SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez used her debut on the national political stage Wednesday night to offer a message of hope and opportunity, describing how she rose from modest roots in a border community to become the nation's first female Hispanic governor.
Martinez made a prime-time appearance at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., speaking minutes before Paul Ryan accepted the vice presidential nomination.
She offered her life story as an example of the "promise of America" and emphasized the importance of the presidential election in preserving those opportunities for future generations.
Martinez made political history with her election in 2010, becoming the first woman elected as governor of New Mexico as well as the nation's first Latina governor.
"Growing up, I never imagined a little girl from a border town could one day become a governor," Martinez said. "But this is America. My parents taught me to never give up and to always believe that my future could be whatever I dreamt it to be."
Martinez grew up the youngest of three children in El Paso, Texas, only a few miles from the border with Mexico. A great-grandfather was a revolutionary general in Mexico a century ago.
The governor's father, an ex-Marine and boxer, served more than a decade as a deputy sheriff and later started a private security business. Her mother worked in office jobs. While Martinez was still in high school, she helped out as security guard in the family business and became came certified to carry a firearm.
After law school at the University of Oklahoma, Martinez became a prosecutor in the district attorney's office in Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico. She switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican before running for the district attorney's job and defeated the Democratic incumbent in 1996. She easily won re-election in the solidly Democratic county.
Martinez spoke at the Republican National Convention after former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"Given the significant under-representation of Hispanics and other populations of color in the Republican Party, I think that Gov. Martinez's appearance as well as Condoleezza Rice's are important additions to the lineup ... to send the message that the Republican Party seeks to be more inclusive," said Christine Sierra, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "But mere speeches alone will not accomplish that."
"My parents also taught me about having the courage to stand for something," Martinez said in her speech. "I fear some of our leaders today have lost the courage to stand up. What we have now are politicians. They won't offer real plans. And only stand up when they want to blame someone else...
"This election should not be about political parties. Too many Americans are out of work. And our debt is out of control," she added. "It is the responsibility of both parties to offer up real solutions and have an honest debate."
After taking office as governor last year, Martinez worked with the Democrat-controlled Legislature to plug a budget deficit through spending cuts. But Martinez advocated modest increases for Medicaid, which provides medical services to a fourth of the state's population. The governor has an older sister with cerebral palsy and Martinez serves as her legal guardian. The sister lives with a caretaker in Las Cruces and receives health care through Medicaid.
Martinez has battled Democrats in the Legislature over her proposal to stop New Mexico from granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
"I inherited the largest structural deficit in state history," she said. "And our legislature is controlled by Democrats. We don't always agree. But we came together — in a bi-partisan manner — and turned that deficit into a surplus. All without raising taxes."