New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez made history in 2010 when she became the first Latina to be elected governor.
Now, after just two years in office, Martinez has become one of the nation’s most well-liked governors and is a rising star in the Republican Party.
She had an overall favorable rating of 60 percent, according to a Rasmussen poll released in February. A similar poll released in February found that among Democrats and Latinos, she enjoys an approval rating that tops 50 percent.
“I’m not sure there’s another governor with approval ratings that high,” Mark Knoop, the executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico, told VOXXI.
With such high approval ratings, it is no surprise that her name had been rumored to be on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s list of potential vice presidential picks. It is also no surprise that she has been invited to join a few other new Latino faces who will speak at the Republican National Convention scheduled to begin Aug. 27. Martinez will deliver remarks Tuesday, Aug. 28, right before the night’s keynote address by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Many believe it is Martinez’s humble upbringing that has attracted people to support her. Her paternal grandparents emigrated from Mexico to the United States in the early 1900s. Both of her parents are of Mexican decent.
She and her sister, Lettie, who has cerebral palsy, grew up learning to speak English and Spanish in a household of Democrats in El Paso, Texas. Their mother passed away in 2006. Since then, Martinez and her husband, Chuck Franco, have been Lettie’s primary caretakers. The couple has never had any children.
After graduating from law school, Martinez began working as a prosecutor in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It wasn’t until she decided to run for district attorney in the southern New Mexico county of Doña Ana in 1995 that she switched over to the Republican Party.
Knoop said Martinez’s 14 years as district attorney is what attracted many voters who for years had been hearing about corruption allegations against Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor.
“Everyone here, regardless of demographic, was sick of the corruption in New Mexico, and she’s done a great job at attacking that,” he said.
Knoop also praised Martinez’s support for tax reforms that attract businesses and made New Mexico more competitive. On education, he said the governor has been successful in assuring that teachers don’t let third graders go on to fourth grade until they’ve learned to read. To assist with that, she sold the state-owned jet in August 2011 for $2.5 million and used some of the money to buy books for schools.
Read related: Gov. Susana Martinez to speak at GOP National Convention
But while the Mexican American governor has gained much popularity, there’s also a large number of Latinos who do not support her. According to the Rasmussen poll released in February, 33 percent of Latino voters in New Mexico “strongly disapprove” of her performance as governor.
Javier Gonzales, chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said initially Latinos were excited to see Martinez become the first Latina governor and thought she could be a voice for the Latino community.
“There was hope that she was going to do some of the things that she had promised when she came into office,” Gonzales told VOXXI. “Unfortunately, she’s done everything but be a governor who advocates for issues that are critical to Hispanics here in New Mexico.”
He said Martinez has become “a PR person for the national Republican Party” and has chosen to advocate for “very divisive issues.”
One of the most troubling issues for Latinos in New Mexico is her opposition to a state law that currently allows undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. Only two other states have similar laws: Washington and Utah. Martinez has pushed to do away with the law, saying undocumented immigrants come from different states just to get the driver’s licenses, which prompt concerns about public safety.
Gonzales also noted that during her run for office, Martinez promised to reform education, an issue highly important to Latinos. He said the governor has spent more time reading to kids than actually proposing solutions that would help students read at the level they’re supposed to. She also hasn’t done much to address the achievement gap among Latino students, he told VOXXI.
On the issue of immigration, the Republican governor supports a comprehensive immigration reform that would, among other things, increase border security, deport those with criminal backgrounds and create a guest-worker program.
Martinez also opposes Romney’s “self-deportation” plan, the idea that tough immigration laws will encourage undocumented immigrants to leave the country. She told Newsweek Magazine in May that “Hispanics have been alienated” by Romney’s campaign and encouraged the presidential candidate to have “a sincere conversation” on immigration.
In February 2011, after Martinez said she did not want an Arizona-style immigration law for New Mexico, she issued an executive order directing state law enforcement to inquire about a person’s immigration status during arrests.
Though Gonzales acknowledged the governor supports an immigration reform, he criticized Martinez saying “she doesn’t actually do much” to advocate for an immigration reform at the federal level. He added that she has not spoken out against tough immigration laws and policies, such as those in Arizona and Alabama, which he said hurt Latino communities.
“She has been incredibly silent on those issues when she could’ve been a national voice of reason, a national voice of tolerance and certainly a national voice for a bipartisan approach to addressing immigration policy in our country, and she has chosen not to,” he said.