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)
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)
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.