For Democrats in New Mexico, the prospects of regaining the governor’s seat this year couldn’t be more discouraging. Yet, their only hope—and the only hope for voters who want to say goodbye to Gov. Susana Martinez—lies in one of five candidates who will come out on the other side of the June 3 primary election.
Since taking office in early 2011, Martinez has stuck to a steady stream of talking tough on Republican buzz issues—ending driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and eliminating the “social promotion” of advancing third graders who can’t read, for example. She’s also nurtured a carefully crafted public image replete with a familiar conservative “aw shucks” charm and repeatedly underlined important legislative victories like dropping the state’s corporate tax rate.
But most importantly for the national Republican Party is how Martinez is living proof that the GOP can get beyond its white, male-dominated country club visage and reach out to Hispanics, who make up about 46 percent of New Mexicans and are the fastest-growing electorate demographic in the nation.
It’s an image that’s proved lucrative. Her previous and upcoming lavish national fundraisers have lineups of Republican heavyweights like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, rumored presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Her most recently reported campaign treasure chest featured more than $4 million in the bank—quadruple that of what Alan Webber, her best-financed Democratic opponent, has reported raising since last fall.
Less than two years into her first term, Martinez was on the shortlist to be presidential contender Mitt Romney’s running mate. Her name is already coming up for that slot again in 2016. Or maybe it’s for something bigger.
“You just pay attention to my friend Susana Martinez down in New Mexico,” boasted former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to US News and World Report in February. “After she gets re-elected I’m hopeful that she raises her visibility because...I hope she decides to run for president.”
All of this, plus approval ratings that have stayed above mid-50s, have even some Democrats drinking the Kool-Aid, including Northern New Mexico mayors who appeared in a recent television ad.
The last time an incumbent governor lost an election in New Mexico was 1994, when Republican Gary Johnson took out Democrat Bruce King. Last month, Democratic Governors Association Chairman Peter Shumlin said his organization is unlikely to help Martinez’ opposition with money and media buys this year. It’s enough to make New Mexico’s Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the state by a 49-32 registration edge, want to wallow in the mire.
Still, the Democratic governor primary is the most contested it’s been in 16 years. If history is the guide, turnout will be low. Only registered Democratic voters are allowed to cast ballots in the party’s gubernatorial primary. In 1998, just 170,736 of the state’s 468,863 registered Democrats showed up to vote for governor in that round.
This time, five candidates make up a crowded ballot. They include two state senators not very well known outside of their districts and a high-ranking Democrat from a political family dynasty. A Santa Fe transplant with business acumen and a longtime bureaucrat round out a race that could be won on a small margin.
The contenders share many of the same positions on raising the minimum wage and reforming education, again.
Voters, however, are looking ahead to which one of them can challenge Martinez competitively. What will it take to unseat her?
Three of the candidates have been playing up their Hispanic heritage. State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Catron, credits his ethnicity with helping him get in the door of the homes of prospective Hispanic voters. Lawrence Rael, a former transportation and City of Albuquerque official, produced Spanish radio ads and has attacked the Martinez administration the hardest for racial implications in a leaked audio tape of an aide referring to former state House Speaker Ben Luján as a “retard.”
But Linda Lopez, another state senator running for the nomination, is the most outspoken candidate on the topic.
“As a woman, I feel like I can challenge her in many ways that everybody else cannot,” Lopez says of Martinez. “So there’s no special qualities that either she or I have; it’s at a level playing field. And then we can really debate the issues.”
Webber, a short, bald Anglo man, says he’s got something else the other candidates lack and that anyone taking on Martinez needs—the ability to raise tons of money. He argues that his name recognition from his background as editor of national business publications mean he has a Rolodex of people all over the country who could help his candidacy.
“There are folks whose names are in the ethers who are trying to be counterweights to the Koch brothers,” Webber says, referring to the oil magnates who have supported a plethora of conservative causes, including Martinez. “I think they would be very interested in a candidacy where I am the nominee.”
His emphasis on money reflects a statement from former state Democratic Party Chairman Javier Gonzales, now Santa Fe’s mayor. Last year, Gonzales said that anyone taking on Martinez had to raise $8 to $10 million to be competitive. But Webber’s also been criticized for repeatedly telling news outlets that he doesn’t believe in self-financed campaigns, then putting up $450,000 for his own war chest.
Like Gonzales’ mayoral campaign earlier this year, Webber is taking pages out of the national progressive playbook, making campaign vows to raise taxes on the rich and hammering Martinez for her association with the Koch brothers.
Originally from St. Louis, Webber got his start in politics in the early 1970s under Neil Goldschmidt, a Portland, Oregon, city councilor who soon became mayor.
Webber wrote speeches and worked on policy for Goldschmidt, which included projects like halting the construction of a major freeway on Portland’s east side, establishing groundwork for the city’s light rail line and turning an old highway into a waterfront park. Much of it laid the groundwork for the city’s progressive image.
“These are the things that, now when people go to Portland, they think it’s a very sustainable city,” he says. “In the ’70s, those were the seeds that were being planted.”
Goldschmidt took Webber to Washington in 1979 to work for President Jimmy Carter. But after Ronald Reagan replaced Carter, Goldschmidt went back to Oregon, eventually becoming the state’s governor.
Webber moved to Massachusetts, where he became a writer for, and eventually editorial director of, Harvard Business Review. In 1995, he and fellow Harvard writer Bill Taylor launched Fast Company Magazine, which centered on the rapid growth of the new, globalized “idea” economy. He moved to Santa Fe full time about 10 years ago.
Though he’s sometimes portrayed as the most liberal candidate in the race, he often dwells on business-friendly lingo when he talks about his vision for the state. He describes the governor’s job as “the chief executive officer and the chief marketing officer to tell New Mexico’s story.” Part of New Mexico’s economic future, he argues, includes public-private partnerships and stronger solar incentives.
His model for a successful governor is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former businessman whom Webber gives partial credit for helping five Colorado cities rank in the top 25 cities with the most technology startups.
“He’s not going around playing beggar thy neighbor games with the bordering states,” Webber says of Hickenlooper. “He’s saying we have so many technology entrepreneurs, so many social entrepreneurs, so much going on here, you can’t afford not to be here.”
While Webber focuses big on the economy, Howie Morales takes it a step further: promising 200,000 “net new” jobs by the year 2022. Morales says he can do this because he’s the only Democratic candidate who’s had experience crafting a state budget.
Known for his polite manner as a lawmaker in the Roundhouse and athletic ability during the annual legislative basketball game, Morales may be the closest thing the Democrats have to a unified candidate. He can count on ground support because of key labor endorsements from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Labor and the Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (better known as OLÉ). At the state Democratic Party preprimary convention in March, Morales won with an eight-point lead in a contest that many expected to be close. There, he gave a rousing stump speech that fired up the crowd.
At the same time, Morales hasn’t been able to translate that success into cash. He’s raised less than $200,000, the second lowest amount of the five candidates. He’s one of three Democratic candidates who have yet to buy TV or radio time.
One of his pet peeves with Martinez is how her administration enacts parts of its agenda through executive order, bypassing the state Legislature the way it did for a controversial teacher evaluation system. A Morales administration, he says, would respect the separation of powers. Although he voted against the corporate tax cuts in 2013, he says changes to them under his administration should come through the Legislature.
Morales does have the distinction of being the only Democratic candidate from southern New Mexico—Martinez’ home turf. He came to the state senate in 2008, when former Gov. Bill Richardson appointed him to represent the Silver City area after state Sen. Ben Altamirano’s death. Before that, he served as Grant County clerk.
In the early 2000s, he went for his doctorate in education as what he says was a response to seeing No Child Left Behind reforms in the schools. Recently, he’s worked as a hospital administrator, a job he left last fall to run for governor.
Morales can cite legislation that he’s written that directly addressed many of the problems he and his opponents constantly talk about on the campaign trail. In 2013, he introduced and passed a bill that would have changed the state’s teacher evaluation system, essentially replacing the standardized testing component with “peer-assisted reviews.” Martinez vetoed the bill.
Though Morales isn’t afraid to criticize Martinez, he often says that the race “can’t be all about the blame game.” It’s a style that contrasts with Lawrence Rael’s aggressive campaign approach, which has included critique of the governor and sometimes his Democratic opponents.
Rael, a product of a Mexican mother and a New Mexican father, is probably best known for his work on Rail Runner commuter trains when he was the executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments. Before that, he worked as chief administrative officer for the City of Albuquerque. Though his government accomplishments are impressive—including that Rael was appointed by President Obama’s administration to direct the Farm Services Agency for New Mexico—his electoral history is lacking, most recently with a failed 2010 attempt at the Democratic Party nomination for lieutenant governor.
This time, he’s using the same contacts and heavier rhetoric.
He’s called the Martinez administration “rotten to the core” and dubbed one of recent criticisms of public employee unions “a declaration of war.”
When Mother Jones magazine published a critical article of Martinez’ administration that featured the leaked “retard” comment, Rael quickly assembled a press conference on Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza demanding an apology and the resignation of the person who made the comment.
In February, he challenged Morales’ ballot nominations in court, arguing that his opponent didn’t have enough proper signatures to get his name on the primary ballot. He soon dropped the challenge. He’s also busted on Webber for being an outsider.
His campaign promises have similar punches to them. To deal with New Mexico’s dwindling water supply, Rael proposes appointing a “water cabinet” of experts who would come up with a comprehensive water strategy. On the question of economic development, Rael says he would form a cabinet of “at least 15 to 20 CEOs” with existing businesses in the state.
Like Webber, Rael says the governor’s office should be the “chief executive” of the state. Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democratic state senator, rejects the business comparisons. She maintains that the governor “doesn’t create jobs” but instead creates environments.
Her proposed economic initiatives include establishing an internship program for young people to work in state government. She’s emphasized that she won’t create new tax credits or taxes and adds that corporate tax cuts approved at Martinez’ urging during the 2013 legislative session would “remain static for now.”
Lopez faces arguably the biggest uphill battle to the nomination of any of the candidates. At the preprimary convention, she received less than 20 percent of the delegate vote. She’s also raised the smallest amount of money of any of the candidates, reporting less than $64,000.
On the campaign trail, her statements sometimes come out as anemic.
“I even go as far to say that [Martinez] doesn’t even like who she is,” Lopez said at a recent candidate forum. “And if she doesn’t like who she is, how can she like our state, much less love it?”
Lopez has served in the state senate for almost 20 years, first elected in 1996 by ousting an incumbent to represent Albuquerque’s South Valley, which is 80 percent Hispanic and contains many low-income residents. She’s tried at higher positions before, including failed attempts at the state Senate pro-tem position and the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010, where she came in fourth in a field of five, and Rael had a stronger showing at second.
Though she often clashed with former Gov. Bill Richardson during his two terms, most voters recognize her today as chair of the Senate Rules Committee. Lopez led roasts of interim Public Education Department Secretary Hannah Skandera in 2013—who still hasn’t had a confirmation vote from the Senate floor—and asked Martinez to answer questions about the Downs at Albuquerque racino deal earlier this year. Martinez declined to attend the hearing.
Lopez is running for governor, she says, because it’s something she’s been planning to do since high school. It’s an answer similar to that of Gary King, who, when pressed, says that, “If Susana Martinez weren’t running for governor, I’d probably still be running.”
King tried it twice before he became the state’s attorney general seven years ago. He lost the primary in 1998 to former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez, who lost in the general election that year to incumbent Gov. Johnson. In 2002, King made another attempt at governor but dropped out of the primary when it became clear that Richardson had more money and name recognition.
This time, King argues it’s his turn, pointing out that he’s since won two statewide elections, receiving more votes in his 2010 reelection for attorney general than Martinez did for governor. He has the strongest name recognition in the primary, beating his Democratic opponents by more than 20 points in poll released two months ago by a DC firm.
The Democratic Party base, however, hasn’t exactly shown excitement in King’s candidacy, which he announced nearly two years ago. At the preprimary convention, King fared the worst with just 10 percent of the delegate support. He attributes that to his previous prosecutions of Democratic Party officeholders like former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, who was indicted in 2009 on charges of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement.
“There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who have an axe to grind with me right now, and the convention was an opportunity to show their displeasure,” King says.
But critics point to a troubled term as attorney general, which included dropping the ball on several corruption investigations. Vigil-Giron, for example, was cleared in 2012 when a district judge ruled that King’s office had broken her right to a speedy trial.
King, who speaks with a wonky, nasally tone, acknowledges that he hasn’t been great with messaging in his role as attorney general.
“Most of the criticism that I get comes from either political pundits or party activists,” he says. “I think if you go out and talk to people who we’ve helped keep their house, or people we’ve helped recover from an identity scam, or people whose child was abused by a relative and who we’ve now put the relative in jail…all of those people are pretty happy with what I’m doing.”
A former state lawmaker, King is best known as being the son of former Gov. Bruce King, who’s still revered in state political circles.
King grew up on a ranch near Moriarty. In college, he went into chemistry, eventually earning a doctorate at the University of Colorado. He also earned a law degree from University of New Mexico. He was first elected to the state Legislature in 1986, where he worked on laws to protect water, regulate solid waste and promote alternative fuel use in state vehicles.
As attorney general, he cites accomplishments in going after human trafficking. In fact, more of his campaign speeches address past feats over plans he has for the state as governor.
He’s adamant that childhood welfare has to change, citing recent controversies in the Children, Youth and Families Department, a state department that his mother Alice King helped spearhead in the 1990s when she was first lady.
One idea he has for revamping education is to allow elementary school teachers to rotate on teaching certain subjects the way that they do in middle school and high school. Unlike some of his Democratic Party counterparts, he says he’s not crazy about the idea of dropping the education secretary position and bringing back the old state school board.
“It was so low on the totem pole that people didn’t know who they were electing to the state school board,” he says.
Mainly, he argues that he’s not done with public service and still has much to add. Several remain skeptical that King or any of his four opponents can successfully take on Martinez this fall. Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who lost to Martinez in the general election four years ago, says two things need to happen. First, the Democrats have to be excited and united around next month’s primary winner, and then they need to create a “distrust and dislike” perception in voters of the current governor.
“People turn out if they have something to vote for or vote against,” she says.
Meet the Democrats for Governor
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Morales voted to table a bill that would have brought greater state government oversight to Tierra Blanca. Although the bill was tabled, that happened in another committee. SFR regrets the error.