SALT LAKE CITY — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez kicked off the Western Republican Leadership Conference here Thursday by advising GOP leaders from the region that it's "simply unacceptable" for the party to be divisive.
"We have to make an effort, of course, to reach out to all voters who normally would not be voting Republican, because at the end of the day they may become a Republican like I did," the former Democrat said.
Martinez, the first female Hispanic governor in the country, told the audience of about 100 gathered in the Grand America Hotel ballroom that she succeeded in a largely Democratic state by building relationships, not by buying campaign ads.
"You can truly win people's vote," she said. "You may not get them to change their party, but they may be willing to change how they vote and cross party lines and vote for the best candidate. I think it’s simply unacceptable if our party is to be divisive."
Her remarks came before a panel discussion on "Growing the Vote, Engaging the Hispanic, Asian and African-American Communities" that was closed to the news media.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, the first Hispanic person to hold that position, welcomed the GOP leaders by reminding them that "diversity is a very good thing. It's a positive thing" and introduced Martinez by speaking a few words of Spanish.
Martinez, who was considered by some Republicans as a possible running mate for 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said she is used to being introduced as the nation's first female Hispanic governor.
"I know the enormity of that responsiblity as I’m sure you do. We're a role model," she said, nodding to Reyes. She said she feels a responsiblity to "pave a path where I have delivered on the promises I have made."
Martinez won over the conference audience by holding 6-month-old Boston Crooks, the son of Reyes' campaign consultant, for a while during her speech after spotting his mother rocking him in an aisle.
The Republican National Committee came out with a report last year warning that the party's appeal would continue to decline unless the GOP addresses the nation's changing demographics, including a growing Hispanic population.
Reyes and Gov. Gary Herbert hosted a fundraiser for Martinez before the conference.
The two-day conference, part of the RNC's national effort to provide training for party activists regionally, also included a panel on "Winning the Women's Vote" that included Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.
Lockhart described how offended she was to hear a conservative radio talk show host describe Hillary Clinton, seen by many as the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, as "President Pantsuit."
Even though Lockhart said she's no fan of Clinton's politics, she said the term suggested a woman wearing a pantsuit couldn't be seen as legitimate "because she wasn't in a skirt. That's what I heard as a woman."
The outgoing House speaker said that sends the wrong message to women about Republicans. So does focusing on an ideal of a family that excludes single women, Lockhart said.
"We have to start dealing with reality," she said. "We're seen as old-school."
Sharon Day, co-chair of the RNC, said the party lost big with women 21-40 years old in the 2012 election. "That's what cost Mitt Romney the election," Day said. "We understand we have to do more."
The conference will conclude Friday with a fundraising dinner featuring Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016. Cruz will also appear at a rally Friday at the South Towne Expo Center.
The rally, scheduled from 7-9 p.m., costs $10 to attend and is aimed at kicking off this year's election season in advance of Saturday's Utah GOP State Convention.
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