While most of the media coverage of 2016 GOP presidential contenders has been focused on Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and lately Jeb Bush, Gov. Susana Martinez is a sleeper candidate to watch. After all, she had enough charm and political acumen to snag the governorship of a blue state like New Mexico, and, as Andy Kroll at Mother Jones details in his new profile of Martinez, she’s very good at putting on a nice face for the cameras. It’s the time when she’s away from the cameras that Kroll is most interested in, though. Using a bunch of leaked emails and recordings capturing Martinez’s private interactions with her staff, Kroll paints a picture of a woman who has dramatically different public and private personas. Mother Jones’ illustrator takes it a step further, portraying Martinez in an open-mouthed sneer, with smoke and fire rising up behind her to really get the point across.
The audio recordings Kroll released demonstrate that Martinez and her inner circle are mouthy and love to curse, for sure. “Listening to recordings of Martinez talking with her aides is like watching an episode of HBO’s Veep, with over-the-top backroom banter full of pique, self-regard, and vindictiveness,” Kroll writes. Martinez and her closest aide, Jay McCleskey, are fond of calling people “bitch.” Kroll has an audio of Martinez calling her opponent Diane Denish “that little bitch” and a 2009 email from McCleskey in which he writes about former state representative Janice Arnold-Jones, “I FUCKING HATE THAT BITCH!” Kroll also demonstrates that Martinez has a tendency to burn bridges, refuses to engage with anyone she differs with, and holds petty grudges. This is in strong contrast with Martinez’s “meticulously cultivated” public image of “a well-liked, bipartisan, warm-hearted governor,” an image that has earned her strong approval ratings in a state that largely votes Democratic. The point is clear: Martinez may be all sweetness and light when she faces the public, but behind closed doors, she’s Chris Christie.
That may be, but it’s hard to imagine this revelation hurting Martinez. At this point, most voters assume there’s a vast gulf between a politician’s public persona and private self. Plus, the double standard we’re all so familiar with might actually work in Martinez’s favor: If Christie calls a woman the B-word, he’s a bully. When Martinez does, she’s tough.
More likely to cause problems is an audio recording of Martinez’s deputy campaign manager making fun of the former state House speaker Ben Luján’s English skills. “Somebody told me he’s absolutely eloquent in Spanish, but his English? He sounds like a retard,” the aide says.
Considering that Martinez highlights her own identity as a Latina born and raised in the Southwest, this kind of mockery of a bilingual politician does run the chance of making her look like a jerk to voters. (Though it might play just fine to the conservative base.)
The most troubling revelations in Kroll’s piece are about Martinez’s lack of knowledge. In one leaked email, Martinez expresses ignorance of the controversy over the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear waste storage site that is highly controversial in New Mexico and has been for years. Kroll also has a recording of a 2010 campaign conference call about the state’s Commission on the Status of Women that shows that Martinez doesn’t feel she needs to know anything about an office to know she’s against it.
“What the hell is that?” she asked.
“I don’t know what the fuck they do,” replied her deputy campaign manager, Matt Kennicott.
“What the hell does a commission on women’s cabinet do all day long?” Martinez asked.
“I think [deputy campaign operations director Matt] Stackpole wants to be the director of that so he can study more women,” Kennicott said.
“Well, we have to do what we have to do,” McCleskey chimed in, as Martinez burst out laughing. (As governor, she would line-item veto the commission’s entire budget.)
This lack of intellectual curiosity should be the sort of thing that hurts Martinez’s aspirations to step up on the national stage. Then again, the same qualities didn’t seem to do much to hurt George W. Bush’s chances when he made the leap from Southwestern governor to presidential candidate. Anyone who watched Martinez’s speech during the 2012 Republican National Convention can attest to her ability to charm audiences. That’s the sort of quality that can easily overcome revelations such as these, meaning that Susana Martinez is still a strong possibility for a 2016 presidential run.