As Martinez exits, a look at those who have served in her Cabinet

December 26, 2018

One became a pastor.

One is editing an online education publication.

One died in a car wreck while running her department.

One has a top staff job in Congress.

At least four have moved out of state.

Another is awaiting trial on corruption charges.

That’s what’s become of some of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet secretaries — men and women who have worked for her at various points during the past eight years.

As Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, begins the process of naming Cabinet members who will be the vanguard of her incoming administration, those who are are on their way out — or left a long time ago — are left to ponder their time during the eight-year Martinez era.

For some, their tenures were brief. Martinez’s first choice to run the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department was former astronaut and onetime U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt. He withdrew his nomination and left the department in less than two months, before the state Senate had a chance to confirm his appointment. He said he didn’t want to turn over personal information to a private detective hired by the Senate Rules Committee to vet incoming Cabinet secretaries.

The first Martinez-appointed secretary of Corrections, Lupe Martinez (no relation to the governor) was forced out after less than nine months following an incident in which her live-in boyfriend fired a gun on state prison grounds.

Still, others stayed on much longer, compiling stories of political survival, and in a few cases, thriving.

Only one of Gov. Martinez’s original Cabinet picks — Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales — is still running the department she was chosen for eight years ago. How did she survive all those years?

“The department is very critical to the identification of the state,” she said. “I feel very passionate about it.” adding she was aided by the leadership and the workforce of the department, which she described as among the most “highly educated and highly qualified” in all of state government.

Another original, Monique Jacobson, also has been in Martinez’s Cabinet for eight years. She was the Department of Tourism secretary during Martinez’s first term, then went to run the long-troubled Children, Youth & Families Department during Martinez’s second term.

“I believed wholeheartedly in what I was doing,” she said in a recent interview.

In many ways, the two positions can be seen as a yin and yang of state government.

In the Tourism Department, Jacobson said, “I got to celebrate all of what’s beautiful and wonderful about this state and tell others all about those wonderful things. Moving over to CYFD, the job was much more intense and more difficult. I got to see firsthand some of the most horrific crimes the state has known.”

But Jacobson insisted she’s seen much beauty in her time at Children, Youth and Families.

“I’ve met the most beautiful, creative people,” she said. “I’ve seen the most beautiful smiles on children taken out of unsafe homes.”

Three other Cabinet secretaries lasted more than seven years: Ed Burckle of General Services, who resigned in April; Celina Bussey of Workforce Solutions, who stepped down in June and Darryl Ackley of the Department of Information Technology, who resigned in August.

Like most governors, Martinez appointed several new Cabinet officials around the time her second term began. Many of these served until the end, including Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron, Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest and Jack Fox of Veterans Services.

Most of Martinez’s Cabinet kept their heads low and most of them avoided major controversy through the years.

A few of them seemed to court controversy.

There was Hanna Skandera, who headed the Public Education Department for more than six years. Skandera had no classroom experience but had worked in Florida as a top education staffer for Gov. Jeb Bush. An enthusiastic proponent of student testing, charter schools and Martinez’s controversial education proposals — such as mandatory retention for third-graders who couldn’t read at grade level — Skandera quickly ran afoul of teacher unions as well as Democrats in the Legislature. It took five years for the Senate to confirm her.

Another Martinez Cabinet secretary, Sidonie Squier, had an even testier relationship with lawmakers at times. She famously stormed out of an interim committee meeting at which Democratic legislators blasted her for withholding Medicaid payments for 15 mental-health providers for alleged fraud. (Eventually all of those were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but not before several went broke.) Squier got national attention when she was quoted saying there has never been “any significant evidence of hunger in New Mexico,” though the state remains one of the poorest states in the nation.

Squier has since moved to Colorado Springs, where she sits on the board of a local animal shelter.

That may be a more restful coda than the problems that face former Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla, who recently pleaded not guilty to seven corruption charges. She is accused of embezzling more than $25,000 from one of her accounting clients.

Personalities aside, some of the Cabinet departments seemed to chew up and spit out several secretaries during the Martinez era.

Two departments — Aging & Long Term Care and Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources — both went through four secretaries. Seven others — Finance & Administration, Health, Public Safety, Corrections, Environment, Homeland Security and Indian Affairs — each went through three.

Such turnover is not uncommon, however. When Democrat Toney Anaya was governor in the 1980s, he went through six Health Department secretaries during his single, four-year term.

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