SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez made more changes to her Cabinet on Monday, including shifting the state’s tourism chief to the helm of the Children, Youth and Families Department. One Democratic legislative leader reacted with skepticism, while another praised the appointee’s management skills.
Preparing to begin her second term, the Republican governor said Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson will bring a strong management background to CYFD, an agency that has faced criticism in recent years for its handling of high-profile child abuse cases.
“Her strong intellect and impeccable management skills will serve the agency well, and she is a leader who is well-known for producing results,” Martinez said in a statement.
Jacobson is a Taos native who worked in corporate marketing before taking a state government job. She will take the CYFD reins from Yolanda Deines, who had held the job since Martinez took office in 2011.
Senate Democratic Whip Michael Padilla of Albuquerque called the announcement a “shocker” and predicted Jacobson will face questions during the Senate confirmation process about relevant work experience.
“I wasn’t aware that she had a background in child protective services or any of the other duties of the department,” said Padilla, who praised Jacobson’s work at the Tourism Department. “It’s absolutely vital, and I think that’s going to be one of her biggest challenges.”
Padilla has sponsored several CYFD-related bills in recent years and said he plans to introduce legislation during the coming 60-day session that would make the department a standalone agency.
However, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Jacobson’s management skills likely outweigh her social work résumé, or lack of one.
“I think the management skills are first and foremost,” said Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “She’s highly organized and seems to be a good manager of people.”
Among other duties, CYFD oversees the state’s foster care and early childhood programs. In recent years, the agency has struggled to fill job vacancies and reduce social worker caseloads; it also announced internal changes after the case of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who died in December 2013 after allegedly being kicked by his mother.
Not all past CYFD secretaries have had experience in the field. Heather Wilson, for instance, who went on to represent New Mexico in the U.S. House, led the agency from 1995 to 1998 under then-Gov. Gary Johnson, despite having primarily a business and Air Force background.
In her Monday announcement, Martinez praised Deines, saying the licensed social worker had served with passion and dedication.
Meanwhile, the governor named Rebecca Latham, a Tourism Department staffer and former tourism executive for the town of Red River, as Jacobson’s replacement.
Martinez also said Higher Education Secretary José Garcia is stepping down and ted Barbara Damron to take his place.
The selection of Damron, a professor at the University of New Mexico’s College of Nursing, was lauded by UNM President Bob Frank.
“It’s rare to get an appointment with such extensive experience in government and education,” Frank said. “She will make a great addition to the governor’s Cabinet and a tremendous advocate for education here in New Mexico. Personally, I’m very fond of her. It’s not often you get someone so well-prepared.”
The moves announced Monday were the latest in a postelection Cabinet reshuffling for Martinez, who has now appointed eight new agency directors – roughly one-third of her Cabinet – since winning re-election last month to a second four-year term.
All members of the governor’s Cabinet – including those staying on from her first term – will be subject to Senate confirmation during the legislative session that begins Jan. 20. The Cabinet changes announced Monday will be effective Jan. 5. No additional changes are expected to be made before the end of the year.
Journal staff writer Mike Bush contributed to this report.