Interview: Gov. Susana Martinez
While the national media has largely focused on the new House and Senate Republicans, Republicans were elected to governorships in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine and Tennessee. Some familiar faces (e.g. John Kasich in Ohio, Sam Brownback in Kansas) are back in office, but there are already a batch of new faces, some of whom will become the next generation of Republican stars and potential candidates for national office down the road.
I spoke by phone this morning with Gov. Susan Martinez of New Mexico. She is a former district attorney, a former Democrat, and the country's first Latina governor.
She might be an articulate Republican voice on everything from immigration to education, but she wasn't always a Republican. "When I first registered to vote I registered as a Democrat," she tells me. "My parents were Democrats. I moved to Las Cruces New Mexico in 1986 and again registered as a Democrat." But two Republican friends took her and her husband to lunch one day, "We started to have a conversation about the issues. They never talked about 'Republican' or used the word 'conservative.'" She recalls, "When we got back in the car I said to my husband, 'Oh my God, we're Republicans!'"
She ran in a heavily Democratic area as a Republican for district attorney. She says she was spurred to run for governor because she learned "as D.A. that I could deliver results" and because of her desire "to change the culture of doing business the way we have."
The day before the State of the Union address, in which the president is widely expected to propose more spending, Martinez tells me that approach wouldn't fly in her state. "Constitutionally, we must balance the budget. We don't have the ability to print more money." She, like Republican governors in New Jersey, Virginia and elsewhere, is defying calls for tax increases. "We are going to do it by making cuts in the right places. Raising taxes does nothing to allow the economy to recover." Hiking taxes, she explains, "only makes it more difficult for families and small businesses." Businesses, she argues, need the money to invest and create more jobs, something they can't do if taxes are making it more costly just "to exist." She is blunt, "I will veto any tax increase."
She explains the source of the problem: State government grew 54 percent at a time when the population grew only 23 percent. The federal stimulus money only made the big spenders spend more. She recalls, "Instead of making tough decisions, they used the stimulus money to back fill the budget." The overspending increased, and then the stimulus money was cut off.
She's not enamored of the federal role in health care. She and other governors, she relates, are discussing a change in the entire way health care is delivered to the poor. "We are asking for block grants," she says. Then she and each governor can decide the medical delivery system "that best fits our populations."
She is the first Latina governor, but she says the key to Republican outreach to Hispanics is "to make sure we are talking about issues important to them." Making immigration reform the main message, she explains, is "such an unfair limitation." She made the sale to Hispanic voters, like all voters in her state, on the same message, including such issues as preventing tax hikes and supporting school choice.
As for immigration, as D.A. she had a singular focus regarding illegal immigrants: "If they commit a crime, we should prosecute them and then deport them. Then the federal government has a bigger hammer" should the convicted criminal return. Simply deporting them without prosecution only perpetuates "a revolving door." However, she cautions that all of that is quite distinct from legal immigration. She argues that Republicans should be "very much in favor of lawful immigration."
How would she define success in the first year? A balanced budget is "number one," she answers. That means not only entails balancing this year's budget, but putting the state on a sound fiscal course going forward. She is "surprised, pleasantly surprised" that the gap between her proposed budget and the legislators' proposal wasn't that great. "I see the willingness of legislators to make tough choices," she says.
She also want to ensure "New Mexico is an environment where we are open for business." She intends to review all the state's regulations. She gives as an example the state's "cap and tax" law that no other state in the area has. That regulation, she argues, has made her state "an island among other states. New Mexico is open for business [with that regulation]? I think not."
Her final priority is education. She wants to make school rating clearer so that parents understand how their public school is doing and can then decide on "a charter school, a private school, or home schooling." In short, she wants to focus on "failing schools and failing kids."
Martinez, like other governors, has her work cut out for her. She will be judged on her results. If she succeeds in governing as a fiscal conservative, her star will rise in the GOP and she will have proved her thesis correct, namely that the key to gaining Hispanics' votes is to show how conservatism works for them.
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