Upstart candidate Susan Herrera made one career politician unhappy last year. She unseated state Rep. Debbie Rodella, who had been in office for 26 years.
Many of Herrera’s constituents in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties want her to replicate the feat.
They are asking her to challenge 19-year state Sen. Richard Martinez, who is charged with aggravated drunken driving.
“I’m thinking about it, but I haven’t decided,” Herrera, D-Embudo, said in an interview. “Nobody’s happy with Richard’s predicament.”
Martinez, D-Española, did not respond to requests for an interview.
He has kept a low profile since driving his SUV into the back of a Jeep on June 28. Police officers smelled alcohol on him.
The senator admitted he had been drinking and fared badly on sobriety tests. He refused to take a breath-alcohol test.
Martinez’s reelection to a sixth term in 2020 seemed likely until the crash. He changed that in one night.
As if drinking and driving weren’t bad enough, Martinez tried to talk his way out of trouble.
Acting incredulous, he assumed the role of a wrongly accused senator when an Española police officer told him he was under arrest.
“For what?” Martinez said, though he knew the answer all too well.
“Why?” he persisted. “Are you serious?”
The officer held his ground. Soon the question will be whether Martinez, 66, can hold his seat.
At a glance, Herrera, 71, appears to be the most serious threat to Martinez’s reelection, assuming he forges ahead despite his legal troubles.
“My phone’s been pretty busy,” Herrera said of people calling to ask if she will oppose Martinez in the Democratic primary election in June 2020
But this decision won’t be simple for Herrera. She has more to consider than whether she should launch a campaign for the Senate.
Hers is a domino problem. Herrera says she doesn’t want to challenge Martinez if that creates an opening for Rodella to recapture her old seat in the House of Representatives.
Herrera campaigned eight to 12 hours a day, asking primary voters to elect her because Rodella was out of step with them. Herrera’s message was that she would be more responsive and effective.
The liberal wing of the Democratic Party had tired of Rodella long ago. On several occasions, she had sided with Republicans on high-profile legislation.
For instance, Rodella joined with the rival party in 2017 to block a bill for automatic voter registration, even though New Mexico had one of the lower levels of voter turnout in the country.
Rodella in 2013 voted with Republicans to kill a bill for same-sex marriage. Judges ruled a few months later that same-sex unions were legal under the New Mexico Constitution.
Herrera might stay put for a simple reason. Finding candidates for the Legislature can be difficult. New Mexico lawmakers do not receive a base salary, a system that shuts out many people in the private workforce. Retirees and public employees are better positioned to run.
Still, the same groups that worked to defeat Rodella might line up against Martinez.
He was one of eight Democratic senators last winter who helped Republicans keep a 50-year-old anti-abortion law on the books. This vote alone might have been enough for the liberal faction of the Democratic Party to find someone to challenge him.
Herrera was part of the House majority that voted to repeal the anti-abortion statute.
Other legislative history could work against Martinez. In bills on crime and punishment, he often said people needed to be held responsible for their actions.
Martinez supported a measure in 2016 that increased penalties for chronic drunken drivers. And in 2009 he was one of just three Democrats in the Senate who voted to keep the death penalty. A majority of the Legislature disagreed, repealing capital punishment.
It’s also possible that his voting record won’t matter nearly as much as his response to the charges against him.
Countless voters have watched the video of Martinez eyeing the investigating officer and asking, “Are you serious?”
An appropriate response would have been: “Deadly.”
That was what Martinez could have been. Somewhere deep down, the senator who advocated personal responsibility probably knows it, too.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.