‘A game changer:’ DA Martinez is running for governor
Martinez will announce her candidacy at a news conference in Las Cruces on Friday
Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez, a Republican, will formally announce Friday that she is running for governor next year.
Martinez is not taking the intermediate step of forming an exploratory committee, as some others have done. She will announce her decision to run at a news conference at Roberto’s restaurant in Las Cruces at 5:30 p.m. Friday, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed.
Martinez, who turned 50 today, has not publicly confirmed her decision, but she has notified some people close to her.
Jose Z. Garcia, a New Mexico State University government professor and political analyst, said Martinez’s entry into the race will be “a game changer,” both in the Republican primary and, if she wins the primary, a general-election matchup with likely 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Diane Denish.
Martinez is Hispanic. She’s a woman. She has a proven record of winning Democratic votes away from Democratic opponents. And she’s a prosecutor at a time when the state’s Democrats are mired in corruption scandals.
“Susana brings all kinds of attractive qualities to that race,” said Garcia, an active Democrat. “She would be a formidable candidate.”
The GOP has been hammering Denish, the state’s lieutenant governor, in an attempt to tie her to corruption scandals plaguing Gov. Bill Richardson and his administration. If Martinez makes it through the Republican primary, the negative attacks won’t be necessary, Garcia said.
“The fact that Susana has fought corruption, and can say that it’s time to clean up the state and she’s the candidate to do it, I think would bring an enormous amount of credibility,” Garcia said. “…She just goes positive on herself and people will believe it.”
Martinez, like all Republican candidates, starts off way behind Denish in fundraising. As of her last campaign report, which was filed last year, Martinez had just under $10,000 in her account. She can use it for a gubernatorial race.
Denish has about $2 million in her campaign account.
But can she win a primary?
The real question, Garcia said, is whether Martinez, as a Hispanic woman, can win the primary. While Martinez should be “highly competitive,” Garcia said winning the primary “may be a much more difficult task than winning the general election, although certainly Diane will not be a pushover.”
For example, she worked with Democrats and Republicans on the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners in 2005 to pass a gross receipts tax hike to put more police officers on the streets.
State Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell and a retired FBI agent, said he’s “excited about what a candidacy by Susana Martinez brings to the whole debate” because she’s a prosecutor. He said the major issues the state faces are corruption and public safety, and Martinez would be strong on both.
He also had nothing but praise for other Republicans who are running or considering running for governor and said he’s not endorsing Martinez.
“I’m excited about the candidates we have in this race,” Kintigh said. “We can have a good debate and have good choices. The Democrats are stuck with an anointed individual.”
The only other declared Republican gubernatorial candidate is Albuquerque financial adviser and Army National Guard brigadier general Greg Zanetti. Former state GOP Chairman Allen Weh and state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Albuquerque, have formed exploratory committees. Doug Turner, CEO of the Albuquerque-based public relations firm DW Turner, has joined Wilson in saying he is seriously considering the race.
Arnold-Jones called Martinez “an excellent candidate.” Weh said in a prepared statement that Martinez is one of “many fantastic Republicans in this state.” Both welcomed her to the race. Turner said it’s “great” that Martinez is running because Republicans should have a choice.
Once a Democrat
Martinez is one of the most battle-tested politicians in the state’s second-largest county. She used to be a Democrat and worked in the district attorney’s office in Las Cruces in the early 1990s under then-DA Greg Valdez, also a Democrat. When Valdez fired her, Martinez sued for wrongful termination and won a settlement of more than $100,000 from the state.
Martinez then switched parties, ran against Valdez in 1996 and defeated the incumbent with 59 percent of the vote. She won re-election in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote against Democrat Kent Yalkut, and got almost 60 percent of the vote in defeating Valdez in 2004. Last year, she had no challenger.
There’s bad blood between Martinez and many Democratic activists in Doña Ana County who have accused her of political prosecutions. Former County Clerk Ruben Ceballos, a Democrat, was forced from office several years ago after being convicted of elections violations. Former Magistrate Judge Reuben Galvan, another Democrat, resigned in 2005 after being charged with rape and bribery. After two hung juries, that case was dismissed.
And there was the Welcome Inn case. In 1999, Miguel O. “Mike” Gonzales and his son, Michael Gonzales Jr., the owners of the bar, were indicted on racketeering charges.
They fought to get Martinez and her office disqualified from the case by alleging that past ties, including the fact that the younger Gonzales once worked with Martinez under Valdez, created a conflict. After years of appeals, the state Supreme Court disqualified Martinez and her office from prosecuting the case, saying, regardless of whether there was bad blood, that the prior relationships created at least a perceived conflict of interest.
A special prosecutor dropped the charges in 2006. He said the strength of the case was not the issue, though he would not elaborate, and said Martinez and her office had done a good job with the case.
Regardless of what many of the Democratic leaders in the Las Cruces area think about Martinez, Garcia pointed out that she has shown huge crossover appeal in election after election. He said that will help her not only in Doña Ana County but in Hispanic and heavily Democratic Northern New Mexico as well, if she can survive the primary.
“It’s not hypothetical,” Garcia said. “She’s proven that she can win.”