A portrait of a man in black eyeglasses now hangs in the office of the speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives. The man is the late Walter K. Martinez, who served as House speaker for most of the 1970s. His son, W. Kenneth Martinez, known to most as “Kenny,” now holds the job.
Ever since Kenny Martinez was elected to the House from his district in Grants in 1998 — perhaps even before — people have assumed that one day the now 53-year-old lawyer also would become speaker, considered the state Legislature’s most powerful leadership post.
That dream came true last week on the first day of the Legislature’s 2013 session, when the House formally elected him to succeed Ben Luján, the Nambé Democrat who died last month.
Martinez’s victory was no surprise. Without opposition, Martinez — who had been House Democratic floor leader for seven years — had received the nomination for speaker last month from the Democratic caucus. Most have assumed since Luján’s announcement a year ago that he wouldn’t seek re-election that Martinez would be the next speaker.
“The biggest thing for me was not to appear presumptive or arrogant,” Martinez said in an interview last week. Even before he actually was elected to the job, Martinez had acted as something of a de-facto speaker since Luján’s death.
Martinez said he tried to be extra careful not to step on any toes as he planned for the ceremonial opening of the Legislature — making arrangements for parking, dealing with protocol, recognizing the various dignitaries and families and guests of the 70 state representatives who came to the Roundhouse.
And that’s the pomp and circumstance. Almost immediately after he officially became speaker, Martinez had to appoint members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee to act on House Bill 1, the “feed bill,” which provides funds to pay the costs for the 60-day session.
And soon after that, Martinez had to figure out what he called the “Rubik’s Cube” of committee assignments. One of the major duties of the speaker is to decide who will be members of and chairmen of all the House committees.
House members are expected to serve on two committees each, so the speaker not only has to try to match committees with the skills, backgrounds and interests of the various members, he also has to be careful not to assign members to committees that meet at the same times.
Martinez said he got much help with this from Republican floor leader Don Bratton of Hobbs. “Don was great. I gave him just about all the committee assignments for his members that he asked for,” Martinez said.
Martinez is a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, but since he’s been in the Legislature, he’s enjoyed good relations with his Republican counterparts. He is the godfather of one of the children of former GOP House Whip Dan Foley, who served with Martinez on the House Judiciary Committee.
The speaker also has to figure out office assignments and parking spaces for all House members.
But Martinez said he didn’t really feel like he was speaker until the House passed its first bill, the feed bill.
“We got all the committee assignments done and [House members] introduced 150 bills so far,” Martinez said — knowing hundreds more will come in the next three weeks. As speaker, he gets to set the House agenda, which means he’ll have much control over which of those bills will get heard on the House floor and which won’t.
A child of the Roundhouse
Martinez has been observing the ways of House speakers for decades. He was a preteen when his father won the post.
“We came up here regularly to see my dad,” Martinez recalled. “Two times we actually moved to Santa Fe during sessions. We lived in a trailer behind The Pantry Restaurant on Cerrillos Road.” Martinez attended St. Francis Cathedral School during one of the sessions and St. Michael’s High School during the other.
Walter Martinez was speaker during the era of the “Mama Lucy” Democrats. They were a group of young House members — mainly northern Hispanics — named for a Las Vegas, N.M., restaurant owner, Lucy Lopez, who was known as a mother figure for New Mexico Highlands University students.
According to a 2006 piece by columnist Jay Miller, the elder Martinez “provided the stabilizing influence to keep the group from over-reaching and endangering their positions.” Walter Martinez “provided the calm and caring leadership to keep the faction in power for eight years.”
From the beginning, it was obvious that Kenny Martinez wanted to go straight to the top in the Legislature.
He became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee not long after he arrived at the Roundhouse. By the end of 2004, he had become majority leader, successfully challenging then-leader Danice Picraux for the job. Moments after she lost, Picraux told reporters, “People have been looking at Kenny to be a leader. This is the moment he chose.”
Two years later, he tried to unseat Luján from the speaker’s chair. But he couldn’t find the votes to oust Luján.
While Martinez’s unsuccessful insurgency slowed his trajectory in the Legislature, it didn’t seriously damage his relationship with the man he tried to beat. Luján seemed to take Martinez under his wing.
“He asked me to shadow him for the next 60-day session,” Martinez said. “He went to every event, every meeting.” Martinez said he was amazed by Luján’s stamina.
“We grew closer each year,” Martinez said. In 2010, then-Rep. Joe Cervantes tried to challenge Luján for the speakership. But Martinez made it clear that he wouldn’t be backing any challenge. He was sticking with Luján.
“Ben Luján certainly made me a better floor leader,” Martinez said. “I think he made me a better speaker, too.”
Martinez said he plans to emulate certain aspects of Luján’s style as speaker as well as that of his own father.
How will he differ as speaker from his predecessor? “I live two and a half hours away from Santa Fe, so I won’t be able to make as many events [when the Legislature is not in session], as Speaker Luján did,” Martinez said.
He also said he’ll probably delegate more power to committee chairmen.
There are indications Martinez might be more active in presenting a united front with Senate Democrats and the state Democratic Party to counter Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Speaker Martinez is appearing with Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, this week at a Monday news conference and a Tuesday “town hall” teleconference. The state party is publicizing both events.
Kenny Martinez, who is not related to the governor, said he believes the House should debate legislation on its own merits instead of just doing what the governor wants to do. “We shouldn’t even refer to the executive in debates,” he said. “You should only be arguing how it will affect the people of New Mexico. Before we talk about what the governor wants, we should talk about what my House members think.”
Contact Steve Terrell at email@example.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.