Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Former Gov. Bill Richardson has largely stayed out of state politics since leaving office at the end of 2010, but he has made a cameo appearance of sorts in recent weeks.
The ex-governor recently called Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and urged the governor to contact restaurant owners and a southeast New Mexico mayor who had reached out to him about the state’s reopening plan for businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
While the Governor’s Office on Friday downplayed Richardson’s role, one former restaurant owner said a group of restaurateurs had a productive online meeting with Lujan Grisham after he had asked Richardson to help get them in touch with the governor.
“We did not have any one-on-one dialogue going with the governor” before the phone call, said Al Lucero, the former owner of a popular Santa Fe restaurant who now does work for an alcohol beverage distributor.
He said the subsequent online meeting between Lujan Grisham and around a half dozen restaurant owners from around the state – that took place about two weeks ago – focused on their economic concerns and ways to reopen the industry.
“It was their dialogue, I think, that convinced the governor that they were sincere about opening safely,” Lucero said Friday.
After being closed for more than two months under public health orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, restaurants in nearly all of New Mexico were allowed by the Lujan Grisham administration to open outdoor dining areas on Wednesday – provided they follow certain social distancing guidelines.
And indoor restaurant dining will be allowed at 50% maximum capacity starting Monday under a revised order, Lujan Grisham announced Thursday.
Richardson, who lives in Santa Fe, said Friday he became alarmed by the number of boarded-up businesses he saw during a recent drive through Red River, Questa and Angel Fire.
He told the Journal he did not participate in the talks between the current governor and the restaurant owners, but credited Lujan Grisham for listening to them and acting on their concerns.
“I would call myself more of an intermediary or facilitator urging both sides to come together,” Richardson said in an interview.
However, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Friday the governor has been getting steady input in recent weeks, including from members of an Economic Recovery Council she created, about COVID-safe practices by industry that are being used as part of the state’s gradual reopening plan.
The decisions about when and where to reopen the state’s economy are made by the governor and are guided by the public health data, said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett.
“The governor has been talking to restaurateurs and business owners from all across the state for months; she didn’t need the former governor to encourage her to continue doing that at all,” Sackett said Friday.
“It’s true that the former governor reached out to the current governor and mentioned he had been hearing from those groups and individuals and shared his thoughts, and that’s about it,” she added.
But Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb, a member of a group of mayors working with the Lujan Grisham administration on reopening issues, called Richardson a “great advocate” to the governor on business-related issues.
“I think it’s had a positive impact on some of her decision-making,” Cobb told the Journal.
Both Democrats, Lujan Grisham and Richardson have a long-running working relationship with one another.
The current governor was state Department of Health secretary during Richardson’s tenure as governor, before resigning in 2007.
Meanwhile, Richardson has also been involved in other response efforts to the pandemic, including a humanitarian project aimed at boosting access to scarce medical and protective equipment supplies on the Navajo Nation.
Richardson, who said he’s looking forward to patronizing his favorite Santa Fe restaurants in the coming weeks, said Friday he was happy to help – albeit in a limited role.
“People still call me,” Richardson told the Journal. “They think I’m still governor and I have power, even though I don’t.”