Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s Note: The Journal this week is publishing profiles on New Mexico’s candidates for governor, focused on a single day on the campaign trail.
ESPAÑOLA – It was 10 a.m. and Michelle Lujan Grisham had already finished her fourth cup of coffee.
But the high-energy and highly caffeinated governor was on the lookout for a refill, before heading to her next scheduled event on a busy day crisscrossing northern New Mexico.
So Lujan Grisham and her State Police security detail stopped at a Starbucks in Española, where she got her coffee fix, elbow-bumped a few employees and posed for photos with customers and the store’s manager.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Democratic governor, who married her longtime fiancé Manny Cordova in May in a ceremony officiated by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and lost her mother, Sonja Lujan, who died in April of natural causes.
But Lujan Grisham is forging ahead as she seeks a second four-year term in office, fueled by coffee and a sense there’s still ample work to do in order to break generational poverty cycles in New Mexico.
“I have a lot of energy and I’m motivated by having too much on my plate,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal during an interview before a Taos campaign rally.
“If you can lift New Mexicans out of poverty, all of these social challenges we have will start to diminish,” the governor also said. “But not unless we turn the corner there.”
Over the course of the day, Lujan Grisham would promise state funding to help fix an acequia damaged by fires and flooding this summer and pledge more buses for a local school in response to a request from a restaurant worker.
She would also tout the need for more funding for water projects around New Mexico and the possibility of more tax relief amid an unprecedented state revenue windfall.
But not all questions on the campaign trail are easily answered.
At one point during a town hall-style meeting with northern New Mexico land grant heirs and parciantes, or members who own water rights in an acequia, Lujan Grisham was asked to speak in Spanish to attendees.
In response, she said she understands the language but acknowledged her speaking ability is minimal, saying her late father came from a generation whose members were not encouraged to speak Spanish in public.
“It is an area in our schools that I think needs a lot more attention,” Lujan Grisham said, referring to bilingual programs.
Bilingual or not, Robert Antonio Romero of La Mesilla, a small community near Española, said he was impressed by Lujan Grisham’s knowledge and authenticity.
“I’ve never heard a governor that knew so much about these issues,” he told the Journal after the event.
Lujan Grisham is bidding to become the fourth consecutive New Mexico governor to win reelection – following in the steps of former Govs. Gary Johnson, Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez.
She’s maintained a narrow lead over Republican Mark Ronchetti and a wide lead over Libertarian Karen Bedonie in recent polls and has also outraised her rivals. As of this month, the governor had raised slightly more than $10 million for her reelection campaign – or more than the $9.7 million raised when first running in 2018.
Lujan Grisham is not taking victory for granted, however, though she says she’s confident about the election’s outcome.
During the day the Journal spent following Lujan Grisham on the campaign trail, she wore a hefty knee brace and high heels.
The governor said she plans to have surgery in January to fix a torn anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus damage and other issues stemming from an old knee injury she recently exacerbated. She said she’s too busy campaigning to have the procedure before then.
Over her first three-plus years as governor, Lujan Grisham has emerged as a polarizing political figure, particularly when it comes to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor has received both praise and criticism for her approach, which included using her executive powers to shutter businesses deemed nonessential during parts of the pandemic, scolding Española residents for not adhering to face mask mandates and closing schools to in-person learning for nearly one year.
But Lujan Grisham has defended her actions, which also include issuing more than 30 public health orders and clashing with the Democratic-led Legislature over spending authority for federal pandemic relief funds, saying they were necessary to minimize spread of the virus in a state with a limited number of hospital beds and high rates of underlying health conditions.
Since the pandemic began, New Mexico ranks around the middle of states in terms of COVID-19 cases per capita, but has one of the nation’s highest death rates due to the virus, according to data tracking by the New York Times.
Even now, Lujan Grisham says different parts of the state have different expectations when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, saying some New Mexicans want her to enact more restrictions and others want less.
However, the governor says she believes many state residents have come up with their own ways of navigating the pandemic and are largely moving on.
“I feel like people have finally diminished being angry at me,” she told the Journal. “I feel like that anger has diminished … that’s been good to feel that when I’m out and about.”
But strong feelings still exist, including among those who think the governor flouted her own advice to New Mexicans by making jewelry purchases and more.
During a visit to Taos Pueblo, however, the governor was thanked by tribal leaders for her actions during the pandemic.
“I think COVID is here to stay, but we’ve just got to learn to live with it,” said Taos Pueblo Governor Clyde Romero during a meeting in which Lujan Grisham received the pueblo’s endorsement.
The 62-year-old Lujan Grisham herself recently contracted COVID-19 for the first time, but says her symptoms were mild.
This year’s election could be a referendum of sorts on Lujan Grisham’s first term as governor, but she is optimistic about her chances – and already looking ahead.
On the campaign trail, she talks frequently about the legislative session that begins in January.
“I’m not doing my job currently and I’m doing a disservice to people politically if I’m not thinking about the next 60-day session,” Lujan Grisham said.
In stump speeches, Lujan Grisham touts her administration’s efforts to expand free tuition for college students and expanded income eligibility for child care assistance.
She also says New Mexico’s economy was on track to be the strongest in state history before the COVID-19 pandemic and claims the state’s recent job growth has caught the attention of Arizona, Colorado and other neighboring states.
But while New Mexico’s unemployment rate dropped by 2.4 percentage points over the last year – from 6.8% in August 2021 to 4.4% this August – to make it the state with the fourth-biggest recovery, New Mexico still has one of the highest unemployment rates.
It also has the country’s highest percentage of residents enrolled on Medicaid and is 50th for overall child well-being, according to the Kids Count Data Book.
“We’re still not where we can be, and that’s a tough reality,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal.
If reelected, she said she would push next year to recruit more doctors and nurses to New Mexico, build new health care facilities and reduce the tuition burden for aspiring teachers.
In addition, Lujan Grisham said gun safety measures would be a priority, even after lawmakers passed measures in recent years to expand background check requirements for firearm purchases and allow guns to be removed from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.
“I think people expect some school safety measures,” she said. “They’re going to get them. We can do better than we’re currently doing.”
On the campaign trail this month, Lujan Grisham made quick stops to visit a Taos art studio and a local brewery.
She said she’s always on the lookout for more Hopi kachina dolls and can never have enough milagros, but was dissuaded from making any purchases by a campaign staffer who tells Lujan Grisham she has plenty of such objects already.
At the brewery, the governor asks Taos Mesa Brewing co-founder Jayson Wylie about his thoughts on modernizing New Mexico’s drunken driving laws over a flight of small beers.
The governor says she never drank alcohol until her mid-30s because she didn’t like the taste, but was cajoled into drinking at social events by her first husband, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2004. She also says she has never smoked marijuana despite signing into law a 2021 bill that legalized recreational cannabis sales.
A former Cabinet secretary under three New Mexico governors, Lujan Grisham is the ultimate state government insider – and she doesn’t shy away from it.
“I think too many folks who run for these offices have no idea how complicated they are,” she said, citing working with local and tribal leaders statewide.
But her administration has struggled to turn around some chronically troubled agencies, such as the Children, Youth and Families Department, and there have been high levels of turnover in some Cabinet-level positions.
In addition, Lujan Grisham faced criticism after her campaign paid $150,000 over multiple payments as part of a settlement reached with an ex-staffer. The former staffer, James Hallinan, accused Lujan Grisham of sexual mistreatment during a 2018 meeting.
Lujan Grisham has strenuously denied the allegations made by Hallinan, who worked as a spokesman for the governor during her 2018 general election campaign. Her campaign has said the settlement was reached in order to avoid a drawn-out legal dispute and to prevent a distraction at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the challenges, Lujan Grisham says she still has a hunger for the job and a thirst for new information.
After getting an update on an elite Taos Pueblo firefighting crew being sent to fight a fire in Montana, the governor took a few minutes to reflect before hurrying off to her next scheduled event.
“That’s my favorite thing about being governor – I learn something new every day,” she said.