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Gov’s chief of staff on leave to help Biden transition team

Editor’s Note: The headline on this story has been revised to more accurately reflect John Bingaman’s duties. A previous version said Bingaman was on the Biden transition team.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The general election is still several weeks away, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff John Bingaman has taken a leave of absence to focus on a possible presidential transition.

John Bingaman

A spokeswoman for the Democratic governor, who was recently named as one of the co-chairs of Joe Biden’s transition team, said Lujan Grisham asked Bingaman to assist with transition-related tasks.

Since those political duties are not within the scope of official state government business, Bingaman took a leave of absence starting last week, said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett.

“There is a bright ethical line between political activity and governance, and the administration takes the obligation not to cross that line seriously,” Sackett told the Journal. “Even the mere perception of an intermingling of official and political business would be unacceptable.”

The Governor’s Office also insisted Bingaman’s leave of absence would not impact the Lujan Grisham administration’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and preparations for the upcoming 60-day legislative session that begins in January.

However, the move could raise questions about timing – and renew speculation about Lujan Grisham possibly landing a Cabinet post in a Biden administration.

While a Biden transition spokesman did not say Wednesday specifically what Bingaman’s role would be, the transition team has said its five co-chairs are providing the team’s staffers with expert advice on public health and recession-related issues.

In addition to Lujan Grisham, other co-chairs include former U.S. Sen. Tedd Kaufman, a longtime Biden adviser, and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.

Lujan Grisham, a former three-term congresswoman herself, has been touted as a possible pick to lead the U.S. Health and Human Services Department if Biden defeats Donald Trump in next month’s election.

The governor has not rejected the speculation or said she would decline an offer, but she has also not publicly touted her own credentials.

But Lujan Grisham has hit the virtual campaign trail for Biden in recent months, participating remotely in several roundtable events. She was also scheduled to take part in a Tuesday fundraiser along with musicians Willie Nelson and Bob Weir, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and others.

The virtual stumping has prompted criticism from Republicans, including from Trump’s reelection campaign, who have argued that a Biden presidency would hurt New Mexico’s energy-reliant economy.

Bingaman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is a former investment professional who has been the governor’s chief of staff since she took office in January 2019. His current salary is roughly $146,000 annually, according to the state Sunshine Portal.

With Bingaman temporarily on leave, Matthew Garcia, the governor’s chief legal counsel, is also serving as her chief of staff on an interim basis, Sackett said.

In response to a Journal question, the Governor’s Office did not say when Bingaman might end his leave of absence and return to his job.

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