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So long, Susana! Get ready for Michelle Lujan Grisham

December 30, 2018

Even her worst critics have to admit that when Susana Martinez became governor in 2010, she felt like a breath of fresh air.

What a story! A district attorney from Las Cruces elected governor in her first attempt at statewide office. A conservative Republican. The first Latina governor in the nation. A straight talker who promised to clean up corruption and run a lean, compact government with transparency and openness. Most of all, she was a stark contrast to outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson, the consummate political insider whose term had become marred by scandal.

Eight years later, Martinez leaves office with few signature accomplishments and even fewer regrets over her departure from the people who elected her. Twice. Her disappointing terms as governor could serve as a sort of “what not to do” for incoming Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Governing is not campaigning. The ability to deliver a one-liner and talk tough isn’t the equivalent of understanding policy and being able to negotiate with people who disagree — and, boy, did the mostly Democratic Legislature disagree. A governor who cannot work with the opposition party (as well as critics within her own party) will not get much done in the Legislature.

Governing requires personal growth. What worked as a district attorney (or as a member of Congress or county commissioner) might not work as governor. The job is broader and harder, and entrenched state employees have more leeway to avoid directives they don’t like, unlike employees in the next office over. A governor cannot make pronouncements and see them carried out in the same manner as a boss can. Governors have to persuade, cajole and compromise, especially with other lawmakers. The Legislature and the judiciary are co-equal branches of government, not underlings to be ordered. Martinez never managed to leave behind her prosecutorial mindset; her solutions were geared at punishment. That proved a bad fit for the Governor’s Office.

Governing leaves partisanship behind. Now, don’t laugh. Of course, a Democratic governor has different goals than a GOP one, and vice versa. They should seek to keep their promises to voters. But a governor (or a president) is governing for all citizens, not just supporters. Governors are there when there is no gas flowing out of the pipes, comforting people in wildfires or showing up after a school shooting. They are leaders for all the people. Using the office to attack critics or punish opposing politicians wastes their platforms. Martinez was never better than when mingling with schoolchildren or hugging people whose homes were lost in a fire — that ability to listen and comfort would have won her friends in the Legislature, had she used it more.

Governing knows when to alter goals to fit circumstances. Martinez wanted to reform education and ended up creating additional bureaucracy more than boosting teachers and students. She believed flunking poor readers in third grade would improve education, and she never abandoned that goal, despite failing to win support. Just think if as governor, she had thought of the goal — improving reading — rather than of passing her one-size-fits all solution so she could score a win. She promised — and she meant it — that she would not raise taxes, even when the state needed additional revenue and increases in fees (not taxes) were sorely needed. A change of course would have been welcome.

Governing considers consequences. Perhaps her worst moment as governor came when Martinez essentially dismantled the behavioral health system on the basis of unsubstantiated charges of fraud. The state is still reeling from the loss of services vulnerable people needed.

When it works best, governing also does what is right. Martinez’s finest moment was accepting an Obama administration expansion of Medicaid so that people could receive the health insurance they need. That was not politically popular in her party, but it was right for her state. She also was tough enough to challenge then-candidate Donald Trump for his depictions of immigrants as drug dealers and rapists; would that more in her party had been so brave.

She leaves behind squandered opportunity but, thanks to the booming oil and gas sector, plenty of money for the next governor and Legislature to spend on New Mexico’s challenges. So much of the economy, to be honest, is out of a governor’s control. Richardson’s last months were crippled by a national recession; Martinez spent her tenure digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Now, Lujan Grisham has been handed a host of challenges, but she has a robust budget with which to take them on.

Her job as governor is to avoid the mistakes of the past, focusing on policies that will lay the foundation for a stronger, better New Mexico not just years in the future, but right now. Starting Tuesday, Lujan Grisham will be in charge. May she take control with her can-do attitude, ability to work cooperatively with others and, most of all, with a sense of priorities that put big things first — tax reform, filling vacant state jobs, education, infrastructure, the welfare of children, protecting the environment — and make investments that will strengthen New Mexico.

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