New Mexico House Democrats took only an hour Tuesday to elect Rep. Javier Martínez as their majority floor leader. They hope his rapid ascension will be a step toward recovery from a simmering scandal.
Martínez, 39, replaces Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who resigned from office 12 days ago under the cloud of a criminal investigation. The state attorney general’s staff has listed Williams Stapleton as a suspect in a corruption investigation involving the theft of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars from Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer.
“One of the first things we’ve got to do is rebuild the office. We’ve got to regain the trust,” Martínez said in an interview.
He defeated two colleagues, Reps. Liz Thomson and Miguel Garcia, on the first ballot of a closed-door Democratic caucus at the state Capitol. All three lawmakers represent districts in Albuquerque, as did Williams Stapleton.
Born in an El Paso barrio a few feet from the Mexican border, Martínez spent the first seven years of his life in Ciudad Juárez. He spoke no English when his Mexican-born father obtained a green card and moved the family to Albuquerque in search of better opportunities.
Young Javier started far behind most his classmates but proved to be a bright student. By fifth grade, he no longer needed to study English as a second language.
His mom and dad told him education was the ticket to success, a message he heeded. Martínez graduated from Highland High School, then received bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of New Mexico.
Politics had interested him at a young age, and he saw his opening in 2014. Longtime Rep. Rick Miera retired from the Legislature that year. Martínez ran for the open seat, winning the decisive Democratic primary with 78 percent of the vote.
But he went from landslide victor to underdog freshman overnight. Martínez’s triumph coincided with Republicans winning control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 62 years.
Democrats regained control of the House in the 2016 election, and Martínez competed against Williams Stapleton for majority leader. She had been in office for 22 years. He had been a House member for two. Williams Stapleton won the job.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Martínez’s election as majority leader should be seen as a sign of his party taking responsibility in a time of crisis.
“When troubles arise like we saw with the former leader, we take swift action,” Egolf said.
He credited Martínez with being a key player on important Democratic initiatives, many in education.
Martínez was a primary sponsor of the proposed state constitutional amendment to expand early childhood education and other school initiatives. It cleared the Legislature in the winter after 11 years of failure. Voters have the final say on whether to approve the amendment, which would fund the additional programs by tapping the state’s $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund.
Egolf credited Martínez with being a leader on other education bills. One added a billion dollars in funding to help comply with a court order to improve public schools. Another ended the state practice of intercepting and redistributing tens of millions of federal dollars intended for school districts on Native American lands.
Martínez said he agonized on whether to run for majority leader.
First, he said, there was the pain and sadness of seeing Williams Stapleton’s legislative career end badly. Then, Martínez said, he wondered if it was the right move for him, since he enjoyed chairing the Taxation and Revenue Committee.
“Put that one above the fold,” he said of the seeming incongruity of being energized by trying to improve the state’s cluttered tax code.
“It was a tough decision. As I reflected, I felt it was the right time for me,” Martínez said.
Though he’s a lawyer, he works as executive director of the Partnership for Community Action, an agency whose mission is to improve communities in Albuquerque’s South Valley and across New Mexico.
His House colleagues cheered for him after he won the election as quickly as was possible.
“It was clear from this vote that the caucus was united,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque.
Thomson early Tuesday predicted Martínez would defeat her and Garcia for majority leader. She said she hesitated a bit before declaring, fearing she might look like “I was dancing on Sheryl’s grave.”
By the time Thomson jumped in, she said, Martínez had lined up more than enough votes to win.
As Martínez prepared to leave the Capitol on Tuesday night, a colleague told him she expected big accomplishments from him.
“No pressure, huh?” he said.
Martínez has the job he wanted. He just never thought he would get it in the midst of scandal.