Looking back: The highs and lows of the Martinez era
New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf walked into the lobby of the Governor’s Office for a bill-signing ceremony this year and finally was recognized.
“I remember who you are this time,” a receptionist told him.
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, had been the leader of the House of Representatives for a year, but Republican Gov. Susana Martinez met so infrequently with top Democratic lawmakers that it took a while before staff in Martinez’s front office knew his face.
Welcome to the citadel that Martinez erected on the fourth floor of the Capitol over the past eight years.
Martinez came to office presenting herself as an outsider — a district attorney from Southern New Mexico who enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of the state GOP.
As she prepares to depart Dec. 31 after two terms, it’s not so much that she was an outsider. It’s that she was isolated.
But Martinez also rallied the state Republican Party to the kinds of victories it hadn’t seen in decades before it collapsed in this year’s election.
After her standoffs with lawmakers over the state budget, an economic malaise while the rest of the region boomed, one damning court decision after another, and schisms in her own party, Martinez still leaves some New Mexicans scratching their heads.
She bashed President Donald Trump before she sidled up to him. She talked about fiscal conservatism before presiding over budget crises of her own.
Martinez is at once an able retail politician who can work a crowd and a furtive figure whose press office tightly controls when, if or how she appears in the news media.
She railed against the good ol’ boys in Santa Fe’s backrooms but vetoed campaign finance reforms and shining more light on lobbyists. All the while, her allies built a super PAC machine.
She maintains she left New Mexico better off than when she took office in 2011, discounting that the national recession had crushed the state during her predecessor’s final two years in office.
What’s clear is that Martinez’s approval ratings plunged during her second term. At least some of her ups and downs are easy to identify.
Getting us covered: The biggest accomplishment of Martinez’s administration is not much of an applause line for Republicans.
After Martinez expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the share of New Mexicans with health insurance increased significantly.
The U.S. Census Bureau said that nearly 19 percent of New Mexicans didn’t have health insurance in 2013. That dropped to 14.5 percent in 2014. It was one of the largest drops of any state. In all, about a quarter of a million adults enrolled in Medicaid under the expansion.
Plenty of Republican governors, particularly in the South, opposed expanding Medicaid under Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Neighbors like Texas, Utah and Oklahoma held off.
And while it has been a politically inconvenient achievement at times, especially as Martinez mends her ties with “Obamacare” nemesis Trump, proponents of the move say it turned the health care sector into a bright spot during the state’s otherwise tough economic times. It also made a difference in one of the poorest states in the country.
Putting the party back in New Mexico’s GOP: Say what you want about Martinez, but she won elections.
Under her, Republicans not only held the Governor’s Office for two terms and all of the appointments that come with it, but in 2014, they also won control of the House for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. (Democrats have since regained the majority by the largest margin in two decades.)
Martinez addressed the Republican National Convention in 2012 and kicked up some speculation in the national press that she might even be vice presidential material. She later said presidential nominee Mitt Romney never interviewed her.
But she seemed to offer Republicans at the national level a glimpse of what winning might look like in the growing, purple Southwest during the 21st century.
So much for that.
But for a time, Martinez offered Republicans hope for New Mexico.
Staying true: The state’s new tourism slogan, New Mexico True, turned into a punchline after the Martinez administration rolled it out around 2012.
After all, it took a Texan’s company to come up with the slogan. And it has been fodder for parody, such as when a Roman Catholic charity used the phrase “New Mexico Truth” in an advertising campaign to highlight the state’s high rate of child poverty.
But the slogan stuck.
The Martinez administration has touted improving tourism numbers, turning the hospitality industry into another bright spot in the state’s economy.
A lot of the biggest boosters of eco-tourism felt betrayed when Martinez backed a plan by Trump’s administration to revisit the status of national monuments that proponents say are key to attracting outdoorsy visitors.
Still, the outdoors industry is booming.
Surprising us: Martinez wasn’t just a district attorney. She still is. Even as governor, she talks like a prosecutor.
So it came as a surprise to some that she would embrace the GOP’s libertarian wing and sign a bill prohibiting law enforcement’s practice of seizing property from suspects accused but not convicted of crimes.
Some cities are still confiscating the vehicles of suspects in drunken-driving cases without the defendants being convicted.
But in ending what critics on both the left and right have called “policing for profit” and a violation of the very idea of due process, Martinez showed she could still surprise.
Similarly, at the same time Texas became bogged down in “bathroom bill” politics and enacted a bevy of restrictions on abortion, Martinez barely spoke about those issues.
The economy, stupid: Publicists for Martinez are a font of announcements about ribbon-cuttings and new jobs.
There’s a dairy opening! A data center is under construction!
But there’s one fact they haven’t touted as widely: Just this year, the number of people working in New Mexico surpassed prerecession levels for the first time.
New Mexico has had what economists call a lost decade.
The state’s unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in November. That’s better than it has been but is still among the highest in the country.
And while about 849,000 New Mexicans were working at the time America descended into the Great Recession during the end of 2007, the state only topped that number in September of this year.
Colorado crossed that milestone five years ago. Arizona did the same in 2016.
The Martinez economy became a liability for Republicans, as evidenced this year when GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce distanced himself from her and made “jobs” a mantra.
That time our governor became a meme: There’s a scene in the musical Hamilton when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Aaron Burr are standing around reading an account of Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
“Well, he’s never gon’ be president now,” Jefferson says.
Plenty in New Mexico probably said something similar in December 2015 when the governor’s Christmas party at a Santa Fe hotel prompted a complaint to police and ended with her calling 911 while seemingly drunk to wave off the cops.
Someone throwing bottles off the balcony? No, Martinez insisted. If anyone was doing that, it had been six hours earlier. Everyone was just eating pizza and drinking Coke, she said.
When reporters obtained a recording of the 911 call, it was instant fodder for memes and jokes.
Pizzeria customers called in orders under the name Susana Martinez. The Senate majority leader sported socks emblazoned with slices of pizza.
No, it was not the scandal of the century. But at a time when Martinez was still occasionally mentioned by pundits and protectors as someone headed for the national stage, the episode put a dent in whatever gravitas she had at home.
Pulling the plug: The Martinez administration said it was cracking down on fraud when it cut off Medicaid funds for behavioral health organizations around the state in 2013.
There turned out to be little evidence of any wrongdoing. But the state’s behavioral health services were thrown into crisis by her decision.
It started with an audit that said many behavioral health service providers were overbilling New Mexico’s Medicaid program.
The state cut off funding to 15 companies and recruited a slate of organizations from Arizona to take over caseloads.
Patients were thrown for a loop, often left wondering who would treat them.
In the end, state Attorney General Hector Balderas cleared the companies of wrongdoing.
The state had accused Southwest Counseling Center, for example, of overbilling to the tune of $2.8 million. The state later reduced that amount to $484.71.
And many of those Arizona-based organizations that arrived to take over behavioral health services are pulling out or left long ago.
Governor veto: College students and faculty probably did not expect they would be drawn into one of the bigger games of chicken New Mexico politics has seen.
But sure enough, Martinez gutted funding for higher education from the state budget in 2017 in a showdown with the Democrat-controlled Legislature over its proposal to raise taxes.
And for a few weeks that culminated in the last of a string of special legislative sessions, the state approached the precipice of a constitutional crisis. With it, New Mexico’s universities and colleges were thrown into uncertainty.
Had we really reached Illinois levels of political dysfunction?
Crisis was averted in the end, with Martinez approving the budget, restoring funding to higher education and nixing the Democrats’ proposals to raise certain taxes.
Still, it was perhaps the best example yet of the governor’s winner-take-all style. And it wasn’t just a matter of Roundhouse feuding. We all had to live with it.