Governor’s bipartisan portrayal in national media riles some state Democrats

Martinez addresses a national audience at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012. J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

Since her trip to New Jersey to campaign for Gov. Chris Christie last week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has received a lot of national press, with many reports describing her as a “blue state” governor who knows how to reach across the aisle and work with a Democratic Legislature.

“Like [Christie], Martinez is young moderate in a blue-leaning state who has worked with a Democratic legislature …” said a Christian Science Monitor article Wednesday about Christie’s landslide re-election victory Tuesday.

“She has worked closely with a legislature held by Democrats,” noted a story last week in Business Insider.

This sort of press has been following Martinez for years, encouraged by the governor and her political team.

An August 2011 story in Politico under the headline “Some govs succeed with softer touch,” spotlighted Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a fellow Republican. Soon after her election, Martinez “made a point of building relationships with the Democrats who controlled the Legislature in a series of private meetings and outreach sessions,” the story said.

But in New Mexico, some wonder whether the governor portrayed in the national media is the same Susana Martinez they know. At the least, they paint a picture less rosy than the ones published outside the state extolling her bipartisan success.

There have been pieces of legislation that Martinez was able to pass with the cooperation of Democrats. A recent example is the tax-cut deal voted on in the final moments of this year’s legislative session, which was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House and the Senate.

But there also have been bruising legislative fights in which, Democrats say, Martinez has shown little if any willingness to compromise. And the harsh attack ads and mailers Martinez ran against some Democrats during the 2012 election still are fresh on the minds of lawmakers.

The “works-well-with-Democrats” theme is a talking point that Martinez herself has cultivated. With voters around the country getting increasingly fed up with partisan gridlock in Congress, the image of a comprising pragmatist is an appealing one for a politician to try to project.

In her speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last year, Martinez drew applause when she spoke about a projected budget deficit at the outset of her administration in 2011, despite rounds of belt-tightening by the previous Democratic governor and the Legislature amid the economic recession. “Our legislature is controlled by Democrats,” Martinez told the convention audience. “We don’t always agree, but we came together in a bipartisan manner and turned that deficit into a surplus. And we did it without raising taxes.”

Around the same time, Martinez’s political action committee sent pro-Martinez mailers to voters touting an anti-corruption bill that passed the Legislature in 2012 — which indeed had sponsors from both parties. The mailers quoted the governor as saying, “Ending corruption is not a partisan issue. In New Mexico, Republicans and Democrats are showing we can work together.”

But shortly before that, another Martinez PAC was running TV spots and sending mailers accusing the two top Democrats in the Senate of being soft on those who kill children because of a vote on a 2005 crime bill.

Both Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen and former Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings of Roswell were Martinez’s biggest election targets last year. Sanchez survived, while Jennings, who was one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, was defeated by Roswell Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle.

Both Sanchez and Jennings last week scoffed at the idea that Martinez works well with Democrats in the Roundhouse.

“It’s her way or the highway,” Jennings said, adding that while Martinez talks about bipartisanship, “She’s got her [political] machine going all the time. She acts like she’s lily white, but it’s just not true.”

“There’s a few things where she worked with the Legislature, but they’re few and far between,” said Sanchez, who frequently has been singled out for criticism by Martinez.

Specifically, Sanchez mentioned the shake-up of the state’s behavioral health system, in which Martinez’s Human Services Department suspended Medicaid payments for more than a dozen mental health providers under investigation for possible fraud. The department has insisted it had no other choice under the law. But many Democratic legislators have been fiercely critical of the move, saying it has affected the care of mental health patients.

Sanchez also listed education reform as an example of an issue in which Martinez has refused to compromise. “We’ve sent her good education reform bills that she vetoed,” he said.

An example is a 2013 bill sponsored by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, which would have established a council to revamp the current system of grading schools.

The system, which passed in 2011, was an example of one of Martinez’s bipartisan successes. It was a key component of her education-reform package that many Democrats supported.

However, the other main education bill Martinez has pushed for — one that would retain students who can’t read by the end of third grade — has stalled in the Legislature every session since Martinez became governor.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s choice to lead the Public Education Department, Hanna Skandera, has become a major partisan bone of contention between Martinez and Senate Democrats, who have refused to vote on her confirmation, even though she had a gruelling hearing last year in the Senate Rules Committee that lasted for several days without a vote. (Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez said recently that Skandera will get a vote next year.)

Probably the most divisive issue in state government in recent years is Martinez’s fight to repeal a 2003 law that allows the state to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who are living in the country illegally. Martinez’s bills passed the House during her first two sessions but were effectively killed in the Senate.

Martinez has said she has offered compromises on the issues. In her first session, she ditched her original idea of taking current licenses away from those living in the country illegally. Last year, the legislation she backed would have provided temporary licenses to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and fall under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama deferring deportation.

But Democrats have complained that Martinez has refused to consider their compromise bills, which would have still allowed licenses for immigrants without legal status, but would have required them to be fingerprinted, face more frequent renewals and stronger penalties against fraud.

In terms of keeping lines of communication open with Democrats, some veteran lawmakers acknowledge that Martinez has made a good effort.

“I can’t complain about access,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a conservative Democrat from Deming who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday. Martinez and her staff, Smith said, always have had an open-door policy.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, a Santa Fe Democrat who co-chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, said Wednesday that while he frequently disagrees with Martinez, “To the extent that we meet, talk and plan, I’m comfortable.”

But Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, qualified her answer. Asked if Martinez was doing a good job working with Democrats in the Legislature, Papen said, “At times, yes.”

She said she’s known Martinez, who also comes from Las Cruces, for years and has enjoyed a friendly relationship. “I haven’t had a problem with her,” Papen said. “But some [legislators] have had a hard time getting in to talk to her one-on-one.”

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said Wednesday she hasn’t had much close communication with Martinez. “I don’t think there’s nearly enough communication between the Legislature and the governor,” she said. “An effort should be made by both sides for better communication.”

How do newer lawmakers feel about it? Freshman Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, a progressive, said he’s had only one face-to-face meeting with Martinez. “We had a short conversation about a bill,” he said. “She was quite gracious, but she didn’t agree with my amendments.”

Candelaria, using the same phrase as Jennings, said Martinez sometimes displays a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude and said she’s too quick to go into “attack mode” against those who disagree with her.

Contact Steve Terrell at Read his political blog at

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