New Mexico House Democrats took just one hour on Tuesday to elect Rep. Javier Martínez as the majority leader. They hope its rapid rise will be a step towards healing from a latent scandal.
Martínez, 39, replaces Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who stepped down 12 days ago following a criminal investigation. Staff at the state attorney general have listed Williams Stapleton as a suspect in a corruption investigation involving the theft of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from public schools in his employer in Albuquerque.
“One of the first things we need to do is rebuild the office. We have to regain confidence, ”Martínez said in an interview.
He beat two colleagues, Reps Liz Thomson and Miguel Garcia, in the first round of a closed-door Democratic caucus at the State Capitol. The three lawmakers represent the districts of Albuquerque, as does Williams Stapleton.
Born in a district of El Paso a few meters from the Mexican border, Martínez spent the first seven years of his life in Ciudad Juárez. He didn’t speak English when his Mexican-born father got a green card and moved the family to Albuquerque in search of better opportunities.
Young Javier started out far behind most of his classmates, but turned out to be a brilliant student. In fifth grade, he no longer needed to study English as a second language.
His mother and father told him that education was the key to success, a message he listened to. Martínez graduated from Highland High School, then obtained a bachelor’s degree and law degrees from the University of New Mexico.
He had been interested in politics from an early age and saw its opening in 2014. Longtime Rep. Rick Miera retired from the Legislature that year. Martínez ran for the vacant seat, winning the decisive Democratic primary with 78 percent of the vote.
But he went from overwhelming winner to first-year loser overnight. Martínez’s triumph coincided with the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 62 years.
Democrats regained control of the House in the 2016 election, and Martínez competed with Williams Stapleton for the majority leader. She had been in office for 22 years. He had been a member of the House for two years. Williams Stapleton won the post.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Martínez’s election as the majority leader should be seen as a sign of his party’s taking responsibility in times of crisis.
“When problems arise as we saw with the former leader, we take quick action,” Egolf said.
He credited Martínez with being a key player in important Democratic initiatives, many of them in education.
Martínez was one of the main sponsors of the state’s constitutional amendment proposal to expand early childhood education and other school initiatives. He whitewashed the legislature in the winter after 11 years of failure. Voters have the final say on whether or not to approve the amendment, which would fund the additional programs out of the state’s permanent land grant fund of $ 22 billion.
Egolf credited Martínez with being a leader on other education bills. One of them added $ 1 billion in funding to help comply with a court order to improve public schools. Another ended the state’s practice of intercepting and redistributing tens of millions of federal dollars intended for school districts on Native American lands.
Martínez said he was anxious about whether to run for the majority.
First, he said, there was the pain and sadness to see Williams Stapleton’s legislative career end badly. Then, Martínez said, he wondered if this was the right decision for him, as he liked to chair the Tax and Income Commission.
“Put that one above the fold,” he said of the apparent incongruity of being energized by trying to improve the state’s cluttered tax code.
“It was a difficult decision. Thinking about it, I felt it was the right time for me,” said Martínez.
Although a lawyer, he works as the executive director of the Partnership for Community Action, an agency whose mission is to improve communities in the South Albuquerque Valley and New Mexico.
His colleagues in the House applauded him after winning the election as quickly as possible.
“It was clear from this vote that the caucus was united,” said Albuquerque Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil.
Thomson on Tuesday morning predicted Martínez would beat her with Garcia for the majority leader. She said she hesitated a bit before declaring, fearing to sound like “I was dancing at Sheryl’s grave”.
By the time Thomson stepped in, she said, Martínez had gathered more than enough votes to win.
As Martínez prepared to leave the Capitol on Tuesday evening, a colleague told him she expected great achievements from him.
“No pressure, eh? ” he said.
Martínez has the job he wanted. He never thought he would get it in the middle of a scandal.
Ringside Seat is an opinion piece on people, politics and current affairs. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.