The Wash­ing­ton Post, nor made a single ap­pear­ance on the Sunday show cir­cuit. “I think she might need some prep be­fore she gets to that level,” the former top aide says. Sev­er­al people who worked closely with­both ar­gue that this re­flects Mc­Cle­s­key’s lack of faith that Mar­tinez can handle un­scrip­ted en­vir­on­ments. They un­com­fort­ably re­mem­ber an in­ter­view Mar­tinez gave to Lat­ina magazine, a week after her elec­tion, in which this Lat­ina Re­pub­lic­an im­mig­ra­tion hawk con­fessed to not re­mem­ber­ing what the Dream Act was. (The pro­vi­sion, leg­al­iz­ing the minor chil­dren of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, was a fa­vor­ite Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­pos­al that Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans had fili­bustered just a month earli­er.)

Mc­Cle­s­key says that Mar­tinez has shunned na­tion­al tele­vi­sion in­ter­views out of a “very con­scious de­cision” to keep her fo­cus on New Mex­ico. (Still, she fre­quently leaves the state for fun­draisers and Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al pow­wows. In just one week last month, Mar­tinez traveled to four states for polit­ic­al en­gage­ments.) In this way and oth­ers, Mar­tinez seems to be­ne­fit from be­ing all the way out in New Mex­ico, where she can host a friendly vis­it from Greta Van Suster­en or People magazine but main­tain a safe dis­tance from the oth­er, less po­lite coastal in­tru­sions.

While ad­mir­ing his tac­tic­al skills, a num­ber of New Mex­ico’s good-gov­ern­ment con­ser­vat­ives say their most press­ing con­cern is that Mc­Cle­s­key has pushed polit­ic­al af­fairs in­to corners that neither they, nor he, should oc­cupy. They point to a luc­rat­ive state casino lease ap­proved in 2011.

In late 2010, just be­fore Mar­tinez as­sumed of­fice, the New Mex­ico State Fair Com­mis­sion — an in­de­pend­ent, gov­ernor-ap­poin­ted board — de­clined to rub­ber-stamp a Richard­son-era no-bid con­tract award­ing a long-term gambling lease to the Downs, a racetrack and casino fa­cil­ity in Al­buquerque. Mar­tinez ap­poin­ted sev­er­al new com­mis­sion­ers who wanted a com­pet­it­ive ap­proach, and they called for new bids. But be­hind the scenes, of­fi­cials from the gov­ernor’s of­fice coached the Downs about how to get through the pro­cure­ment pro­cess, ac­cord­ing to leaked emails ob­tained by a Demo­crat­ic oppo re­search­er and the Santa Fe Re­port­er. The mes­sages also showed that Mc­Cle­s­key was reg­u­larly copied on casino-re­lated mes­sages between Downs agents and state of­fi­cials.

One of the Downs’ own­ers, Louisi­ana busi­ness­man Bill Wind­ham, is a ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an donor who had already con­trib­uted thou­sands of dol­lars to Susana PAC. The Downs had also hired Ro­gers, the state Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tee­man, and Dar­ren White, a former sher­iff and failed con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate — two close Mc­Cle­s­key as­so­ci­ates. One of Mar­tinez’s own ap­pointees on the State Fair Com­mis­sion, Char­lotte Rode, says that the gov­ernor’s of­fice tried to rig the bid­ding pro­cess in fa­vor of the Downs.

Fi­nally, in Au­gust 2011, the Downs sub­mit­ted its pro­pos­al for a new 25-year racetrack lease. The State Fair Com­mis­sion was sched­uled to vote on it that Novem­ber, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pec­ted it to pass, in­siders say. But at the el­ev­enth hour, sev­er­al com­mis­sion­ers balked, com­plain­ing that the pro­cess seemed rushed and weighted. One of the four hol­d­outs was Buster Goff, An­drea’s fath­er-in-law.

The next morn­ing, An­drea Goff re­ceived a text mes­sage from Mc­Cle­s­key: “Buster screwed us…. He was sup­posed to pass it.” Over a series of texts, Mc­Cle­s­key tries to con­vince Goff why her fath­er-in-law should have awar­ded the deal to the Downs. Among Mc­Cle­s­key’s con­cerns: a hol­dup would turn Wind­ham, a Mar­tinez donor, in­to a “piñata.” An­drea Goff said it was clear from the con­ver­sa­tion what Mc­Cle­s­key wanted: She should con­vince Buster to fall in line. Here, as she saw it, was a polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive in­volving him­self in state busi­ness, try­ing to in­flu­ence the vote by ca­jol­ing his em­ploy­ee. She says the ex­per­i­ence left her frightened. Du­ti­fully, she brought up the vote with Buster, but she says she op­ted not to try to sway him. Mc­Cle­s­key de­clined to com­ment for the re­cord about the ex­change.

After a few more weeks of hag­gling, the com­mis­sion fi­nally voted 4-3 to pass the pro­pos­al and give the lease to the Downs; Buster Goff cast the de­cis­ive “yea” after he had more time to un­der­stand the deal, he says. “I just needed more cla­ri­fic­a­tion on what was hap­pen­ing and what the deal was,” he adds. “Some­times you felt like it was [be­ing] pushed through, and I just wanted to slow it down.” He said he didn’t re­call any spe­cif­ic con­ver­sa­tion at the time with An­drea Goff about Mc­Cle­s­key.

Months later, in March 2012, Mc­Cle­s­key texted An­drea Goff mus­ing wheth­er they should “run Wind­ham’s [money] through a dif­fer­ent pac” be­cause, with Susana PAC, Wind­ham could be clearly linked to the gov­ernor even while he had busi­ness with the state. “There are of­ten times we de­cline con­tri­bu­tions, and that was the case in March of 2012,” Mc­Cle­s­key says. “And the re­cord is clear that Mr. Wind­ham made no con­tri­bu­tion to any Mar­tinez-re­lated polit­ic­al com­mit­tee since the lease is­sue was put out for [a re­quest for pro­cure­ment] in 2011, in­clud­ing Re­form New Mex­ico Now.” He says the ac­cus­a­tions of im­pro­pri­ety sur­round­ing the Downs are “tired and fic­tion­al, and have been re­peatedly and com­pletely dis­cred­ited.”

But these epis­odes, Goff says, were just a few in a string of dis­turb­ing en­coun­ters she had work­ing with Mc­Cle­s­key. She thought the su­per PAC Re­form New Mex­ico Now was a “shady” op­er­a­tion and told him she didn’t want to draw a salary from it. Then, via text mes­sages ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al, he in­vited her to cre­ate a fic­ti­tious name for her busi­ness through which he could pay her for fun­drais­ing. Fail­ing that, he wrote, he could  pay her dir­ectly out of his pock­et so  she wouldn’t ap­pear on Re­form’s cam­paign fin­ance fil­ings. “I will pay you from me … just make you a sub­con­tract­or,” he wrote. “That way you won’t ap­pear on re­port. Since I know you’re just be­ing a big chick­en. ;) U should [cre­ate] a [do­ing-busi­ness-as com­pany] or 2.” Pressed about this, Mc­Cle­s­key con­tends that he was try­ing to keep Goff on the up-and-up by not pay­ing her out of the reelec­tion cam­paign — a claim Goff calls non­sensic­al, be­cause she had raised sig­ni­fic­ant money for the reelec­tion cam­paign.

In June 2012, Goff resigned from her jobs with both the cam­paign and Susana PAC. “I left be­cause I was un­com­fort­able with the things go­ing on in the cam­paign,” she says. “And I left be­cause I knew if I didn’t leave, the things [Mc­Cle­s­key] would ask me to do would be more and more egre­gious.”

This spring, Goff says, the FBI asked her to dis­cuss Mc­Cle­s­key. She says she and her at­tor­ney met with an agent from the bur­eau’s polit­ic­al-cor­rup­tion unit. “The gen­er­al nature [of the FBI’s ques­tions] were the day-to-day op­er­a­tions at Mc­Cle­s­key’s of­fices with re­gards to the dif­fer­ent cam­paign ac­counts,” she says. Among the ma­ter­i­als she handed over to the feds, she says, was the bom­bard­ment of text mes­sages Mc­Cle­s­key sent about her fath­er-in-law and the com­mis­sion’s vote. “An­drea Goff is a dis­gruntled former con­sult­ant who is no longer af­fil­i­ated with the gov­ernor, and her wild-eyed ac­cus­a­tions have no cred­ib­il­ity,” Knell, Mar­tinez’s spokes­man, said in a state­ment. Nev­er­the­less, even after she quit on her own terms, ac­cord­ing to texts she shared with me, Mc­Cle­s­key wrote that the cam­paign still con­sidered Goff “our fun­draiser.”

Rode, the com­mis­sion­er who calls the Downs deal im­prop­er, has also said pub­licly that she was in­ter­viewed by the FBI about the bid­ding pro­cess, al­though not spe­cific­ally about Mc­Cle­s­key. Cit­ing stand­ard policy, the FBI and the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Al­buquerque de­clined to com­ment on wheth­er Mc­Cle­s­key is un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion. Mar­tinez told me in Au­gust that she had not been con­tac­ted by the FBI about the casino lease.

Demo­crats who hoped the Downs deal would fire­ball in­to a full-fledged scan­dal have been dis­ap­poin­ted. For now, the con­tro­versy has pro­duced no in­dict­ments, and without a ser­i­ous Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger op­pos­ing her, Mar­tinez looks primed for reelec­tion. But the gov­ernor’s at­tach­ment to Mc­Cle­s­key con­tin­ues to feed in­to the cyn­icism about money in polit­ics that an­im­ates Iowa at­tack ads, GOP de­bate talk­ing points, and watch­dog in­vest­ig­a­tions.

An­oth­er big Mar­tinez donor, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity be­cause he re­mains in close con­tact with the gov­ernor, says he has tried on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions to ad­vise Mar­tinez to ex­pand her kit­chen cab­in­et. “She just doesn’t have a large circle of friends, and Jay is an ag­gress­ive tear-them-down-be­fore-they-have-time-to-state-their-case type,” the donor says. “We wanted Susana. She was a pro­sec­utor. One of the reas­ons I sup­por­ted her strongly was that she doesn’t put up with this. She is a right-and-wrong kind of per­son. And I am not say­ing that she did any­thing il­leg­al, but there is right and wrong. And I guess it has evolved to: Then there is Jay.”

As for Yates and his let­ter, Mar­tinez ex­tin­guished his hope for a mid­course cor­rec­tion just a few hours after he handed her the 10-page rap sheet. He had asked her to keep it between the two of them, but upon re­turn­ing home that night, he found an email from Mc­Cle­s­key in his in­box. Yates had writ­ten that, among oth­er sins, Mc­Cle­s­key took in the li­on’s share from Susana PAC’s ex­pendit­ures; Mc­Cle­s­key ri­diculed him for find­ing this “shock­ing.” So much for that, Yates thought. 

In­formed that Yates had spoken to Na­tion­al Journ­al for this story, Mc­Cle­s­key emailed: “Har­vey Yates is a wealthy Re­pub­lic­an donor who ap­par­ently be­lieves that money buys in­flu­ence in polit­ics. That’s just not the case in the Mar­tinez Ad­min­is­tra­tion, as Yates has dis­covered to his ex­treme dis­pleas­ure.”

As Mar­tinez’s first term comes to a close, her star con­tin­ues to as­cend, as does re­newed dis­cus­sion that she may be­long on a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial tick­et — a pro­spect, sources say, that trans­fixes Mc­Cle­s­key more than Mar­tinez, who has pub­licly main­tained her dis­in­terest in 2016. If the op­por­tun­ity arose, could Mc­Cle­s­key, the in­geni­ous force be­hind her rise, change her mind? He’s done it be­fore.

Earli­er this year, Time named Mar­tinez to its list of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial people in the world. The en­co­mi­um read: “If she is reelec­ted in 2014, her repu­ta­tion as a re­form-minded con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an could grow even more in a second term.” One shouldn’t doubt these words, par­tic­u­larly giv­en the source, someone with an eye for pres­id­en­tial tal­ent: Karl Rove.

Daniel Lib­it is a Chica­go-based writer who has pre­vi­ously worked for Politico and The Daily.

A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story said that, in an in­ter­view with Lat­ina magazine, Gov. Mar­tinez couldn’t identi­fy the Dream Act; it is more ac­cur­ate to say she couldn’t re­mem­ber what it was.


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