State Sen. Richard Martinez has a defense attorney at his side. But indifference is his strongest ally as the criminal case against him trudges toward a courtroom.
Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, has the good fortune of representing the most apathetic district in New Mexico.
Other Democratic senators have drawn primary opponents. Martinez, the only member of his caucus with legal problems, looks like a sure bet to be reelected without opposition.
No Democrat has stepped up to challenge him, and the Republican Party is so feeble it doesn’t field legislative candidates in this part of New Mexico. Instead of being vulnerable, Martinez is riding the apathy wave toward his sixth four-year term.
His only adversary at this stage is the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting him on a charge of aggravated drunken driving.
Martinez drove his Mercedes SUV into the back of a Jeep in June, injuring himself and two people in the other vehicle. Española police officers smelled booze on the senator. He admitted he had been drinking alcohol, though he kept changing his story of how much and what kind.
Martinez first said he’d had one or two beers. Then he amended the total to as many as three beers. Soon after that, he said he drank three glasses of wine but no beer.
An officer arrested him while he proclaimed his innocence. He refused to take a breath-alcohol test, so the charge against him was enhanced to aggravated drunken driving.
It’s a petty misdemeanor, but a weighty allegation when the defendant chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Police video of Martinez’s glassy-eyed failures on field sobriety tests and his subsequent arrest should have been more than enough to end his political career.
Instead, he is unopposed in Senate District 5. It includes his political base in Rio Arriba County, as well as parts of Santa Fe, Sandoval and Los Alamos counties.
Though Martinez is likely to be reelected, majority Democrats in the Senate will still receive public pressure to oust him as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Every proposed law on penalties for drunken driving comes before that committee. And in the 30-day legislative session starting in January, the Judiciary Committee probably will consider a bill to legalize marijuana, a favored initiative of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Having Martinez preside over debate about legalizing another intoxicant would make Democrats squirm.
Senators have closed ranks and aren’t commenting on the criminal charge against Martinez. But majority Democrats have shown a willingness to demote a senator ensnared in controversy, especially with an election approaching.
They removed Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, from the position of majority whip before the 2018 primary election. At issue were lawsuits by three women who a decade earlier had accused Padilla of sexual harassment and creating a hostile workplace.
These allegations, which Padilla said were untrue, also drove him out of the race for lieutenant governor.
The city of Albuquerque, which had employed Padilla and his accusers, paid $149,000 to settle a lawsuit by two of the women. A jury awarded the third woman $1,200 for her counseling bills, and her lawyers received $101,000 for their expenses.
Martinez, 66, is scheduled to stand trial next month before a state district judge. He has spoken tersely about the drunken-driving charge, saying he will not resign from office if he’s convicted.
Martinez this year was one of eight Democratic senators who joined with all 16 Republicans to prevent the repeal of a 50-year-old anti-abortion law.
Their stand riled the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Challengers have emerged against four of the other Democrats who voted to keep the old anti-abortion statute on the books.
Those who have drawn opposition from within their party are Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City.
Except for Ramos, an incumbent by appointment, Martinez should have been weaker than the others. His embarrassing conduct captured on the police video would have ruined many politicians.
But apathy runs deep in Northern New Mexico. It can save a senator, even one who turns his car into a bullet.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.