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.

Steven St John
Daniel Libit
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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.

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)

“Not many voters re­mem­ber vot­ing for Jay Mc­Cle­s­key for gov­ernor. … With­draw the reins of power from his hands.”

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.”

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)

THE AS­CENT

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.

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.

POWER CEN­TER 

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.

OUT­SIDE IN­FLU­ENCE 

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.”

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.

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.

MONEY JUNGLE

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.

“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.”

NOT GO­ING ANY­WHERE (Tom Wil­li­ams/CQ Roll Call)

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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