House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, walks the tennis courts at Mesa Verde Park in the neighborhood where he grew up. After growing up in Juárez, Mexico, he only spoke Spanish when he arrived in Albuquerque at the age of 7. (Eddie Moore/)
Copyright © 2022
Javier Martínez sits at a graffiti-covered picnic table a few yards from an abandoned syringe and points to the block where his political career nearly began.
He recalls campaigning for city council 19 years ago in the Albuquerque neighborhood of La Mesa, east of Louisiana and north of Central, where he grew up, and then finished sixth in a field of seven. Martin Heinrich, now US Senator, won the race.
Since then, Martínez has not lost much.
He won election to the House of Representatives in 2014, representing downtown Albuquerque, near North Valley and Barelas.
But he’s moving into one of the most prestigious jobs on the Capitol this year, serving his first regular session as House Majority Speaker. It’s a post that includes coordinating debate in the chamber, assisting in managing the flow of legislation, and communicating with Republican leaders.
He succeeds Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat who resigned last summer amid a criminal investigation.
On the Capitol, Stapleton was a commanding, sometimes combative, force.
Martínez, on the other hand, is described by Roundhouse insiders as even-tempered and friendly, despite pushing liberal priorities in some of the most contentious debates of the past five years.
“I see him as an honest broker — someone that both sides can turn to,” said Rep. Jason Harper, a Rio Rancho Republican who clashed with Martínez over the tax bill.
For his part, Martínez said he had always had an interest in public service.
He was born in El Paso but lived in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, until he was 7 years old – an upbringing he mentioned in roundhouse debates surrounding the war on drugs and the legalization of cannabis.
When his family moved to Albuquerque, apart from what he had learned from cartoons, he only spoke Spanish. His father worked in construction and now both parents do housekeeping.
“Growing up in Juárez, Mexico, politics can be a game of life and death,” Martínez said during an interview at Mesa Verde Park, where he played as a kid. “I’ve always been fascinated by the power of officials.”
Martínez, now 40, is using his growing influence.
He has successfully pushed through bills on tax policy, early childhood education and cannabis legalization, steering policy not only in his own chamber but also among state Senate figures, where Democrats are less likely to stick together.
Taking on such diverse bills, he said, “springs from working people’s desire to do the right thing. Working people don’t live their lives in silos.”
Martínez, an attorney, came to the Capitol in a turbulent time in 2015 after Republicans won a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. Republican Susana Martinez, no relative, was the governor and gave the GOP rare control of two of the three major power centers in the Roundhouse.
Republicans were in the midst of a multi-year push to repeal a law in New Mexico that allowed undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses — the dominant debate, Javier Martínez said as he came of political maturity.
“Being in those committee rooms, seeing how the process does or doesn’t play out, really motivated me to take the plunge,” he said.
As someone who has lived on both sides of the border, Martínez said he sees the international border as a temporary place, not “those rigid lines that people want to talk about.”
He is now executive director of the Partnership for Community Action, a nonprofit group that works with immigrant families.
Joining the Roundhouse as a member of the minority party, Martínez said, is beneficial in some ways. He was not expected to bow to senior lawmakers.
“I think it was kind of a jolt that the Democratic faction has been in the minority for these two years,” Martínez said, “and it’s really given way to a new generation of leaders.”
House Majority Leader Javier Martínez crosses his arms in the House of Representatives near the end of a special session last month. His Democratic peers elected him majority-level leader in August, and this year’s 30-day legislative session is his first regular session since taking office. (Eddie Moore/)
Harper recalls meeting Martínez when the Democratic freshman was a minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Harper, the chairman at the time, described Martínez as intellectually honest and focused on politics.
In a sort of role reversal, Martínez later served as chairman of the renamed House Taxation and Revenue Committee, with Harper in the minority.
“There were times when we collaborated on tax policy,” Harper said, “and there are times when we fought about tax policy, but it was always professional.” I liked that it was never the usual ‘attacking based on stereotypes’.”
JD Bullington, a prominent lobbyist whose clients include the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, expressed a similar sentiment. He described Martínez as someone who genuinely cares about him and tries to be helpful.
“One of his standout personality traits is that he is always level headed when situations become testy or contentious,” Bullington said. “He maintains his composure and self-control in very difficult circumstances.”
Personality aside, Martínez was at the forefront of progressive priorities at the Capitol, emerging as a key player and joint sponsor of:
• Legislation to raise New Mexico’s top income tax rate for high earners and expand tax breaks for low-income and working families.
• A proposed constitutional amendment to withdraw more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs.
• Bills to legalize adult marijuana and remove cannabis-related charges from court records.
Martínez is now the second highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, a step behind Santa Fe Speaker Brian Egolf.
It will put him at the center of procedural conflicts and other debates throughout the Chamber.
Retired state assemblyman Rick Miera, an Albuquerque Democrat and former House Majority Leader, said the post helps coordinate debates in the full chamber and plays a role in which members of the caucus debate a bill and in what order.
The Majority Leader is also discussing broader planning with the minority party, which generally has the power to postpone debates on any bill to three hours, creating deadline pressure for the majority in a time-limited session.
Miera said a caucus leader should be prepared to meet with members — of any party — to discuss their priorities and be an advocate for the chamber when House bills go through the Senate hearing.
“We need to know how to listen,” he said. “For me that was important.”
Coincidentally, Martínez now represents Miera’s old Albuquerque district in the House of Representatives, having succeeded him seven years ago.
Miera said the Democratic faction’s selection of Martínez “says a lot about him as a really good leader.”
His personal touch has sometimes stretched down the aisle, at least so far.
Former MP Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, said Martínez was the first lawmaker he heard from after retiring last month.
“Javier is a very conscientious person and also a very conscientious legislator — he definitely fights for his cause and his community,” Baldonado said.
Alicia Sanasac, a classmate of Martínez’s at the University of New Mexico Law School, said Martínez is highly respected in classroom discussions and has a knack for wearing down people’s resistance, hearing different points of view, skills that match their opinions post good should be transferred to his leadership.
“It was clear early on that he really had an innate talent for connecting with people,” said Sanasac.
House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, sits at a picnic table in Mesa Verde Park. Martínez supports a variety of issues that he says “arise from working people’s desire to do the right thing.” (Eddie Moore/)
Martínez downplays talk of his political future, although others have described him as ambitious.
He’s certainly stubborn. He ran for floor leader before, losing to Stapleton in 2016. He later rose through the ranks to become committee chairman.
For four straight years, one of its priorities — the proposed constitutional amendment on early childhood education — has been blocked in the Senate after passage in the House of Representatives. It made it last year and goes alongside the voters.
Whatever lies ahead, Martínez said he’ll try to tailor his approach to what’s necessary — pragmatic, idealistic, or somewhere in between.
“While some of these debates are heartbreaking and very difficult, we are all here to represent our communities,” Martínez said, “and we are all here to solve problems. When we yell at each other or attack each other, it’s really hard to solve problems.”
And perhaps Martínez – who is married with a 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter – will bring some humor to the work of the legislature, intentional or not.
Amid the stress of the pandemic, attendees giggled when a ball ricocheted off Martinez’s head, a delivery from his son when they were working from home, during a remote committee hearing last year.