Martin Heinrich. (Courtesy of heinrich.senate.gov.)
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.