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Driving Change: Insights From the Speaker of the Only Volunteer Legislature

New Mexico legislators don’t get a salary and most don’t get staff. House Speaker Javier Martínez wants to change that.

By Taylor Huhn and Marco Savarin  |  April 11, 2024
Javier Martínez New Mexico

Javier Martínez’s work as a lawyer and community organizer engaged him in the legislative process, but the complexity and depth of New Mexico’s social problems frustrated him. That’s when he decided to get involved in a way that might lead to the changes he wanted to see.

“A critical issue for me was our lack of access to quality early childhood education services for New Mexico’s children,” he says. Martínez was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014 and became speaker in January last year. “I understood that I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and complain anymore.” NCSL caught up with Martínez to discuss his role as leader of the chamber.

What motivated you to pursue a leadership role?

I wasn’t so very interested in pursuing a leadership role at first. I knew that my time in the Legislature would be limited. I firmly believe that politicians have a shelf life. They need to go into their offices of public trust, fulfill the promises made to voters, and then move on. So, leadership was never really in the cards for me. I think it was a unique circumstance that led to it. When I was elected in ’14, it was the same legislative cycle that Democrats lost the majority in the New Mexico statehouse for the first time in 60 years. As you can imagine, it brought a great deal of reshuffling.

“I go out of my way to be a leader who can ensure that every voice is heard, no matter what your party affiliation is, no matter where you live, no matter what district you’re representing.”

By the time Democrats took back the House two years later, even though I was only a sophomore lawmaker, I was already in leadership positions. That’s when I started to gain a better appreciation for the work of leadership. I saw a need for leadership that is transparent and unifying—and not just across the Democratic Caucus in my case, but really across the entire chamber.

How did your background prepare you for leadership?

I come from an immigrant family. My parents both immigrated from Mexico to New Mexico when I was a little kid. I always had an interest in changing systems so that people like my parents wouldn’t struggle as much as they did. When you talk about the health care system, when you talk about the education system, when you talk about the economic system, immigrants oftentimes are at the bottom of that ladder. Oftentimes, we carry the brunt of the hardest work around the worst-paying jobs, the most dangerous jobs. Growing up in that environment really prepared me, better than any formal training, better than law school, even better than my organizing background.

My upbringing gave me a sense of compassion, honesty and respect. That’s why as speaker, I know Democrats have the majority and Republicans are in the minority, but I know what it’s like to be left out. I know what it’s like to not be invited to the table. I go out of my way to be a leader who can ensure that every voice is heard, no matter what your party affiliation is, no matter where you live, no matter what district you’re representing.

What are you doing to modernize the New Mexico Legislature?

New Mexico is the only remaining all-volunteer Legislature in the country. That means that legislators don’t get a salary, and only members of leadership get staff. We have one member who represents the largest legislative district in the country by land mass, and she doesn’t have staff. It could take her an entire day just to drive from one end of the district to the other for a town hall meeting—and she’s on her own. That is a huge disservice to the people of New Mexico.

We are in the process of developing a staffing framework so that every legislator will be fully staffed, and district offices will be allowed. The next step will be transition to a paid legislature, and that’s a little trickier. Nobody wants to pay a politician, but like I tell my constituents, you get what you pay for. That’s one of the structural changes that we have to make to our legislative process to ensure that New Mexico can catch up to the 21st century. We have a 21st century economy and society, with 21st century problems, but we have a 19th century legislative process.

Who is your role model for leadership?

I really value my late grandfather, who taught me the importance of politics. Even though he was not a politician himself, he read the newspaper every day and formed his own opinions about things. He wasn’t a leader in terms of how we typically think of leadership, but he was somebody who led with a very strong moral compass and who lifted me up and developed my sense of the importance of being engaged in the political system.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’m a master at New Mexico backyard cooking. I’m sneaky good at it. It’s a cut of pork that you deep fry, but you have to do it in a very specific way. You have to use the right tool. It’s got to be done outside, and it’s got to be done over the course of an entire day. I really take pride in it. This is an ancient tradition here in New Mexico.

Taylor Huhn is a program manager in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program; Marco Savarin is an intern in the program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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