In 2010, three Western states elected governors immediately generated national buzz. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, was the first Latino elected governor of Nevada. John Hickenlooper, who campaigned as a Democratic centrist in the midst of a Tea Party wave, was elected in Colorado. And in New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez became the nation’s first Latina governor.

All three proved popular in their first terms and easily won re-election. But at the end of their second terms, the three find themselves in much different positions.

Hickenlooper is thinking of making a presidential run in 2020 and has the highest approval rating of any Democratic governor in the country, according to Morning Consult, a research firm that tracks such things. Sandoval has respect across party lines in Nevada and has the third-highest approval rating among second-term governors across the nation. (The only two ahead of him are Republicans in beet-red South Dakota and Wyoming.)

In New Mexico, however, Martinez will exit as one of the nation’s least-popular governors, with only about a third of voters approving her job performance, according to recent polls. Even the Republican who seeks to succeed Martinez, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, says “New Mexico is in a crisis moment.”

“Clearly you have the two candidates running for governor now who are both running on the same platform, which is we’re going to undo everything Governor Martinez put into place, from the minute we come into office,” said state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who lost to U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham in this summer’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. “Both Congressman Pearce and Congresswoman Lujan are running on a platform of reversing everything that Governor Martinez tried to do or did do.”

Martinez’s office didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story. Nor did New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi and several state Republican leaders.

Martinez, a career prosecutor who served as the elected district attorney of the 3rd Judicial District in Doña Ana County from 1997 until 2010, was elected governor by a comfortable margin in 2010 and re-elected by an even larger margin in 2014. Her popularity eroded in her second term as she increasingly battled with the New Mexico Legislature, including members of her own party, said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

In the end, voters grew frustrated, particularly with the economy.

“How long can you stay in a recession? Arizona is growing. Colorado is growing. Texas is booming. And New Mexico isn’t moving at all,” Atkeson said

New Mexico’s economy has been largely stagnant during Martinez’s term, even as other states showed strong recovery from the Great Recession. The gross domestic product in the Land of Enchantment grew by an average of 0.6 percent a year between 2010 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the ninth-worst performance among U.S. states in that time. Under Sandoval, Nevada’s economy grew by about 1.6 percent annually, right at the national average. In Hickenlooper’s Colorado, the annual GDP growth has been 2.9 percent, almost five times that of New Mexico. The story is similar in other states bordering New Mexico. Arizona’s growth has averaged 1.9 percent; Utah, 2.9 percent; Texas, 3.5 percent.

Martinez’s 2010 election campaign focused heavily on a promise to grow jobs in the state. New Mexico’s job growth averaged just 0.5 percent a year between 2010 and 2017, a third of the nationwide job growth rate.

Martinez has created a website to outline her legacy, but it contains very few mentions about the state’s economy during her tenure. The only section on economic performance is labeled “Diversifying Our Economy,” which claims: “By enacting job creation measures, investing in infrastructure, and cutting taxes and fees 61 times, our economy is now more diverse than ever. Our unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8 percent to 4.7 percent, while adding 60,000 new private sector jobs and attracting companies like Facebook, Safelite, and Union Pacific.”

Only four states and the District of Columbia had a higher unemployment rate than New Mexico as of August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But weak economic performance isn’t the only explanation for Martinez’s tumbling popularity, her critics say. Her style of governance, including with fellow Republicans, limited her effectiveness.

“Her style with the Legislature increasingly became combative, even on issues where there should have been agreement between the branches,” Atkeson said. “By the last session, members of her party, both inside and outside the Legislature, were disappointed by her rhetoric and didn’t understand why on bills they agree with she would say, well, I’m not going to pass those because you guys won’t play ball over here. That’s just not how separation of powers works. It’s not productive for anyone, and it led to her increasing unpopularity over time.”

Cervantes, the Las Cruces state senator, was a contemporary of Martinez’s in Doña Ana County politics. He has known her for 25 years and said he was hopeful when she took office that she would work with Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature to accomplish her goals.

“I asked Governor Martinez to appreciate what I’ve come to respect as a great deal of knowledge and skill from a lot of legislators,” he said. “There are a lot of legislators who are very, very knowledgeable, very intelligent, very experienced in areas of state government, experience they’ve acquired over decades.”

Martinez needed to work with legislators because her career as a popular district attorney in southern New Mexico didn’t prepare her for the role of the state’s chief executive, Cervantes said.

“She really had no background in most of the major areas of state government; she had zero experience in education, zero experience in job creation, economic development trade, taxation, revenue, budgeting, zero experience in those areas,” he said.

Martinez not only rebuffed those efforts, she quickly became combative with the Legislature. She targeted Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, in a bitter 2012 election. Jennings lost his re-election bid after serving 34 years in the Senate, but the battle also proved costly to Martinez. It severed her relationship with oilman and longtime Republican activist Harvey Yates Jr., who was close to Jennings.

In 2016, her target became Democratic Senate leader Michael Sanchez of Belen. Sanchez lost that election, but he said her singular focus on him helped Democrats regain control of the state House of Representatives.

UNM’s Atkeson said the Sanchez feud was an example of Martinez personalizing politics to her own detriment.

“It was so personal: I’m going to get this guy who’s been an asshole to me,” Atkeson said. “She really should have should have been focusing on trying to keep the House Republican. That would have done more good for her than going after this one particular Democrat, spending all these resources.”

Martinez’s website on her legacy includes a section called “Working Across Party Lines,” which collects various compliments to her from Democrats. All the examples she lists come from her first term; none of the examples include Democratic lawmakers praising her for regularly seeking to work with them. Her style of governance — often the adversarial approach of a career prosecutor — is not directly addressed on Martinez’s website.

Her website makes no mention at all of Jose Z. Garcia, a former New Mexico State University political science professor and Doña Ana County Democratic chairman who headed “Democrats for Susana” in 2010. He said he was attracted to Martinez because he admired her “spunk,” and he was deeply angered over what he saw as the corruption and ineffectiveness of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. Martinez made him secretary of higher education upon taking office, then had her Chief of Staff Keith Gardner unceremoniously fire him just after the 2014 election.

Garcia describes his tenure as four years of frustration, largely because Gardner and Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey controlled access to the governor, freezing out ideas from her Cabinet and others. Every meeting he scheduled with her was cancelled, he said.

“There was absolutely no intellectual curiosity on her part. She never asked me about my goals, my philosophy, a comprehensive view of where we were at,” Garcia said. “We never had periodic reviews of the way I was looking at the issue of higher education in the state. She just seemed completely oblivious and incurious — in fact, one of the least curious people that I’ve ever met and at that level.”

Cervantes said Martinez never understood the nature of her office, and how to exercise power.

“I think Susana had a misunderstanding of what it meant to be elected governor,” he said. “I think that Susana thought that by being elected governor she would have a mandate from the public to enact her own policies. And it didn’t work that way because of her lack of experience and knowledge about the subject matter. She never gained the respect of legislators.”

Lawmakers of both parties grew frustrated with her lack of leadership, and her habit of claiming success for the work of others, Cervantes said. He said the best example is the budget bill in her first legislative session of 2011.

Martinez’s legacy website cites balancing the budget as one of her greatest accomplishments. “Governor Martinez came into office facing the largest budget deficit in state history of $450 million. Through common-sense reforms, cutting waste, and prioritizing spending, she turned that deficit into a surplus,” the website states.

That’s nonsense, Cervantes said. “Not long after Susana was in office, she began a narrative of proclaiming that she had inherited a $100 million or $200 million deficit. And because she didn’t get challenged by anybody, the media or the Legislature, the story got better and better. It went from ‘I inherited a $100 million deficit’ to ‘I inherited a $200 million deficit.’ If you were to do the research, you’d find that at some point in time they began to claim that she inherited a $500 million or $600 million​ deficit and turned it all around in her first 60 days in office.”

New Mexico’s Constitution requires a balanced budget. The 2011 budget for which Martinez claimed credit was largely shaped by the Legislature, not a novice governor, Cervantes said.

“Remember, she comes into office two weeks before the session begins having no experience in Santa Fe, no experience in the state budget,” he said. “Essentially, the governor adopted the legislative budget.”

Martinez came into office as a prosecutor, a job that requires different political and executive skills than a governor.

“You’ve got to have a thick skin to be a politician, to be an executive of a state. And I just don’t think she got that kind of experience as a prosecutor because she was always either not in the public eye or positively in the public eye for doing good things,” Atkeson said. “There’s nothing controversial about putting child abusers behind bars. So she comes to a world where there’s much more controversy and much more conflict. And she’s just not ready to handle that and she doesn’t have experience to depersonalize politics.”

Garcia, Martinez’s former secretary of higher education, offers a harsh assessment of her tenure.

“Susana is responsible for eight wasted years of governance,” he said. “I can’t think of a single area where policy was actually advanced.”  

Cervantes contrasts Martinez with another Republican governor elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Haley is the daughter of Indian immigrants, an accountant by profession and served in the South Carolina Legislature for six years before being elected governor. She now serves as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a job she plans to leave at the end of the year.

“They were both governors of states, they were both women, they were both from ethnic minorities in our country. And they both were the promising face of the new Republican Party — female, diversity, executive leadership,” Cervantes said. “Nikki Haley has continued to ascend to the highest levels of the national government. Susana will leave office going in the opposite direction. And I think the difference is that Susana was a prosecutor throughout it all. And somebody like Nikki Haley understood how to work with people and to be a little more receptive of others’ input.”


Robert Moore is an El Paso-based independent journalist who has covered Western states’ politics for 35 years.