Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The COVID-19 pandemic – and specifically Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s handling of it – is emerging as a contentious issue in New Mexico’s gubernatorial election this year.
During a GOP candidate forum this week in Santa Fe, the five Republicans running for governor blasted Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is seeking reelection to a second term, for her response to the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 7,400 state residents.
Financial adviser Greg Zanetti, a retired U.S. Army officer, said Lujan Grisham had placed “government over God” during the pandemic, a reference to capacity limits for churches and houses of worship imposed by the governor’s administration.
The limits were challenged unsuccessfully in court by at least one Albuquerque church, but were lifted eventually in April 2021, with the possibility of additional legal threats looming.
Fellow Republican Rebecca Dow, a three-term state lawmaker from Truth or Consequences, suggested that even some Democrats might have grown weary of the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
“She cannot say she saved us – the data shows otherwise,” Dow said during the candidate forum sponsored by Santa Fe Federated Republican Women.
But Lujan Grisham and top health officials in her administration have insisted the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic saved thousands of lives.
In an October 2020 interview, Lujan Grisham said New Mexico’s demographics and health care system limitations played a role in her administration’s decision to close schools and shut down nonessential businesses shortly after the pandemic’s arrival in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are stricter because we have more issues than most states,” Lujan Grisham said at the time.
One of the nation’s poorest states on average, New Mexico also has an increasingly elderly population – 18% of its residents were 65 or older as of last year – and a limited number of hospital beds and health care facilities.
Lujan Grisham’s campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said Friday the governor’s actions during the pandemic reflected New Mexico’s unique circumstances and helped avoid a total collapse of the state’s health care system.
She also cited Lujan Grisham’s efforts to approve tax cuts, provide financial relief and expand early childhood programs during the pandemic.
“The GOP candidates for governor spent the pandemic endangering New Mexican lives by spreading misinformation about treatments and protection, failing to demonstrate any shred of leadership that would signal they know how to ensure the safety and security of New Mexicans and their families,” Witmer told the Journal.
‘Blood on her hands’
As they make their case to Republican voters in advance of the June primary election, however, the five GOP candidates have argued that Lujan Grisham’s decisions had negative impacts on New Mexico businesses and families alike.
Gubernatorial candidate Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner, said this week the pandemic shutdowns had led to a rise in crime and child abuse around the state.
Legislative analysts released a report last summer that said the rate of child maltreatment fatalities in New Mexico more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, though it’s unclear how much of that increase might be related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This governor has blood on her hands for what she single-handedly did to New Mexicans,” Block said on social media, adding New Mexicans would hold her accountable at the ballot box in November.
Mark Ronchetti, who has outraised his four GOP rivals in terms of campaign fundraising, has also criticized Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic.
“She took a March 2020 approach when little was known about the disease and extended that extreme mindset into March of 2022 when science had already disproven her lockdown approach,” Ronchetti spokesman Enrique Knell said Friday.
The spokesman for Ronchetti, a former KRQE-TV meteorologist, also said the governor’s approach was driven by a desire to be named to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.
Lujan Grisham was considered for a Biden administration post, but ultimately stayed in New Mexico.
She has vigorously denied that political factors played a role in her pandemic decision-making, including the decision to lift New Mexico’s face mask mandate for indoor public settings in February.
NM ranked 11th in US
Overall, New Mexico’s rate of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people – currently at 353 – ranks 11th highest in the nation, according to The New York Times.
That rate is lower than such neighboring states as Arizona and Oklahoma, but higher than other western states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Texas and Oregon.
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s public health emergency order that was set to expire Friday was extended by state Health Secretary David Scrase, the top health official in the Lujan Grisham administration.
The order, which is now set to run through May 16, requires masks to be worn in hospitals, state prisons and other group-living facilities, among other provisions.
In all, the public health order has now been extended and revised by the Lujan Grisham administration more than 35 times since the governor issued the initial public health emergency order related to COVID-19 in March 2020.