When Martin Heinrich was in seventh grade, he learned a lesson about labor relations. His mother worked in a non-union auto-supply factory; when management informed the workers that their hours were going to shift from five days a week to six, there wasn’t much they could do. When they then moved to seven days a week—the new schedule was three weeks on and one week off—there still wasn’t much the workforce could do in response. They were living in the tiny town of Cole Camp, Missouri, and Missouri was, his parents knew, hardly over-protective of workers’ rights. Martin’s mom lost her weekends, and her son ended up having to keep order in the house, cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family.
Heinrich’s dad, by contrast, was a unionized lineman—one of the front-liners called to duty when big storms swept in through the mid-west and knocked down power lines. When his employers needed him to work long hours, he was paid overtime. “He had a contract, and he had respect,” Heinrich remembers three decades later, as he explains why labor issues have remained so important to him as he has climbed his way up the political ladder, from the Albuquerque, New Mexico city council to the U.S. House of Representatives, and, this past November, to the United States Senate.
It’s why he went to bat for a higher minimum wage in Albuquerque when he was a councilman, and it’s why, as a freshman senator, he has been pushing for a hike in the federal minimum wage. Eight dollars and fifty cents an hour, and indexed for inflation, would, he believes, be a realistic target. Heinrich wants, he says, “to lay the groundwork for increased worker protections. People have a fundamental right to organize. It’s rooted very much in the constitution and people’s right to free association.”
One of the new generation of Democrats elected to the Senate in 2012, with a coalition behind him of working class whites, senior citizens, Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics, Heinrich, aged 41, isn’t typical Senatorial material. In a Congress whose members have an average net worth of almost one million dollars, according to an article published in U.S. News and World Report in January, New Mexico’s junior senator, who was the first member of his family to attend college, has a net worth of a little over $50,000, making him the fifth-poorest Senator on the Hill. He understands the economic struggles of his working-class constituents. Meeting their basic needs, he argues, is about “the dignity of working people. We lose sight of how important these people are in the economy, even in a high-tech world.”
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Like President Obama before him, Heinrich—a charismatic politician, in his element when he’s wearing jeans, a western silver belt buckle, a casual shirt and a turquoise bolo tie and standing, talking before a large crowd—has had a golden run to the top over a remarkably short span of years.
In the mid-1990s, after his undergraduate years, he moved to New Mexico on a whim, having read a book lauding the state’s extraordinary natural beauty. There, he got a job as a research engineer at the Phillips Research Site on Kirtland Air Force Base. A few years later, he enrolled in graduate school.
As recently as 2003, Heinrich was still a graduate student—at the school of architecture and planning at the University of New Mexico—and was only just starting to ponder a run for District Six’s vacant city council seat.
Javier Benavidez, a fellow student and long-time political activist from the city, volunteered for his campaign. “Like a lot of us at that school, he was focused on smart growth and community development,” he remembers.
Heinrich won that election and spent the next few years working on labor issues, conservation politics—the mayor at the time was floating plans to build a road through a landscape of ancient petroglyphs—transport policy, and other themes that endeared him to local progressives. “He was seen as a real fighter for working people. Very active when it came to labor disputes, the minimum wage, helping neighborhoods with crime issues, and smart growth. He was taking on some tough fights with big real estate and the Chamber of Commerce,” says Benavidez, who Heinrich hired on as his policy analyst.
The young councilman also went after more locally specific problems. Albuquerque had a massive meth epidemic; Heinrich pushed to enact controls on the sale of Sudafed, one of the over-the-counter ingredients used to manufacture the drug. Meth usage began, slowly, to decline. As of 2008, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the percentage of users entering drug treatment facilities who primarily abused meth was slightly lower in Albuquerque than in New Mexico as a whole, and was also lower than the national average.
The councilman also became known for working on environmental issues. Situated in the desert, many Albuquerque neighborhoods were nevertheless governed by covenants mandating homeowners keep water-guzzling green lawns instead of desert landscaping. Heinrich sponsored an ordinance to prohibit such covenants from being enforced. He also pushed a city council resolution to protect open wilderness space from energy development.
“I loved his style,” Benavidez explained. “He was a cool personality, very methodical in how he addressed public policy.”
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In 2008 voters rewarded Heinrich by sending him to Washington as a congressman for the state’s first congressional district. There, he worked on healthcare legislation intended to boost the health of Native American populations, an important issue for New Mexico, a state with twenty two separate tribes. He also worked on legislation assuring that sportsmen would retain access to public lands for hunting and fishing purposes—the National Wildlife Federation has, in recent years, argued that opening up theoretically public land with, in reality, blocked access, is the number one priority for hunters—and on an array of issues relating to energy and to intelligence gathering.
In 2011, Heinrich, who sat on the House Armed Services and Natural Resources Committees, voted against the National Defense Authorization Act conference report because he was concerned that it required foreigners suspected of being terrorists be placed in military custody rather than handed over to civilian law enforcement agencies and expanded indefinite detention of American citizens who are suspected terrorists.
And on energy policy he became an outspoken advocate of renewables, touting his state’s potential to generate large quantities of energy via solar and wind technologies. It was a position that enraged his GOP opponent during the 2012 Senate race; his ideas, Heather Wilson declared, amounted to a “green dream.”
If it was a dream, it was, however, one buttressed by his academic and professional qualifications. “His engineering background gives him a very intriguing approach,” says his erstwhile colleague Congressman Ben Ray Luján. “He maps out how he works, sees very clearly from point A to point B, and the different ways for getting there.”
Again, he apparently did a good job in the eyes of his constituents. Four years after Heinrich arrived in DC as a freshman Congressman, they promoted him once more, electing him with a five point margin over Wilson, and making him not just one of the poorest members of the Senate but also its third youngest.
So, does he have a roadmap taking him beyond the Senate; another four-year plan? If he does, he isn’t saying. His surrogates, though, diplomatically downplay expectations. “I see him being a senator for a long time,” says Clare Apodaca, former first lady of New Mexico and a close friend of and fundraiser for Heinrich. “I see him staying in the Senate for the next thirty years.”
But Apodaca also recognizes that others might have different ideas. “He’s got that Clinton style. He can be talking to a thousand people, but you feel he’s talking just directly to you. You don’t acquire that; you have to have it. He’s a very good politician; one of the brightest senators we’ve ever had from New Mexico.”