RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's turn to the governor of New Mexico who is considered the ultimate immigrant success story. Two generations after her Mexican grandparents arrived in the United States, Susana Martinez became the nation's first Latina governor. And with an overall approval rating of 66 percent, she's arguably the most popular Republican governor in the country. Still, that popularity does not translate to support from many Hispanics.
From member station KJZZ, Monica Ortiz Uribe reports
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Nearly half the population in New Mexico is Hispanic, and one issue that makes many Latino voters here seethe, is their governor's stance on driver's licenses and illegal immigrants.
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URIBE: Governor Susana Martinez campaigned on the issue, promising to repeal a law that makes New Mexico one of only three states in the country where illegal immigrants can get a driver's license. At a speech in Albuquerque last year, Martinez said getting rid of the law is a matter of public safety.
: We have thousands of individuals who come to our state, from not just Mexico, but all over the world in order to gain that very valuable ID.
URIBE: A bill to repeal the driver's license law has failed three times in the state legislature. Critics suspect Martinez's support of that bill is part of a long-term political strategy. Adrian Pedroza works with Hispanic neighborhoods in Albuquerque as the director of a local nonprofit.
ADRIAN PEDROZA: Why she's introducing policies that are divisive to the Latino community, we could only guess that it's for political gain.
URIBE: Martinez is often touted as a possible Republican vice presidential nominee, an offer she's said she'd decline. See, Martinez is a rare gem in the Republican Party. She grew up in a family of Democrats, in a bilingual household just blocks from the border with Mexico. At 18, she worked in her father's business as a security guard, carrying a revolver outside a bingo hall.
She graduated law school and later considered entering politics. That's when some Republican friends took her out to dinner. It's a story she often shares publicly.
: We talked about values; we talked about where we stood in reference to how the economy was going; 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 in the car with my husband, Chuck, and saying: well, I'll be, I'm a Republican.
Shortly after that, she ran for and was elected district attorney in the southern county of Dona Ana. New Mexico is considered a swing state that tends to lean in favor of Democrats, but a recent poll shows Martinez enjoys a two-thirds approval rating. Hispanics, on the other hand, approve of the governor by only one-third.
CINDY RETANA: I think because she is a Hispanic woman, she gets criticized more.
URIBE: Cindy Retana is a school principal in El Paso and is a younger cousin of Martinez's. She says Martinez is being singled out for criticism because of her ethnic background.
RETANA: She's seen as forgetting where you come from, not being supportive of immigrants, which is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth.
URIBE: Martinez has said she is proud of her Mexican heritage, but rarely speaks about her experience as a Latina. She faces the same burning question as other high-profile Hispanic Republicans, like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Florida Senator Marco Rubio: Can she make the party more appealing to Latino voters, nationally?
What is certain is that the GOP faces an uphill battle. A recent poll of Hispanic voters by Fox News Latino, shows President Obama leading all Republican candidates by five-to-one.
For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe.
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