ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jay McCleskey, political adviser to Gov. Susana Martinez, was the subject of an unflattering profile last week in the National Journal – a story dismissed by the Governor’s Office as a sexist, racist “tabloid piece” based on “disgruntled sources with axes to grind.”
The headline for the article in the weekly Washington, D.C., magazine read:
“The Man Who Discovered Susana Martinez Could Also Be Her Downfall; Jay McCleskey, an ingenious political operative in New Mexico, turned a county D.A. into the GOP’s Latina savior. But with him as her consigliere, she may never get that far.”
The story has provided fresh ammo for critics of McCleskey and Martinez as she gears up for a re-election campaign next year with high approval ratings and millions of dollars in cash on hand.
The article is a lengthy one; here is my CliffsNotes version: McCleskey is a mean-spirited Wizard of Oz, pulling the strings of power from behind the curtain.
The narrative isn’t new; Democrats and even some Republicans have been pushing it since the GOP governor took office in 2011. McCleskey and Martinez dismissed it as unfounded in an Albuquerque Journal article last year.
The National Journal article relies extensively on unnamed sources, but state Republican Chairman John Billingsley, former state GOP Chairman Harvey Yates and former Martinez campaign workers Andrea Goff and Anissa Ford are quoted making critical comments about McCleskey, the governor and/or the administration.
The Man Who Discovered Susana Martinez Could Also Be Her Downfall
Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said he believes one of the unnamed sources was Jamie Estrada, a former campaign manager for Martinez who has been indicted on federal charges of lying to FBI agents and hijacking campaign emails after her election in 2010. Estrada has pleaded not guilty. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The article portrays McCleskey as being too close to Martinez and walling her off from others while exercising inappropriate and extensive control over government affairs.
McCleskey is described as “divisive,” a “political pugilist” who uses “slash-and-burn tactics” while practicing a “mercenary, dog-eat-dog style of politics” that “has seemed to prize authority over unity.”
The article credits McCleskey with “zealously” and “very effectively” protecting and promoting the governor.
The article portrays Martinez as a “canny” and “self-possessed pragmatist” but someone who lacks political courage and is not quite ready for the national stage.
It says she is a “callow figure” who has placed too much trust in a single political aide and who “hasn’t penned an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post nor made a single appearance on the Sunday show circuit.”
The article says Martinez, a lawyer who was a longtime district attorney before winning the Governor’s Office, delivered a widely praised speech at the Republican National Convention last summer.
Paraphrasing Yates, the article describes the Martinez administration as “increasingly hackish” and “tone-deaf, exclusionary, and unnecessarily ruthless.”
Without providing attribution, the story says, “Susanaland these days is riven by a level of misgiving and disharmony befitting a public servant who has already crashed and burned, not one riding high.”
The article was written by Daniel Libit, formerly of New Mexico and now a Chicago-based writer who has previously worked for Politico and The Daily news organizations and also has reported on sports.
Here’s what Martinez spokesman Knell said about the story:
“It’s nothing more than a tabloid piece, using disgruntled sources with axes to grind, including one under felony indictment for lying to the FBI – all in an effort to push the offensive and sexist narrative that the first Hispanic female governor in the country can’t think for herself.”
McCleskey has long been a controversial figure, among both Republicans and Democrats, in New Mexico politics, and there is no dispute that he is an influential player in the administration, even though he holds no paid government position.
In an article published in June 2012 in the Albuquerque Journal , Martinez bristled at the notion that McCleskey was running the state.
“Anyone who says that doesn’t even begin to know me,” the governor said. She described herself as a “strong, informed executive” who has “great passion” for her policies. “No one tells me what to think,” she said.
McCleskey declined to provide comment for this column, but he told the National Journal:
“As is the job of any political consultant, my role is not to be loved, but rather to be effective at winning campaigns and garnering support for the policies pursued by those who have been elected.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.