First Latina Governor Ever? In New Mexico, Who Knew?

Susana Martínez, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in New Mexico, is on the verge of becoming the nation’s first Latina governor.

You wouldn’t know it from her campaign or the buzz in that state.

“She has not really embraced her ethnicity publicly,” said Albuquerque political blogger Joe Monahan. “She just doesn’t talk about it.”

Her race may be a non-issue – taking a backseat to controversies like driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants – but it still may put her over the top next week against her Democratic opponent, Diane Denish. In a state with some 900,000 Latinos, 59 percent of whom are eligible to vote, the draw of making history may be the deciding factor for the bloc.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who want to elect a Hispanic governor,” Monahan added. “There is some ethnic voting going on. That is a factor."

Martínez, district attorney of Doña Ana County, may ride that wave all the way to One Mansion Drive. Despite running in a state that’s nearly 50 percent Democrat, a recent SurveyUSA Election Poll showed Martínez getting 54 percent of the vote while Denish received 42 percent.

But the numbers are the exact opposite when it comes to Hispanic voters.

“It’s not the main theme. She’s not going to get a majority of Latino votes,” said Antonio Maestas, a Democratic state representative. “So she’s not being hoisted to the governor’s mansion on the shoulders of Latinos. But the fact that she’s Latina is a wonderful attribute to her candidacy, a source of pride.”

That orgullo has been seemingly toned down, however. The Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, recently endorsed Martínez – yet made no mention of her historic candidacy.
Martínez is not your typical Latino candidate, either. A no-nonsense prosecutor, she has said she would “secure the border” and repeal the state law that enables immigrants without documentation to obtain driver’s licenses.

“This policy makes it more difficult for police officers to identify those here illegally, which allows them to remain in our country,” she opined about the driver’s license law in an April piece for the blog Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics.

But for all her tough talk on driver’s licenses and crimes, her talking points on immigration since winning the Republican primary have softened compared to hard-line Republicans in other states. She has distanced herself from Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, for example, and reportedly opposed changing the 14th Amendment that grants children of undocumented immigrations citizenship.

“You can’t really bang the anti-immigrant drum here as you can in other places,” said Maestas. “There’s much more consciousness in New Mexico than in Arizona.”

Despite requests, Martínez's camp did not make her available for an interview by press time. But she told the Albuquerque Journal in August that, if elected governor, she would not impose a state immigration law like Arizona’s SB 1070.

“When it comes to immigration, we must continue to embrace our rich, cultural heritage in New Mexico that welcomes legal immigrants,” she told the Albuquerque Journal in August.

“I strongly encourage the federal government to seriously debate and develop thoughtful solutions that not only embraces this heritage, but also respects our laws.”

In the end, New Mexico’s election may be less about race and immigration than it is about the Latino governor who currently has the job. Gov. Bill Richardson, who is embroiled in a pay-to-play controversy, has been a hindrance on Denish’s campaign.

“In politics, it’s so much about timing,” said Monahan. “This is an easy year for a Republic to run. For a Republican to get elected in New Mexico…things [have to] be pretty bad.”