By Barry Massey
AP Political Writer
ALBUQUERQUE — Republican Susana Martinez won election Tuesday as governor of New Mexico, making history as the first Hispanic woman to become a state’s chief executive.
Martinez, 51, defeated Democrat Diane Denish to also be elected New Mexico’s first female governor. There was no incumbent in the race, with Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson barred from seeking re-election because he is finishing his second consecutive terms.
Martinez, a career prosecutor from southern New Mexico, made Richardson a central figure in the campaign. She ran as if the election was a referendum on the governor, whose popularity sank amid high unemployment and federal investigations into pay-to-play allegations.
Denish has served as lieutenant governor for two terms, and was Richardson’s running mate in 2002 and 2006.
Throughout the campaign, Martinez criticized policies and double-digit spending increases that took place during the “Richardson-Denish administration.” Many of her ads showed a photo of Denish alongside a smiling Richardson.
“We can’t afford four more years of the same,” the announcer said in one ad aired late in the campaign.
The race for governor was Martinez’s first bid for statewide elective office. She vowed to roll back many of Richardson’s policies, including laws allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and the children of illegal immigrants to receive lottery-backed college scholarships if they graduate from a New Mexico high school. She advocated reinstating the death penalty, which was repealed in 2009.
Martinez once was a Democrat but became a Republican before successfully running in 1996 for Dona Ana County district attorney against her former boss.
She was born in El Paso, Texas, and worked as a security guard for her family’s business when she was in high school. She received her law degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1986 and went to work in New Mexico as an assistant district attorney.
Denish, 61, portrayed herself as the candidate with the most experience to revive New Mexico’s sputtering economy. She advocated tax credits for small businesses to create jobs, proposed to ban payday loans and expand early childhood education programs.
Before becoming lieutenant governor, Denish owned a company in Albuquerque that did market research and fundraising for non-profits. She served as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party in 1999-2001.
Denish was born in Hobbs and grew up in a political family in the Little Texas area of southeastern New Mexico.