04/11/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Drawing Lines in the Desert Sand

Though devastating to gay rights supporters in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez's veto on aid to the domestic partners of military service members has a bright spot.

New Mexico's own Republatina political superstar has been trying to remain neutral on gay rights ever since she took office, but at last the state's only openly gay senator, along with both legislative houses, have compelled her to take her first legal action against equality, revealing clearly which side of the volleyball court she's playing on. It turns out it's the side we always suspected: against!

The good news for equality advocates and gay rights supporters everywhere is not that the governor is playing against them, but that her domestic partner smackdown last week might actually be a blessing in disguise. Yes, Martinez will go down in history as the woman who got dumped by her gay hairstylist last year, and she's repeatedly stated her objections to same-sex unions and made numerous threats to shoot down marriage equality efforts in this state. At last she was forced to pull the trigger and put her money where her mouth is. Now she has a rap sheet, a firm veto encrusted on her record for all time. When election time comes rolling around again, voters are going to want to know where she stood on the issues. This recent bit of legislative history will make it harder for her to flip-flop or claim impartiality in the future, should she find the need to do so.

And it already looks like she needs to. A poll taken in 2011 showed that fully two thirds of New Mexicans supported domestic partnerships. More recent polls show that 54 percent of voting Catholics and 63 percent of Hispanics support full marriage equality, which is higher than the overall national percentage. In New Mexico's capital, Mayor David Coss recently brought to light legal documentation showing that same-sex marriages are already permissible under New Mexico law.

However, when asked about the recent developments in Santa Fe in a video interview, she still seems to be avoiding the writing on the wall, saying:

It's up to the Legislature [and] the people of New Mexico to decide whether or not that's what they want. ... I do not believe, of course, we should ever discriminate against individuals for jobs or housing. ... I've always been very clear where I stand on [gay marriage]. I do believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Watch the interview here:

"You're Miss Latina Republican," said Pat Davis of ProgressNow New Mexico when I sat down to talk with him about Martinez's equality record a week before her domestic partner veto. "Your constituency that you're supposed to be the all-star for, that you're supposed to represent and reach out to and helping Republicans reach out to, they want this, not as a civil union, not as a halfway measure, but as a full equality issue."

That's precisely why it's been politically wise for her not to get involved with the issue until she absolutely had to, because her stance against it alienates her from her base. A good example of her inaction in the matter occurred back in February, during the 60-day legislative session. When Republicans threatened to shut down the Senate if Democrats got their way and declared an LGBT recognition day at the State Capitol, Martinez, as the state's Republican leader, never deigned to step in.

"She's never weighed in on [gay rights], and she's been very coy and avoiding the New Mexico GOP's outward opposition to it," Davis said. "She's their chief Republican, and she is not wading into that crap. Politically it's smart. ... It's her lack of wanting to get involved that makes people so frustrated."

And then Davis ventured to speculate: "Now, if she does something like cancel domestic partner benefits, which was just done by executive order, I think you'll see a lot of outside money show up in New Mexico to go against her and make that a national issue."

Though Martinez didn't overturn the state's current domestic partner benefits that former Governor Bill Richardson wrote into law, her veto on Senate Bill 258, which was amended by freshman Sen. Jacob Candelaria to include domestic partners, is a similarly definitive gesture. Until Friday, Martinez has been able to rely on equal rights bills getting killed in the Legislature before they even reach her, like the marriage equality amendment that died in a house committee in February.

"It's really smart, because the whole time she could say, 'I will compromise if they can get it through,'" Davis said. "She left the blame on the Legislature."

But that all changed on Friday. Not only was Candelaria's amended version enthusiastically supported by both houses this time, but it was passed unanimously in the Senate, leaving Martinez no open avenues for passing the buck. So she chose a default option that she's also pretty familiar with: Hide behind legalese. In defending her reasons for vetoing the amended Senate version, her spokesman cited concerns that the proposal contained no definition of "domestic partner" that met Defense Department guidelines. But just so that everyone knows, no one here in the beautiful land of enchantment is actually buying that. In a recent phone interview, Candelaria himself sums up all the problems with Martinez's scapegoat reasoning, making the case that the Department of Veterans Affairs has general rule-making authority to interpret legislative acts:

I'm pretty confident that any ambiguities in the statute could have been clarified by the department by rule. That's why our laws don't have to be exceedingly prescriptive all the time. It leaves the department the latitude to enforce and to apply the law because they have this general rule-making authority. So to me it doesn't hold much water. If they'd wanted to do it they would have done it and found a way to do it. Period.

With Republicans all over the country hurrying to experiment with their own evolution on gay marriage, Candelaria also sees Martinez's recent action as a signal that she's not with the program:

You have her saying, "I'm not for [gay] marriage or domestic partnership as a matter of policy," which puts her in a minority position in her own party. ... It's a very extreme position that she's taken, and this is just the first bill where she's had to act up or down. And she went down. ... I wish she would have agreed with the Legislature, but she didn't, and that's her record, and I think the people of New Mexico now will have to take that into account.

Of course, even though Martinez has finally drawn her line in the sand, Davis reminds us that she could always play the evolution card if need be:

Now they have a model for how to do this, where they could have been opposed to it before, but now they can evolve and say, "I don't support it. I don't want it. I hope my kids never do this, but the law is this, and my opinion has evolved in the law." As a lawyer, she could make that argument very well. So she has an opening to do it. It's one of those [instances] where you give yourself enough rope to hang yourself with or pull yourself higher.