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Rivals ramp up criticism of Lujan Grisham

Correction: An initial headline on this article incorrectly stated that both of Michelle Lujan Grisham’s rivals called for her to withdraw from the race. Only Jeff Apodaca made that comment, not Joseph Cervantes.

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

With just five days left until New Mexico’s primary election, Michelle Lujan Grisham’s rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination intensified their criticism of her on Thursday, accusing her of profiting from ties to a company that has a state contract to help run New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool and exerting her political influence to keep the pool in operation.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

Lujan Grisham, in turn, defended her work with the company, Delta Consulting, as a critical way to help New Mexicans who had been denied health care coverage.

And she released her income tax returns going back for the past five years to the public as a show of transparency.

The tumultuous day in New Mexico’s race for governor started with one candidate, Jeff Apodaca, calling on the front-runner, Lujan Grisham, to withdraw from the campaign altogether.

He described her as a politician “profiting off New Mexicans” and questioned whether the high-risk insurance pool is even necessary now that the Affordable Care Act is in place.

Jeff Apodaca

And the other Democratic candidate in the race, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, said Lujan Grisham’s association with Delta Consulting could be “crippling” if she’s the Democratic candidate facing off against the Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, in the fall general election.

Lujan Grisham, in turn, defended her work with Delta Consulting, the company she co-founded with state Rep. Deborah Armstrong in 2008, two years before she was elected to Congress. She divested herself from the business last year.

Delta Consulting has repeatedly won state contracts to help run the insurance pool and state Superintendent of Insurance John Franchini has said there was nothing inappropriate about how the contracts were awarded.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham’s campaign manager, Dominic Gabello, pushed back on criticism about the company’s work for the state.

“The truth is, Michelle Lujan Grisham has always fought for health care for every New Mexican,” Gabello said in a written statement. “Her small business did not make millions of dollars or anything close to that. She worked to help those who had been denied health care coverage and make sure they were able to access the care they need – including patients with cancer or HIV that were fighting for their lives.”

According to her tax returns, Lujan Grisham made roughly $376,000 in investment earnings from Delta from 2013 through 2017, though her campaign manager has said some of that money was used to pay the firm’s tax bills. The company has for years had a state contract to run the high-risk pool.

Lujan Grisham’s primary rivals raised the issue of her work with Delta Consulting during a televised KOAT-Journal debate on May 20. A Journal article examined the issue last week and Lujan Grisham’s ties with the company were scrutinized in an article published Wednesday by Politico, a national news organization.

The article pointed out that Delta Consulting was paid more than $2 million to run the state’s high-risk pool between 2014 and 2017. Most states have done away with high-risk pools since the federal health care law took effect, and critics have questioned why premiums charged by New Mexico’s pool are 10 percent higher this year than Obamacare’s for similar coverage.

Down to the wire

The harsh scrutiny of Lujan Grisham comes in the final days of New Mexico’s primary election season. Early voting ends Saturday, and Election Day is Tuesday.

Lujan Grisham, who also served a 16-year stint as a state Cabinet secretary before running for Congress, had a commanding lead in the three-way race, according to a Journal Poll last week, with support from 57 percent of reliable Democratic voters in the primary.

Apodaca, who garnered 15 percent support in the Journal Poll, held a news conference outside Presbyterian Hospital on Thursday to call on Lujan Grisham to withdraw from the race.

“We’re being robbed by people like Grisham,” Apodaca said.

He also accused Lujan Grisham and Armstrong, who is also Lujan Grisham’s campaign treasurer, of exerting political influence to help their company.

For his part, Cervantes, who was supported by 9 percent of voters in the poll, said the fact that Delta Consulting was paid millions to help run the New Mexico program – a fact certain to be seized on by Republicans if Lujan Grisham advances to the general election, he said.

“It should be disheartening for voters to realize you have politicians with state contracts earning millions of dollars at the same time they’re being paid a lot of money to do the job they’re being paid to do” for the public, Cervantes said.

Lujan Grisham’s campaign says she is no longer financially involved in the company. And during her first year in Congress, the campaign said, she asked the U.S. House Ethics Committee to review her ownership interest in Delta Consulting and the panel found her to be in compliance with House ethics rules.

“It’s sad to see Jeff Apodaca working with Republicans on desperate attacks to try and tear down a successful woman – but that’s been the impetus of his whole campaign,” Gabello, the campaign manager, said.

Delta Consulting has also made hefty campaign contributions to both Lujan Grisham and Armstrong. Lujan Grisham reported receiving $11,000 in contributions – the maximum amount allowable for the 2018 election cycle – for her gubernatorial bid from Delta in March 2017.

There are no laws barring candidates’ businesses from contributing to their campaigns and Cervantes has also reported taking sizable donations from several family-owned agriculture businesses that he plays a role in operating.

Tax returns released

Lujan Grisham, meanwhile, published her personal income tax returns on her campaign website, going back the last five years. She called on Pearce, the lone Republican running for governor, to do the same.

The release came after Lujan Grisham faced criticism for not releasing her tax returns at the request of her opponents and the Santa Fe New Mexican, as her two Democratic rivals did.

While New Mexico gubernatorial candidates have not historically released their personal tax returns, Lujan Grisham had previously called on President Donald Trump to make his tax returns public.

Pearce, who is also forgoing a re-election bid to Congress in order to run for governor, said earlier this week that he will release his tax returns, too, if his Democratic opponent did likewise.

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