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Michelle Lujan Grisham: Energetic and ‘all in’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: Both candidates for governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce, agreed to sit down for interviews focusing on who they are and where they’ve been. Today we feature Lujan Grisham. Pearce’s story was published July 22.


Michelle Lujan was 6 years old when she boarded a train bound for Boston with her mother, sister and brother.

But she remembers that trip and the events that followed, which shaped her personal, professional and political life, like they were yesterday.

 Michelle Lujan Grisham says her parents made her childhood fun and happy

Michelle Lujan Grisham says her parents made her childhood fun and happy. (Courtesy of Michelle Lujan Grisham)

“My sister Kimberly was 2 and she was sick on the train. Seizures. Projectile vomiting. We get off the train and go to my grandparents and my grandmother got a nurse who lived in the building to come downstairs. She told my mom, ‘That baby is dying. I’m calling an ambulance.’ ”

“They left and I didn’t see my mom and sister again for months,” says Lujan Grisham, who after winning a bruising Democratic primary for governor will face Republican Steve Pearce in November.

Her father, a dentist, flew to Boston to take Michelle and her brother back home to Los Alamos, where they lived at the time.

The news the family was given about Kimberly was devastating. “It’s a malignant brain tumor and she will die soon. The best possible thing you can do as parents is to leave her here in a wing for terminal children in the hospital.

“The thinking at the time was that emotions between the parent and child interfered with the best end-of-life care, which really wasn’t very good back then.

“My mom raises hell, ‘adopts’ all these other kids who are in the ward with no parents and tells these doctors they’ve lost their minds.”

Doctors removed as much of the tumor as they could and radiated Kimberly. She didn’t die, and they sent her home.

“So my sister who walked onto that train is now a toddler who can’t walk, is bandaged and blind because they severed both her optic nerves.”

Kimberly was disabled but lived to be 21, ultimately functioning as a 9-year-old. Parents Llewellyn and Sonja Lujan spent those years fighting for health care and education for Kimberly. Llewellyn Lujan – whom everybody called “Buddy” – also provided free dental care for poor kids in Santa Fe from a dentist chair in his garage.

The 58-year-old Lujan Grisham, whose political star has been on the rise for nearly a decade, says that upbringing still helps steer her actions and beliefs.

“I am socially liberal,” she says. “I believe in total equality. And I’m a fiscal conservative.”

Praise for parents

“Buddy” died of cancer in 2011.

“He was afraid to die because he had no way to take care of my mother,” Lujan Grisham says. “He was destitute and I had no idea until I was going through his stuff. They had a house in foreclosure and all these debts.”

“The banks carried him. … People did incredible stuff to make sure he didn’t lose it all. And I had no idea.”

She has nothing but praise for how her parents raised the family in the face of adversity.

“My parents made it happy and fun and Kimberly had this incredible quality of life. My dad was darling. I grew up in a house that every day was like an episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘I Love Lucy’ because every single day of my life my dad played practical jokes.”

Those events and her work later as a lawyer handling referrals for the elderly helped fuel her passion for creating a health care system that works for everyone, and is fiscally sustainable.

Michelle Lujan Grisham leads a discussion on aging and long-term care during a 2003 town hall meeting at New Mexico Highlands

Michelle Lujan Grisham leads a discussion on aging and long-term care during a 2003 town hall meeting at New Mexico Highlands. She worked for three governors: Bruce King, Bill Richardson and Gary Johnson. (Jaelyn Demaria Leary/Albuquerque Journal)

Before divesting her interest last year to run for governor, Lujan Grisham was a co-owner of Delta Consulting, a patient advocacy firm that managed the state’s high-risk insurance pool – a point of controversy in the Democratic primary. She says her desire to work on health care was why she ran for Congress.

She says the numbers “don’t work” for either single payer or Medicare for all, but she believes health care is a right and that if elected governor she would like to set in motion a number of changes to reduce costs, increase access and make it more fair.

That could include Medicaid buy-in for some, negotiating prescription drug prices, more public health access through clinics, and “incentives for folks to save their money and figure out ways to be healthier.”

“A shift in how people treat their own health must occur in this country,” she says.

Lujan legacy

Since she grew up in the Lujan family, everyone “believes that (Republican scions) Manuel and Edward are my uncles,” Lujan Grisham says.

“I can never dispel it, so I just say, ‘Thank you for saying such nice things.’ Actually, Manny and Ed are my dad’s cousins through the Romeros.”

Her parents were Democrats and her dad managed Sam Pick’s Santa Fe mayoral campaign.

She describes Manuel (a former congressman and interior secretary) and Ed as “kind and community oriented” and says they make no bones about the fact that “too many Republicans in Congress today do not reflect who they are as Republicans. And I can say the same thing. There are plenty of Democrats in Congress who don’t reflect my priorities or values.”

For example, she says, “I won’t join the progressive caucus because I think they have looked to minimize national security and productive, smart defense investments. That’s made me very nervous.”

After an often turbulent 16 years as a director and cabinet secretary in state government, she lost a bid to represent the Albuquerque area in Congress in 2008. She was elected to the County Commission in 2010 and gave up the seat after being elected to Congress two years later.

A lawyer, she was president of the Democratic freshman class and has served as senior whip of the House Democratic Caucus.

She is president of the Hispanic Caucus, putting her front and center in the immigration debate.

She has decried the separation of families and says the nation needs to address immigration, but she does not favor abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“ICE does money laundering, human trafficking and a whole laundry list of activities that are all about public safety and national security,” she says.

Lujan Grisham says we need to invest in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem the flow of immigrants, along with smarter, humane immigration policies and border security.

“I don’t think anyone in America should want another 11 million-person problem again,” she says, referring to the estimated number of people living illegally in the United States. “It’s dividing us.”

“I would definitely deal with ‘Dreamers’ as a separate issue, although I don’t mind marrying it to border security. And unlike a lot of Democrats, I’m willing to put real money into border security and increase the number of agents. I’d like to have operational security by 2020. … We ought to be trying every single thing that would make a difference in border security.”

She says we need to stop family separation immediately and come up with an effective system for asylum seekers with more judges and lawyers for faster processing.

And she wants vigorous prosecution of coyotes. “They lie, they cheat, they steal and they rape,” she says.

Lujan Grisham voted against both Republican immigration bills in June because, she says, including the one that “wasn’t mean enough” to garner enough conservative support didn’t allow protection for most “Dreamers.”

St. Mike’s years

Lujan Grisham is the first to admit she was not a stellar student.

“I was the first class of girls to go from seventh grade through 12th at St. Mike’s in Santa Fe, but I didn’t get a very good education, … even though I should have. Those Catholic brothers and Jesuit priests were highly educated and effective at teaching, but girls were a huge enigma for them.

“They were very mean to the boys. If you were a boy who misbehaved, corporal punishment was alive and well. … But girls? We knew we couldn’t get into trouble, and they didn’t know what to do with us. And they shepherded us inappropriately into administrative and secretarial duties because … we weren’t going to college and they didn’t think we should.”

Lujan Grisham says that because of “my parents, I was always college bound.”

“I was one of those New Mexico kids who went to UNM and needed every single remedial class” except in STEM, where Brother Walsh at St. Mike’s had her tutoring chemistry at College of Santa Fe when she was a high school junior.

But that tutoring didn’t translate into great grades in college.

“Generally speaking, I got OK grades in college but didn’t buy books and my parents always made me work. I thought it was to teach me to be responsible, but my parents needed every dollar I was bringing into the household. I didn’t know that until my father was dying.”

Lujan Grisham, quick with a joke and a self-described extrovert, says that at the University of New Mexico “I did the easiest thing you could do. I got a bachelor of university studies.”

She says she took “every music appreciation class I could” because back then you “got to take a nap in class and still get an A.”

But she liked math and science and convinced the dean of engineering to let her be a work study student “so I could learn while working. He also let me take 400 and 500 level courses … and he endorsed my transcript for engineering – which means you can do engineering work except for design.”

Westinghouse, the contractor for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, hired Lujan Grisham. She did “technical writing, got people a lot of coffee and filed.”

“They said they’d be happy to promote me but I needed an engineering degree so my choices were go back to undergraduate or law school,” she says.

UNM Law school was the choice.

Her grandfather, former state Supreme Court Justice David Eugene Lujan, “marched me in there and said, ‘she’s coming to law school.’ ”

“I hated law school and I didn’t do law school right,” she says. But she did make it, graduating in May 1987 and passing the bar exam. She was married and both her daughters were born while she was in law school – while she also worked at the Modrall law firm in Albuquerque.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law in May 1987

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law in May 1987. (Courtesy of Michelle Lujan Grisham)

“They were very nice to me at Modrall, but they weren’t going to hire me because I wasn’t in the top 10 percent. That’s how I ended up in the lawyer referral for the elderly at the State Bar and that changed my career path.”

Apple carts

Lujan’s track record with three governors shows she is neither risk-averse nor afraid to upset people if she thinks she is doing the right thing.

First, however, she wants to make it clear that she was never fired by any of them. Not by Democrats Bruce King and Bill Richardson. Not by Republican Gary Johnson.

She acknowledges she brought herself some grief during the recent campaign by saying she had been fired – using what she admits is an ill-advised metaphor based on the fact that all three at times were angry enough that they wanted to issue her walking papers.

King appointed her to run what was then the Agency on Aging in 1991 and within a year she had let go 15 of the 33 employees.

“They did not come to work and they did not take very good care of the programs they were responsible for. We were a financial mess and there was a lot of favoritism about who got contracts. So I’m doing all these investigations and one was of Doña Ana County for not managing our money, resources and priorities right.

“So I just took over the operation there and (in retaliation) the county stole every one of our vehicles for deliveries and locked them up in a warehouse. So I told Bruce I was going to sue them.”

She says King looked at her and said, “Let me understand this. You’re firing everybody. Nobody likes you. Nobody can get along with you and now you want to sue the Democratic County commissioners in Doña Ana?”

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ My job is the seniors,’ ” Lujan Grisham says.

“He was really angry and used to come to my office every day. And I know he wanted to move me or something but he just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have to sue. Maybe Bruce called them. But they relinquished the vehicles.”

She angered Johnson, a Republican, by launching several undercover investigations of care facilities after she had gone undercover herself.

“My dad called this place called Desert Horizons and told them his daughter just had a baby and stroke and was partially paralyzed and he couldn’t take care of me,” Lujan Grisham says.

“They didn’t need my medical records or a doctor’s letter. They said it’s $200 a day and cash would work.”

“I posed – I grew up with a disabled sister so it wasn’t hard. I only stayed for three days but it was a long damned three days. And the best part? When I left they had no idea I was gone. We called to check and they said, ‘She’s fine. She’s sleeping. I had been gone for seven hours.’ ”

The facility was shut down.

Subsequent undercover investigations by her department of two major companies got her into hot water with Johnson. They were more elaborate, with fake identification, and the companies hit the roof.

As for Johnson? “Oh, my God, he was livid. He called and said it’s an overreach and ‘how dare you, and I get blindsided and they want your head on a platter.’ Then he just hung up.”

“I was furious and called right back and said, ‘You were very unprofessional, governor, and you hung up on me.’ And he said, ‘Oh, for God sakes. Goodbye, Michelle.’ Then I hung up. In the end, he was furious but he laughed and that was the end of it.”

With Richardson, she says, “He told me to do a long-term care contract that I didn’t believe in, and I refused to do it. He was really mad.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Oil and gas

Speaking about those in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who are openly hostile to the oil and gas indurstry, Lujan Grisham says, “They’ve lost their minds.”

“We’re the third-largest oil producer in the country. I’m (as governor) going to get a benefit from that.”

She’s also a strong supporter of renewables, but, she says, “I don’t believe everyone in oil and gas wants to pollute and kill the environment. Instead of having a conversation about banning oil and gas, why don’t we fix the methane leak problem?”

Companies are investing billions of dollars in the Permian basin and Lea and Eddy counties in southeast New Mexico are now thought to have oil reserves equal to Saudi Arabia.

“What do people not understand about horizontal drilling?” she asks. If New Mexico doesn’t tap the resource, “Texas will just take it.”

Oil and gas accounts for a big chunk of state revenue, and Lujan Grisham predicts New Mexico will need every dime the industry can generate.

She says the current governor, who has held the line on taxes and spending, will say her successor is going to inherit the best fiscal situation ever as revenues have bounced back. To which Lujan Grisham replies, “Not so much.”

“We have huge vacancy rates in places we don’t need them. … There is a big tab on deferred film credit money.” And she predicts the state will lose the lawsuit claiming it hasn’t adequately funded schools, which she says could mean a $600 million hit.

The Rail Runner is a nagging financial problem.

“I wish I had a fix. That’s a hard one, but I’m working on it,” she says.

“Yes, the budget is better and we’re going to have more money, but we would spend it all and then some if we just paid all those debts without even addressing economic investment and development.”

Education reform

Lujan Grisham says that “if we don’t get education right, I don’t care how good the economy is. Nobody will stay here. Why would they?”

The controversial PARCC exam certainly would be gone under a Lujan Grisham administration and Democratic Legislature, but she says that shouldn’t be confused with doing away with accountability.

She likes an individual assessment tool created at the school level, similar to one she says is used elsewhere.

“When we transition out of PARCC, you can’t just throw out data and wave a magic wand. If we do that, we’re not going to know where kids are, how they are doing and no one’s going to be accountable in public education. That’s a terrible idea.”

“I want these individual assessments and I want them to work and they have to meet ESSA (federal law) requirements or we don’t get federal support.”

“I want a plan. A 50-year plan for education (and for the economy and water). I’ve worked in enough government jobs to know it’s easy to have a great political idea and it’s bright and shiny and everyone goes towards the light – and then it doesn’t change the status quo and you demoralize folks and then somebody just gets rid of it.”

“You need stuff that’s not sexy. You need a plan where you have to be able to see tangible positive results sooner rather than later.”

Lujan Grisham notes a recent news story reporting that Metro Court in Albuquerque sends text messages to remind people of court dates, which significantly improves the number of people who show up for hearings. A bipartisan proposal would have required schools to text parents about subjects like attendance issues using similar technology. Teachers unions and school administrators opposed the bill, and it failed.

But Lujan Grisham says she’s “all in” on the kind of approach used in Metro Court.

“We have to stop being our own worst enemy,” she says.

Michelle Lujan Grisham poses with Isleta Pueblo elder Jessie Abeita during a visit to the pueblo

Michelle Lujan Grisham poses with Isleta Pueblo elder Jessie Abeita during a visit to the pueblo. (Courtesy of Michelle Lujan Grisham)

Lujan Grisham wants raises for teachers, but her idea to steer more money out of administration is likely to raise hackles in the education establishment.

“The administrative overhead in our schools is outrageous,” she says. “It’s going to be hard. Everyone is going to fight it. And you know what? They are all supporting me. Great. But if they think I’m not taking on this fight, they don’t know who I am. We’re taking it on. You have to. It’s outrageous.”

Family ties

While Lujan Grisham was working in the Richardson administration in 2004, her husband, Greg, died of an aneurysm while jogging. The couple’s two daughters were 17 and 19 at the time.

One of her daughters is expecting a baby in September or early October. “She couldn’t wait until after the election.”

Lujan Grisham is financial caretaker for her mother, who is in assisted living in Albuquerque, and she is engaged to Manny Cordova of Albuquerque, who owns Southwest Collision Craftsman. She says he’s sweet, wonderful and not really into politics.

Lujan Grisham jokes that she is “highly caffeinated” and doesn’t like sleep – averaging three or four hours a night. “I’m just up all the time.”

Kiwi, a Shih Tzu mix, barks for a treat as she does tricks for her owner, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in July 2013

Kiwi, a Shih Tzu mix, barks for a treat as she does tricks for her owner, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in July 2013. Kiwi ran away after being scared by a hot air balloon in 2012. She returned 13 months later. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Hobbies?

“I have great hobbies. I snow ski. I swim. I raise chickens. I rollerblade. I like sports.”

And despite all that high energy, she’s always on a diet.

“Carbs,” she says, “are my go-to for stress.”

Lujan Grisham worries about civility and says she has worked across the aisle – aided, she says, by her energy and humor. She acknowledges losing her temper and pointing her finger at Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and subsequently apologizing.

And she is troubled by fellow Democrat Maxine Waters’ urging people to confront Trump administration officials in public places.

“Talk about a bridge too far. How can she in good conscience say the president is promoting violence and discrimination and then do the very same thing?

“I’m not in. I wasn’t raised like that.”

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