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Tough As Nails

FOR THE RECORD: This profile incorrectly said Susana Martinez graduated among the top 10 students in her class at University of Texas at El Paso. The Martinez campaign says she graduated in the top 10 of her high school class at Riverside High School in El Paso.

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal Of the Journal
          Susana Martinez was a cheerleader and member of the Rangerette drill team at El Paso's Riverside High School.
        But when a group of seniors running for student council asked her to join their slate of candidates, she took a pass.
        "I told them I don't want to be (council) secretary," Martinez recalled, noting that it was the only slot still open on the ticket.
        Martinez studied the job descriptions and decided she'd rather be student body president.
        So she ran against the candidate whose ticket tried to enlist her. And she won.
        Maybe it wasn't so out of character years later for law school intern Martinez to tell colleagues at the El Paso state district courthouse about her career goals.
        She announced matter-of-factly that she wanted to be the first female president of the United States.
        The Democrat-turned-Republican isn't there yet. But she has already risen to national prominence as the first Hispanic woman in the country to be nominated for governor by a major party. She has made a national list of "The Next Top Women to Watch in Politics." She wooed crowds alongside Sarah Palin in Albuquerque and got a plug on the Laura Ingraham radio show.
        Martinez, 51, has raised her political horizons as she faces Lt. Gov. Diane Denish in the Nov. 2 general election.
        Her résumé is long on government work — in fact, being a state prosecutor and children's court lawyer have been her only jobs, save for the few years she worked for her father's private security firm in El Paso.
        She has modest roots, as the youngest child and "latchkey" kid of Hispanic parents who worked full-time jobs and at one time kept a lock on the freezer to ensure the food supply didn't run out.
        That she is ambitious is a given.
        "Any Democrat who underestimates her is a fool, and they're asking for trouble," said Larry Allred, an attorney with the federal Public Defender's Office in Las Cruces, where Martinez serves as district attorney in the state's 3rd Judicial District.
        How her work experience would translate into overseeing a cash-strapped behemoth of 24,000 employees called state government is less clear, say friends and foes alike.
        "Running a state government is obviously a lot more complicated than running just one DA's office," Allred says.
        Martinez has no lack of confidence in her ability to take on the task.
        "We have to have someone who is very forward-thinking, someone who will take on the Establishment, will take on the fight," said Martinez, who has devoted 21 years to prosecuting criminals.
        Growing up in El Paso
        The woman who now makes border security a hallmark campaign issue grew up in Texas, within a few miles of the Mexican border in El Paso's Lower Valley.
        Her father, Jake Martinez, a boxer for the U.S. Marines during the Korean War, continued with the Golden Gloves as he started his family. He spent about 13 years as a deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office; her mother worked in various offices.
        "We lived in a pretty middle-class, lower middle-class kind of neighborhood," Martinez recalled recently. "My parents always had to work. It was the only way we could get by."
        Her mother dubbed her "la abogada" (the lawyer) for her tendency, beginning at age 5 to challenge the rules and make sure other kids played games by the book.
        After attending a Catholic elementary school for six years, she switched to public school, where Martinez says she had a leg up academically because of her private school education.
        Her first grass-roots exposure to politics came when her father, a Democrat, took her on neighborhood walks campaigning for local politicians or stuffing envelopes of campaign literature.
        Watching the news, and especially the U.S. congressmen and senators arguing over the issues, intrigued young Susana.
        "I didn't have anybody to ask, to say how do you get there, how did that happen? But I realized a lot of them were lawyers. So that's when my goal became to become an attorney so that I could then maybe get involved in national politics," she said.
        The stumbling blocks, "if anything were, first, I have a special-needs sister that I had to help take care of."
        After school, and during the summer, Martinez would be in charge of tending to her older sister, Leticia Martinez, now 54. Susana Martinez also has a brother, who is four years older than she.
        "So there were a lot of responsibilities. But it didn't seem different. It just was what it was."
        In high school, she was eventually free to join extracurricular activities. As a senior, she took her responsibility as student body president so seriously, she recalled, that she once chastised the school janitors about keeping the grounds clean.
        When her father decided to start his own security business when she was about 17, Susana said, it was "frightening for me."
        "I realized we were living paycheck to paycheck. It was like, 'What are we thinking?' "
        Before she turned 18, Susana was certified to carry her own firearm and became one her father's three security guards. Wearing a uniform, she patrolled the parking lot at Catholic bingo games and parked cars. The business ended up a success.
        On to law school
        Criminal justice was her major at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she said she graduated in the top 10. Leaving home to attend law school at the University of Oklahoma, Martinez found herself one of maybe a dozen Hispanics in her class of about 200.
        "People would ask me what I was, and I had never been asked that question, having been raised in El Paso," she recalled.
        When a man came up to her and asked her that question while she was at lunch with a group of girls, she initially told him she was a student.
        "He said, 'No, no, what are you?' and I said, 'A girl. I'm not sure what you're asking me.' " Finally, he asked her if she spoke another language, and she told him she spoke Spanish but was an American. He relented after she told him she was of "Mexican descent."
        "I got asked that question a lot," she recalled. "At first, I thought, well, there's not a very big Hispanic population in Norman, Oklahoma. Later on, I just thought, what difference does it make? In El Paso, it's a great blend of cultures, and no one notices the differences."
        Party switch
        Martinez, with a new husband who also graduated from the University of Oklahoma law school, settled in Las Cruces, about 40 minutes north of El Paso. She wanted to be either a family practice lawyer or a prosecutor.
        She was the only Hispanic female lawyer in the Las Cruces-based District Attorney's Office when she was hired in 1986, but in a recent interview she avoided the issue when asked if she felt she was blazing a trail for Hispanic women.
        "The trail I was blazing was working with sexually abused children and developing a multidisciplinary team (that included help for victims) and making great strides," Martinez said.
        "She was intelligent, ambitious, hardworking and requested to participate in seminars that would relate specifically to domestic violence and sexual offenses, rapes and women and children," said her former boss, Doug Driggers, now a state district judge in Las Cruces. "She was very sharp. She was right out of law school and worked very hard."
        Martinez's marriage failed within three years. "Two lawyers in one household, whooo," she says with a laugh.
        Her professional career soared, and by the time Driggers was running for his third term as district attorney, Martinez was a deputy district attorney. She worked for his re-election in 1992, only to see him lose in the Democratic primary to Las Cruces defense attorney Greg Valdez.
        In the new Valdez administration, Martinez didn't last a year. Valdez fired her the day she notified him that she had received a subpoena for a personnel hearing involving a DA investigator Valdez had terminated.
        "I was going to testify about what conversations Mr. Valdez had with me in reference to he was going to get rid of him (the investigator)," Martinez said. "My first question to him when he handed me my (termination) papers was, 'Does this have anything to do with the (subpoena)?' ... and his response was, and I'll never forget it, 'I'm not going to tell you either way.' I grabbed my letter and I left." Valdez claimed he was within his rights to terminate at-will employees.
        Martinez became an attorney in Las Cruces with the state Children, Youth and Families Department. She filed a civil rights lawsuit against Valdez, which was settled out of court for about $120,000.
        In 1996, Martinez ran against Valdez as a Republican. And she won handily. She has been re-elected three times since.
        Martinez says she did not become a Republican in 1995 for political advantage, noting that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1 in Doña Ana County. She said she planned to run for DA even before she was fired by Valdez.
        "That (switch to Republican) was more about being true to who I was and my values than anything else."
        Running the show
        Martinez supervises a district attorney's office with an annual budget of $6.3 million in 2008-09, the most recent fiscal year for which figures are available. With more than 80 employees, it was the third-largest office in the state in terms of number of employees and cases prosecuted that year.
        But thanks to federal grants, its budget was second only to the district attorney's office in the 2nd Judicial District in Bernalillo County.
        Her wins as a prosecutor have been well-publicized, in particular the "Baby Briana" case, after which she helped lobby the Legislature for life-in-prison sentences for offenders who intentionally kill children.
        "You thought it would be a no-brainer that legislators would want to change the law," she said. But the proposal died in committee twice, she said, prompting her to organize a full-scale lobbying effort.
        "What made the difference was we brought people to the Legislature. We filled buses, we made phone calls, we filled the committee room. ... That's what's going to be significant as governor is to make sure we bring the people to the process."
        Local experts say conviction rates aren't an accurate assessment of a prosecutor's office, but that six-month rule dismissals are an indicator.
        Budget records show her office's dismissal rates have been about the same as other DA's offices in New Mexico, at or fewer than 1 percent of all cases.
        In March of this year, the prosecutor section of the State Bar of New Mexico named Martinez "Prosecutor of the Year."
        Aggressive prosecutor
        Few Las Cruces-area defense attorneys contacted, including several former employees from her office, would agree to be interviewed for this story. Of 10 lawyers contacted, only two would comment.
        "I know she's ruffled a lot of feathers among the defense bar because of her aggressiveness," Allred said. "I just knew that when I was trying cases against her, and I tried quite a few, you have to be on your toes. I mean Susana, she plays to win. You've got to be careful."
        Former assistant district attorney Michael Cain of Las Cruces said he believes "there is an ongoing pattern over there of pushing the ethical envelope for prosecutors.
        "They have the reputation among every prosecution office in the state, and I deal with quite a few of them, of being very overreaching," said Cain, a criminal defense attorney who said he is a conservative Republican.
        Allred defended Martinez and her office, saying that, as far as he knows, she has never been found to have engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.
        A high-profile criminal racketeering prosecution by her office in 1999 did raise ethical issues of conflict of interest and whether she was personally biased against the defendants.
        The state Supreme Court ultimately barred her office from prosecuting the case in 2005, after Martinez refused to refer the case to another DA's office and continued to appeal lower court rulings that went against her. The criminal charges were ultimately dismissed by a special prosecutor.
        The case involved an investigation of criminal activity in public housing that turned up allegations of illegal operations at a Las Cruces bar called the Welcome Inn. Two defendants — former Mesilla Marshal Miguel Gonzales and his son, Michael Gonzales — had at one time worked in her office as investigators.
        Court of Appeals Judge Michael Bustamante opined that the court record supported a determination that a "corrosive political atmosphere surround(ed) these prosecutions" and that disqualifying the entire office was appropriate "for the good of the community," according to the Supreme Court ruling.
        Martinez said in an interview that she didn't instigate the criminal investigation and that the high court found only an appearance of a conflict.
        To this day, she said, she wouldn't have done anything differently in the case.
        Martinez had the same response to reports that her office bought more than $60,000 in equipment and supplies from a top deputy district attorney who had a home-based office supply business.
        Martinez said the purchases, which occurred in 2003 and 2004 and weren't put to a competitive bid, saved taxpayers money and were within the law. State Department of Finance and Administration officials questioned whether such sales had a "public benefit" in 2004 and told Martinez's office to stop using the vendor.
        Martinez has said she believes that directive was later rescinded because the agency approved the sales for another nine months. Department officials said that was an oversight.
        Such sales between a state agency and an employee of that agency are now prohibited by a 2007 legislative revision to the Governmental Conduct Act.
        Running for governor
        Martinez, as the Republican nominee for governor, is all smiles as she walks into her new South Valley headquarters in Albuquerque.
        There is no tough prosecutor's edge as she greets the mostly Hispanic crowd that includes several Democratic Party officials.
        Her campaign staff has warned news reporters that she won't take media questions. And after her brief remarks to the crowd, two staffers try to guide her away from a reporter trying to question her about domestic partnerships. But Martinez stops, turns around and takes time to talk to the reporter.
        She is accompanied by her husband, Chuck Franco, the undersheriff of the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department, who will leave his post at the end of the year. She has a 23-year-old stepson, Carlo.
        Though her background is in law, Martinez says she had no interest in becoming a judge.
        "It's boring," she says. Running for state attorney general? "That doesn't excite me," she says.
        As district attorney for 14 years, Martinez said, "I had a different child I was fighting for every day, a different set of facts, and you know every file was almost like a novel, a book that had its own story. So it wasn't monotonous."
        She said she spent nearly three years thinking about running for governor and was motivated by national and state events to announce last year.
        Clear goals
        Her political success so far hasn't gone unnoticed.
        "This Latina Republican and dynamic district attorney was already on national politicos' radar as she promised to 'end corruption' in her bid to fill New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's shoes," says a release by a national women's leadership nonprofit group called The White House Project.
        "But strategists say it was her decision to follow Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lead and advocate a tough approach to illegal immigration that got Martinez over the finish line in the state's Republican primary. ... Look for national GOP leaders to tout Martinez as a perfect example of the party's big tent when it comes to diversity, but tough-on-crime approach to illegal immigration," the release said.
        Laura Ingraham touted Martinez on her website as Hispanic and "tough on illegal immigration."
        "What was that again about the Tea Party movement being all white males?" the website asked.
        Martinez, in the Journal interview, straddled the fence when asked whether she identifies with the Tea Party. "It depends on the issues. ... There could be five very important issues, and we may agree on four."
        She makes no apologies for accepting some of the largest campaign contributions in New Mexico history, including a total of $450,000 from Texas developer Robert Perry and his wife. She cites their past donations to other Hispanic New Mexico Republican candidates.
        She said she didn't think twice about appearing with Sarah Palin at a campaign rally, adding, "I need all the support I can get."
        Allred said he's not surprised at her career path. "She wants power, you know, and that's why she's in the executive (branch)," he added.
        Martinez seems amused when recalling her early goal of becoming the first female president.
        She said her aspirations have changed for now.
        For one thing, she said, since her mother died four years ago, and her father has cancer and Alzheimer's disease, Martinez is again taking care of her sister, who she says is "perpetually 5."
        "I think what's important is what Bill Richardson did is he sold New Mexico short by running for president on the first day on the job as governor. New Mexico doesn't have to worry about that with me. I do not intend to run for an office outside of serving New Mexicans in New Mexico."
        The Basics
        Party: Republican
        Residence: Las Cruces
        Age: 51
        Place of birth: El Paso
        Education: University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla., juris doctor, 1986
        University of Texas, El Paso, bachelor of arts, 1981
        Profession: Lawyer
        Work experience: Elected district attorney, 3rd Judicial District Attorney's Office, Las Cruces, 1996; re-elected in 2000, 2004 and 2008
        Attorney, New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, November 1993 to March 1996
        Assistant district attorney, 3rd Judicial District Attorney's Office, October 1986 to August 1993
        Personal: Married to Chuck Franco, Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office undersheriff; one stepson, Carlo
        Susana Martinez has focused on cutting state spending and stopping what she calls rampant corruption in Santa Fe. Another key theme has been a tough stance on illegal immigration, although she does not support adopting a law similar to Arizona's. Martinez is critical of Gov. Bill Richardson and tries to link her opponent, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, to the administration's policies and shortcomings.
        Martinez has promised to cut state spending by a still-unspecified amount without altering spending for public education and Medicaid. The only specific elements of her spending-reduction plan so far are to cut some political-hire positions.
        Martinez says she will not sign any tax increases the first year she is in office. She wants to cut business taxes. She says she is open to reviewing the state's tax credits for film incentives and rescinding them if they aren't delivering enough economic development dollars for the state.
        Martinez believes in letting the private sector create new jobs and would cut taxes on business to help. She has said that those tax cuts might not be affordable until at least 2012, and possibly later.
        Martinez advocates more testing during the school year to give teachers a better picture of student progress. She would end the practice of advancing students to the next grade when they haven't mastered the concepts of the previous grade. She has promised to cut money from administrations and earmark it for spending in the classroom. She supports a plan to give tax credits to people who donate to private school scholarship funds and says no education earmarks would be used to fund the credits.
        Martinez opposes a state ethics commission, saying it would only be another politically influenced bureaucracy. Instead, she supports creating a State Police unit to investigate corruption and enacting stricter ethics laws for government officials.
        Martinez says she would "secure the border" and fight what she calls illegal immigration "sanctuary" policies in New Mexico, such as the state law that allows giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. But she does not support enacting a law like Arizona's new immigration law in New Mexico.
        Martinez supports the death penalty and would try to persuade the Legislature to reinstate it. It was repealed in 2009.
        Martinez has called domestic partnership legislation "unnecessary" and "ill-advised." She says she would not sign a domestic partnership bill, because most of the rights it would grant couples — both same-sex and opposite-sex — can already be obtained through contracts and power of attorney.
        — Journal staff writer Sean Olson
        Journal profile of Democrat candidate Diane Denish will appear next Sunday.

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