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Rising Star: Father's Example Looms Large for House Majority Leader

By Andy Lenderman
Journal Politics Writer
    GRANTS— Family and tradition surround the new House majority leader. W. Ken Martinez, a 45-year-old Democrat from Grants, can talk all afternoon about New Mexico history and politics; his hometown's boom and bust mining economy; the day his father moved to Grants, looking for work, in a 1944 Buick; how his father and a group of Hispanics and liberal Anglos, known as the Mama Lucy's, took control of the state House in the early 1970s.
    Martinez discussed his family's history in his Grants office, where a portrait of his late father hangs and his mother, Dolores, manages the office.
    His father, the late Walter K. Martinez served as House speaker from 1971-78, and is remembered as a key figure in creating the state's Severance Tax Permament Fund and sponsor of legislation creating Cibola County, the state's 33rd.
    "This is my dad's office, so we really haven't changed anything other than paint it," Martinez said. But last week, the portrait of Walter K. Martinez moved to his son's new office in the basement of the state Capitol in Santa Fe.
    And so did the rest of Martinez' immediate family.
    "I'm going to move the family lock stock and barrel for the 60-day session," Martinez said.
    His wife, Monique, took a leave from her job as a public school science teacher in Grants. And the couple's four children— Walter, Amerika, Alejandro and Agustin— left their schools in Grants and enrolled in Santa Fe schools. That's just what Martinez's father did in the 1970s.
    Martinez said his children also will get a chance to work at the Capitol, just as he did as a boy. He'll put them to work as pages, or assistants.
   
'Representing families'
    Martinez calls himself a country lawyer.
    "I have a general practice," Martinez said. "You really can't specialize a lot in a small town. You kind of end up representing families and not issues."
    His younger brother, Kevin Martinez, has a law practice in Albuquerque. Older sister Camille Olguin is a state district judge in the 13th Judicial District.
    Martinez went to college at the University of New Mexico, and applied to law schools all over the country after receiving encouragement from political science professor F. Chris Garcia.
    "I applied to Notre Dame on what I thought was a long shot and was accepted," Martinez said.
    He came home after law school and got to work. He was elected to House District 69 in 1998.
    His legislative district includes parts of Grants, Laguna and Acoma pueblos, and some of the eastern Navajo Nation. Overall, its population is about 67 percent American Indian, Martinez said.
    One Navajo leader says Martinez makes an effort to reach remote chapter house meetings, where community business is often taken care of on the rural reservation.
    "I see him more than any of the legislators," Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint, said. "You can see his sincerity at these meetings. And he really has friends out there. I think he's honest with the natives, too, and they appreciate that about him."
    But if Martinez can work in the Baca Chapter or the Little Water Chapter in Navajo territory, he understands a lot about the Capitol, too.
    Being a lawyer is about defeating the other side. But it's different in the Legislature, where citizen lawmakers give up time from their family and business to do the state's business, he said.
    "In the Legislature it's not adversarial," Martinez said. "It's more coalition-building."
   
Defining party's mission
    Martinez said his new job is to work with House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, and the House committee chairs, and define and articulate their party's mission.
    Martinez said his job is also to lead and be mindful of the debate as bills are discussed on the floor. And his staff is there to support Democrats with bill analyses and other issues.
    Last year, Martinez introduced a bill aimed at combating drunken driving that would have required all cars in New Mexico to have ignition interlocks by 2009. The measure passed the House but died in the Senate. The bill spurred a heavy debate, and Martinez said that's a good thing, because it gets people talking about ways to reduce New Mexico's DWI problem.
    Martinez left his post as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when he got his new assignment, chosen by the House Democratic caucus late last year.
    "I'll spend more time getting to know more intimately the other areas of legislation, including budgeting and finance," Martinez said. "You kind of become the common denominator between all of those departments."
    When asked if he wanted to be House speaker in the future, the son of a famous former speaker said: "I think our current speaker is doing a wonderful job."
    Martinez's first week on the job earned at least one Republican's respect. Rep. Eric Youngberg, R-Albuquerque, called him "fair and honorable."
    "He's already shown an ability to expertly proceed with legislation," Youngberg said.
    Gov. Bill Richardson described "Kenny Martinez" as very thoughtful.
    "He's a natural born leader who has a very strong intellect," the governor said.
   
Just the facts
    NAME: W. Ken Martinez
    TITLE AND PARTY: House majority leader, Democrat
    HOMETOWN: Grants.
    AGE: 45.
    EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, University of New Mexico, 1981; law degree, University of Notre Dame, 1984.
    OCCUPATION: Lawyer, represented House District 69 since 1999.