Neither the governor nor Public Regulation Commissioner Doug Howe make an issue of the fact that Howe is gay. Both focus instead on the task at hand – bringing more professionalism and expertise to a scandal-plagued agency.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie grabbed headlines earlier this week for appointing an openly gay man to that state’s Supreme Court. The move was a rarity not only for Republicans like Christie, but in general: There are currently five openly gay state Supreme Court justices in the nation.
Given the tendency of his party to oppose policy changes sought by the gay community, Christie’s status as a rising star in the GOP and a potential future presidential candidate added to the situation’s noteworthiness.
But Christie isn’t the only high-profile Republican in that position.
In November, N.M. Gov. Susana Martinez, a rising star in the GOP often labeled as a potential future candidate for president or vice president, appointed Doug Howe, a registered independent and openly gay man, to serve on the Public Regulation Commission, which is arguably the most powerful state regulatory board in the nation.
The fact that Howe is gay has received no media attention until now. Neither he nor Martinez made an issue of it. But the governor knew Howe was gay before appointing him. He disclosed it to Martinez and her staff during the interview process.
Throughout that process, Martinez said she would select the most qualified person to replace the scandal-plagued Democrat Jerome Block Jr., who pleaded guilty to multiple felonies and resigned in September. Martinez chose Howe, an energy consultant for 30 years who has been a college professor, businessman and executive in a Fortune 500 company, from a list of applicants that included dozens of Democrats and Republicans.
At the time, Martinez called Howe “an accomplished professional who is well-versed in energy, environmental and regulatory issues.” She said she was confident he “will approach his position thoughtfully and professionally.”
Spokesman Scott Darnell echoed those sentiments this week, saying Martinez knew Howe was gay but it “was not a factor in his selection.”
“The governor focused on his qualifications and experience, as well as his desire to bring greater professionalism and technical expertise to the PRC,” Darnell said. “The governor received roughly 90 applications for the position and is confident she appointed the most-qualified person who will serve New Mexicans well on the PRC.”
Sexual orientation was ‘completely irrelevant’
In an interview, Howe said he believes Martinez viewed his sexual orientation as “completely irrelevant.” He said she and her staff seemed to be seeking a commissioner who could help clean up the scandal-plagued PRC, and to challenge the Legislature to join that effort.
“I kind of viewed it as a message to the Legislature that, ‘I’ve done my part, now you do yours,’” Howe said. “In this instance I think she put what was the right thing to do ahead of the party, and I know she got some heat for it.”
At the time, the heat came because Martinez appointed an independent instead of a Republican. But when some social conservatives learned this week that Martinez appointed a gay man in the course of NMPolitics.net conducting interviews for this article, the governor got heat for that as well.
“With a governor who looked me in the eye personally and said she’s socially conservative, she believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, who said she wouldn’t espouse the homosexual agenda, I think this goes against that,” said Steve Smothermon, pastor of Legacy Church in Albuquerque. “… These aren’t the people we voted for you to appoint. We voted for you to appoint people who think like we do.”
Smothermon, who has put similar pressure on other elected officials in the past, requested that his comments be published only with this context: He said he is “not against the human being, but the lifestyle and the political power that the homosexual agenda has today, as a lobbying agenda, that’s what I begin to come against.”
A shift in the culture of the GOP?
So do the appointments by Martinez and Christie indicate a shift in the culture of the GOP? David Stocum, executive director of the New Mexico LGBTQ Centers, is skeptical.
“If we are seeing a shift, it’s in the early stages,” he told NMPolitics.net. “…I think the Martinez and Christie appointments highlight the rift in the Republican Party over social issues and LGBT issues specifically.”
“All of the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination are anti-gay, the party platform is anti-gay and their policy initiatives (reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t tell) are anti-gay,” Stocum said. “A few fair-minded Republicans are coming around, but not the party as a whole.”
Howe was similarly skeptical.
“Is there a trend there? I don’t know. I’ll be candid, I’m pretty disappointed with what I see happening in the Republican Party right now,” he said.
Jacob Candelaria, who heads Equality New Mexico, said both appointments show “a recognition that sexual orientation should have very little do with their capacity to serve in the Army, in public service, in any aspect of public life.” He said both should be commended for that.
Candelaria said denying gay people the right to marry “denies people the ability to protect their spouses, it denies them federal benefits and state benefits, and it rips families part.”
Guv says she opposes both gay marriage and discrimination
Martinez’s office didn’t respond to questions from NMPolitics.net about her views on issues including domestic partner benefits and gay marriage, but her past statements have been reasonably consistent: She has said she believes “marriage is between a man and a woman” and she would not sign a law that mandates that employers in New Mexico provide domestic partner benefits.
But Martinez has also said she doesn’t believe anyone, including gay people, should be discriminated against, and that she believes provisions already exist in the law to help same-sex couples deal with issues surrounding estates and medical decisions. You can watch her share her views in this video.
Martinez’s predecessor, Bill Richardson, issued an executive order granting domestic partner benefits to state employees, and Martinez has made no move to rescind that order or indicated that she plans to do so. But she has not closed the door to the possibility, and some fear she might rescind it.
Candelaria said he wonders why Martinez hasn’t rescinded the order, given her stance against domestic partner benefits, but he thanked her “for doing the right thing on this issue and protecting the rights and benefits of the thousands of employees and their spouses and children who receive these benefits.”
Smothermon, who opposes Richardson’s executive order, said Martinez’s staff has promised him she’s working to rescind it. He’s frustrated that it hasn’t yet happened, and said between that and Howe’s appointment he believes the governor is wavering on her pledge to be a social conservative.
He said that’s disappointing but not uncommon, and cited Romney as a Republican who campaigned as a social conservative but broke that pledge as governor of Massachusetts.
“I think it’s wrong, but I do think that they’re maybe not as socially conservative as they say they are,” Smothermon said of Martinez and her staff. He added that the governor is “going to lose a lot of people like myself.”
Martinez doesn’t jump into gay-rights debate
Martinez didn’t have much of a record on social issues when she entered the governor’s race in mid-2009. Before that she was Doña Ana County’s district attorney and focused on fighting crime. She didn’t often seek to insert herself into the debate over issues such as gay marriage.
Though she still doesn’t generally insert herself into that debate as governor, it’s an issue she has to deal with because of the authority of her job.
Howe said he’s glad Martinez put politics aside with his appointment but said it’s impossible, as a governor, to always do that. He noted that one of Martinez’s biggest donors is Bob Perry, a Texas developer who, along with his wife, gave Martinez’s 2010 campaign $450,000. Howe noted that Perry is a social conservative.
“These are political jobs, and you get in because you’re professing a certain point of view,” Howe said. When asked for examples of Martinez not putting politics aside, he mentioned her push for the repeal of a law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and her support for a voter ID law.
Candelaria hopes Martinez’s view on gay marriage will shift.
“It’s still a huge issue, and it’s one that I hope our governor will change her position on and recognize that when it comes to civil rights, and the rights of everyday New Mexicans, there just can’t be any lines in the sand,” he said.
Christie had an opportunity to do just that this week, but he ended up disappointing gay-rights advocates. Fresh off the national media attention on his Supreme Court appointment, Christie said he would veto a gay marriage bill that state’s Legislature is considering. He said he instead supports a ballot question to let New Jersey citizens decide whether to allow gay marriage.
Martinez has an opportunity to take a stand on the same issue. In the current legislative session, Rep. David Chavez, R-Los Lunas, has introduced a resolution proposing that voters decide whether to amend the N.M. Constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Martinez has not taken a position on the resolution.
Howe: ‘It’s not about being a gay man in office’
Howe doesn’t hide the fact that he’s gay and said he isn’t ashamed of it, but he said he doesn’t “wear it on my sleeve, because I don’t think it has anything to do with the job.” He disclosed it to the governor in part because of a potential conflict appointing him to the PRC could have created. His partner is the head of a medical group in Santa Fe and the PRC regulates some related issues.
“For me, it’s not about being a gay man in office,” Howe said. “I happen to be that, but that’s not what it’s about.”
Howe said his goal over the next year that he’s in office – he announced Thursday that he won’t seek re-election so he can focus on the job – “is really to try and help improve the quality of the PRC in every aspect and to help it achieve better governance and good policy.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing for all of my life, is helping governments and companies understand, with respect to energy, good policies and governance,” he said.
Still, Howe hopes his appointment helps move the cause of gay rights forward. He noted that the suicide rate among gay teens is four times higher than that among non-gay teens. He said gay teens see the difficulties gay people often face – such as attacks and a lack of support from churches – and wonder what kind of life they can have.
“But the fact of the matter is that they can have a pretty good life,” Howe said.