Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Once again, a New Mexico governor appeared poised to leave the Governor’s Office for a federal Cabinet position – only to ultimately stay put in Santa Fe.
If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had left to take the job of U.S. health and human services secretary in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, as had been widely speculated, the move would have reshaped New Mexico’s political landscape.
Instead, a day after news broke that Lujan Grisham would be staying in New Mexico and not leaving for a Cabinet post in the Biden administration, the Governor’s Office insisted Monday that the speculation had not been a distraction.
And several top-ranking legislators expressed mixed feelings about Lujan Grisham’s being passed over for the high-profile post.
“It’s a loss for the country but a win for New Mexico,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who said the governor has the skills needed to run the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
But he also said Lujan Grisham’s background – she is a former state health secretary and co-founder of a health care consulting firm – would be important in New Mexico’s ongoing struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and carry out a virus vaccine distribution plan.
“The governor’s leadership is needed here more than ever,” Wirth told the Journal.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who was nominated last month by Senate Democrats to serve as the chamber’s next president pro tem, said it would be helpful to have continuity in the Governor’s Office with a 60-day legislative session scheduled to begin next month.
“Frankly, just being selfish, I’m glad our governor is staying here,” Stewart said in an interview.
However, such opinions do not appear to be universally shared by lawmakers.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said Monday that he thinks some of the Lujan Grisham administration’s response to the pandemic was driven by a desire to impress the Biden transition team.
“Maybe now she can focus more on New Mexico and the impact her restrictions are having on businesses,” Pirtle said in an interview.
While most fellow Democrats have defended Lujan Grisham’s aggressive response to the pandemic as necessary to protect vulnerable New Mexicans, Republicans have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism about the impact caused by travel and business restrictions.
There has also been dispute about whether the governor overstepped her authority in emergency spending decisions shortly after the pandemic’s onset.
Previous New Mexico governors have also been in the mix for federal Cabinet positions.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson was appointed U.S. commerce secretary by President-elect Barack Obama in 2008 but withdrew his nomination due to a federal investigation into how a big-money political contributor landed lucrative state contracts.
While the circumstances are different surrounding Lujan Grisham’s ties to the Biden administration, the current governor could face difficult days ahead – just as Richardson did – leading the state through a revenue downturn.
However, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Monday that the governor was upbeat about the coming legislative session, which will feature a large number of new lawmakers in key posts after this year’s election results.
“The new faces in leadership positions present an opportunity for the executive branch to strengthen its already positive working relationships with the legislative branch,” Sackett said in a statement.
While the governor has not unveiled her top priorities for the 60-day session, she has said in the past that she will renew her push for bills legalizing recreational cannabis for adult users and repealing a long-dormant 1969 abortion ban, among other issues.
“The governor and legislative leadership have an opportunity to make breakthroughs that have been stalled in recent regular sessions, and the governor is incredibly optimistic about the potential for delivering meaningful change in forthcoming sessions,” Sackett said.
Future federal role possible
The news that Lujan Grisham will be staying in New Mexico for now does not necessarily mean she won’t be considered in the future for a Biden administration post, said Journal pollster and longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff.
“You never know what the future holds,” said Sanderoff, who is president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc.
Meanwhile, the governor’s staying put in New Mexico could have ramifications regarding the state’s 2022 election cycle.
The Democratic governor previously suggested she plans to run for reelection, and she could be less likely to face a primary opponent in two years than Lt. Gov. Howie Morales might have been, Sanderoff said.
Per the state Constitution, Morales would have been in line to serve out the two remaining years on Lujan Grisham’s term as governor had she been appointed to a federal Cabinet post.
But such speculation appears to be a moot point – at least for now – and Sanderoff said the governor will likely push an ambitious legislative agenda.
“I think it will be as though we haven’t skipped a beat at all,” Sanderoff said.