GOP Rising Star: Gov. Martinez Is A Former Democrat

New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez speaks at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night. The party hopes the nation's first Hispanic female governor will help showcase diversity, and in turn, attract Hispanic voters.

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And we'll be covering the impact of Hurricane Isaac throughout the morning on the program. Let's turn now to Tampa and the Republican convention. This evening, delegates will hear from Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico. She's the nation's first Hispanic female governor. The GOP feels Martinez showcases the party's diversity. They hope she'll help attract Hispanic voters. But there's another reason Governor Martinez is a jewel for Republicans - she was once a Democrat. Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: It's a typical immigrant story in the Southwest. Susana Martinez' grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico. Their citizen children voted Democratic as most Hispanics do in New Mexico. So did their granddaughter, Susana, until, as an assistant district attorney, Republican friends had a talk with her about issues.

GOVERNOR SUSANA MARTINEZ: We talked about welfare as being a hand up and not a way of life. We talked about the freedoms, the Second Amendment. And I remember walking out of there and getting into the car with my husband Chuck and saying, well, I'll be. I'm a Republican.

ROBBINS: Martinez ran for district attorney in New Mexico's Dona Ana County, just north of the Mexican border. Then she leaped to statewide office in 2010, defeating the current lieutenant governor by linking her to the unpopular Democratic governor, Bill Richardson.

MARTINEZ: This election it's a clear choice - four more years of the same or bold change. If you're ready for something new, join me. It's our state. Together we'll take it back.

JOE MONAHAN: When a Republican wins the governorship of New Mexico, it's generally in reaction to bad things that happened under a Democrat, not joy or support for a Republican platform necessarily.

ROBBINS: That's longtime New Mexico political observer Joe Monahan. His analysis is simple math - Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Mexico. The legislature is controlled by Democrats. Martinez has been unable to push through many of her priorities. She has tried three times to repeal a law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. On the other hand, she says she has no interest in a bill similar to neighboring Arizona's anti-illegal-immigrant SB-1070.

MARTINEZ: 'Cause I never want an individual who's in New Mexico, who has been a victim of a violent crime not to be able to dial 9-1-1 and call the police and get the same treatment that any American citizen would receive as a victim of crime.

ROBBINS: Martinez also says she supports some parts of Obamacare, like the Medicaid expansion. New Mexico has a lot of poverty. Almost half of all New Mexicans are of Hispanic descent. Martinez got a lower percentage of the Hispanic vote for governor than George W. Bush did for president in 2004. But, since getting elected, her overall approval rating has been high. Joe Monahan says it's because of who she is, rather than what she's done.

MONAHAN: She remains a symbolic, you know, a symbol for the party, not someone you're going to see on "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation," debating future American foreign policy, or that kind of thing.

ROBBINS: For a Republican Party struggling to connect with Hispanic voters, Governor Susana Martinez may be the perfect symbol.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tampa.

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