Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Michelle Lujan Grisham has touted her 16-year tenure as a state Cabinet secretary – under three governors – as an asset in New Mexico’s primary race for governor, but her two Democratic rivals have raised questions about the circumstances of her 2007 resignation as Department of Health secretary and pushed for her to release her state personnel files.
In a televised debate Sunday, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces hammered Lujan Grisham on the issue, asserting she had been fired by then-Gov. Bill Richardson and calling on her to disclose the reasons.
Lujan Grisham, a three-term congresswoman who is giving up her Albuquerque-area congressional seat to run for governor, strongly disputed the assertion during the debate, saying, “Gov. Richardson did not fire me.”
A Lujan Grisham campaign spokesman on Monday did not directly answer when asked whether the campaign would release any personnel documents. The spokesman said employee personnel files are confidential and it was unclear whether they could even be released, a claim Cervantes dismissed.
Meanwhile, Richardson also released a statement Monday saying Cervantes was “grossly mistaken” about the firing allegation, and said he never sealed the personnel files of Lujan Grisham or any other appointee.
“Gov. Richardson did not fire Michelle Lujan Grisham,” a Richardson spokeswoman said. “On the contrary, he promoted her to secretary of health after her very successful tenure at the Department of Aging and Long-term Services.”
But Cervantes doubled down on the assertion Monday, saying Richardson had told him directly that he fired Lujan Grisham. His campaign also cited recorded 2008 comments made by then-acting University of New Mexico President David Harris that suggested he’d been told Lujan Grisham was fired.
“I wouldn’t say anything unless I heard it from the horse’s mouth,” Cervantes told the Journal. “I think the governor of New Mexico should share our values, and that includes telling the truth.”
Lujan Grisham announced her resignation as health secretary in May 2007. She said at the time that she had a good relationship with Richardson, whose then-spokesman said Lujan Grisham had stepped down on her own terms.
However, Lujan Grisham had previously been criticized by some for micromanaging and running off some Health Department staffers. She also faced scrutiny for allowing dangerous patient conditions to persist at the Fort Bayard Medical Center, a state nursing home near Silver City.
In campaigning for this year’s primary election, Lujan Grisham has frequently touted her willingness to stand up to governors – she served under Richardson, Gary Johnson and the late Bruce King – as a Cabinet secretary, but her campaign maintained Monday that doesn’t mean she was fired by any of them.
“Apparently, Michelle is the only person running for Governor who has a sense of humor,” Lujan Grisham campaign manager Dominic Gabello said. “She was not fired by three governors, but said she was willing to be fired by three governors when she stood up to them to fight for more money for (a program for developmentally disabled children) or going undercover in nursing homes.”
The other Democrat in the three-way race, former Albuquerque media executive Jeff Apodaca, also targeted Lujan Grisham during Sunday’s debate, saying opioid-related deaths had gone up during her tenure as health secretary and accusing her of subsequently accepting campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies.
Overall, department figures show New Mexico deaths due to drug overdoses did increase from 2004 to 2007 – the years Lujan Grisham was at the agency’s helm – though national overdose rates also went up during that time.
The attacks appeared to perturb Lujan Grisham, who has emerged as the race’s front-runner by outraising her Democratic rivals and securing 66.9 percent of the delegate vote at the party’s pre-primary convention in March.
In response to Apodaca, she said the number of school-based health centers doubled during her time at the Department of Health and state immunization rates went up. She also said the kerfuffle over her personnel files didn’t make sense, because past New Mexico governors are supporting her campaign. Both Richardson and Johnson have praised her work as a Cabinet secretary.
Early voting has already started for New Mexico’s primary election, which will be held June 5.
New Mexico will have a new governor in 2019, as Gov. Susana Martinez is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office and will step down at the end of this year. The lone Republican in the race is Steve Pearce, who is also giving up his congressional seat to run for governor.