Correction appended

A key member of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet who was crucial in coordinating the state’s coronavirus response is set to retire after “the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Governor’s Office.

Describing working through the public health crisis as “physically and mentally exhausting,” New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced Friday she intends to retire in the near future. Lujan Grisham’s office is now beginning “a nationwide search” for Kunkel’s replacement.

In a statement released by the Governor’s Office on Friday, Kunkel, 69, said she is proud of the work the Department of Health has done in trying to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“That work will continue until we’ve seen ourselves through to the other side of this crisis,” she said. “The governor, the medical advisory team, the entire state administration and everyday New Mexicans have shown themselves to be more than up to the task of corralling and ultimately defeating this virus. We will get the job done.”

Lujan Grisham’s office did not make it immediately clear how long Kunkel will continue to serve as health secretary. She will be the eighth Cabinet secretary to step down since Lujan Grisham took office 18 months ago.

Kunkel said in her statement she decided it’s time to “begin the next phase of my life,” stressing that the decision to retire was personal rather than professional.

She added that she will continue to assist in battling the virus “until such time as I can step aside with peace of mind and begin my next chapter with the appropriate leadership to take my place.”



Prior to her role as one of the state’s premier health officials, Kunkel served as assistant attorney general for four years. She worked in various divisions of the Department of Health for seven years and was appointed health secretary by Lujan Grisham in January 2019.

In a statement, Lujan Grisham praised Kunkel’s work during a time of crisis that no one anticipated when she was appointed. “The secretary has been under more day-to-day stress than perhaps any other New Mexican official in responding to the pandemic,” the governor said. “Frankly it’s unimaginable. And yet Kathy has put in countless, thankless hours and been an instrumental part of our state’s overall successful response.”

Other departments for which the governor has had to seek replacement leaders include the Public Education Department, the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, the Higher Education Department, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Department of Information Technology, and the Department of Finance and Administration.

The former director of the state’s Office of African American Affairs, William Scott Carreathers, also resigned last month. He did not provide a reason in his resignation letter. State Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, told The New Mexican the governor failed to inform Carreathers she would create a new Council for Racial Justice in response to demonstrations against police brutality after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police in May.

In yet another high-profile departure, the state’s former lead epidemiologist, Michael Landen, stepped down from his role amid the novel coronavirus outbreak last month to search for work closer to his relatives in Virginia.

In a follow-up email, Governor’s Office spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett pushed back on describing the turnover of high-profile Cabinet positions as “significant.” She said more than half of the agencies that have seen secretaries step down lost them due to decisions that “were directly attributable to family situations, and there’s been really only one where the quality of work was simply not there.”

She continued: “The administration has hired very well and life happens. These are not easy jobs. This is not an easy time. Turnover is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of life, here as it is anywhere else. State government is comprised of diligent and tireless hard-working people and our secretaries are no exception.”

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Pam Coleman, director of the State Personnel Office, left her position. The error was made in editing.

(32) comments

BOB SCHWARTZ

I am sure the phrase, "searching for the best replacement" means searching through existing friend and family resumes. I am also sure the qualification most sought is that of whipping boy/girl/other no questions asked and the ability to make the ultimate sacrifice, career destruction, for MLG and make it look like their fault

Khal Spencer

Whoops. Eight, not nine.

Ted Nugent

I seem to recall Susana Martinez and Bill Richardson went through many, many cabinet secretaries during respective terms. This is par for course.

Khal Spencer

Nine cabinet secretaries hitting the silk under chief pilot MLG's leadership? Um....does that suggest a problem here?

My only hope is that a highly qualified person with a public health doctorate is offered and takes the job. He or she can appoint an undersecretary with a JD degree if we really need a lawyer. The number of lawyers in government reminds me of that old joke, "what do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?"

Ted Nugent

And I say any attorney working for State government as employer not a very good attorney. If they were that good, private practice more lucrative for a skilled lawyer.

Chris Mechels

Going unremarked in our unremarkable media, Secr of Health Kunkel and the Governor made an "emergency" rules change on 20 March 2020, to install a hearing procedure for those they fined $5,000 during the Covid emergency. No public hearing, this procedure allowed them to "punish" those selected. To bypass the usual required hearing, Kunkel declared and "imminent peril to public health" though it is hard to imagine why the delay of a $5,000 fine would constitute an "imminent peril". It seems clear that Kunkel, and Governor, were preparing a club to hit us with, as bad little citizens. Bullies...

The good news; we will now have only one Secr of Health, Michelle. We have had two. It seems Michelle never got over being dismissed as the first Secr of Health, and insists on doing that job. A nightmare for whoever comes next. Finally, there is a public hearing, and rule making, for the $5,000 fine hearing. Please show up, and oppose it, as this kind of gratuitous bullying by the Governor should be opposed. http://publicnoticeads.com/NM/search/view.asp?T=PN&id=3099/6232020_25991482.htm

Mike Johnson

Excellent news, now maybe the Guv can find a real health science professional instead of an old college lawyer crony with no expertise or education in science or health. Oh but wait, this is NM, silly me......

Ted Nugent

You may not recall, the cabinet secretary prior Ms. Kunkel was Lynn Gallagher, another attorney, FYI. In fact, NMDOH secretary, for most part, has always had a legal background. To think a medical professional must manage NMDOH is foolish. That's like saying because D. Trump is not a physician, he less able to manage COVID-19. Get real, Fake Dr. Johnson.

Mike Johnson

Thanks for providing more evidence of the incompetent way NM Health has been run, yes under Suzie Pizza Party too. Is it any wonder NM is last in all health categories, infant mortality, life expectancy. etc.? Thanks for making my case. I suspect you would want Albert Einstein to do your taxes, since he is really smart and good with math......right.

Chris Mechels

Connie, you continue your silly, uninformed, blather. Gallagher was the Deputy at DOH, and an attorney. She was named Secr of Health upon the untimely death of Retta Ward, who had a MPH, and a long history in management.

Chris Mechels

Connie, the first Secr of Health under Martinez was an MD, the second, Ward, had an MPH and was an outstanding manager, the third, Gallagher, was an attorney who was the Deputy Secr, promoted on the untimely death of Ward. Do your homework.

Ted Nugent

I seem to recall NMDOH secretary being Alex Valdez, another lawyer. I'm right again!

Khal Spencer

Having a medical professional head a Dept. of Health? I suppose you would want a trial lawyer to do brain surgery on you, Connie.

Ted Nugent

Uhh, that's lile saying manager at Wendy's restaurant must have a degree in nutrition or food science to entice me to eat there. Instead, I get a 19-year old college student majoring in theater who just got fired from AutoZone.

Angel Ortiz

I would gladly nominate you Dr. Mike to take the position of Secretary of Health

You are absolutely qualified with your Ph.D and I am assuming that your field of study must be in the medical realm. I mean, your doctorate must be in the field of medicine, right?

Mike Johnson

I would not work for this Guv if you paid me a million$$ per month. I don't work for dictators and fools. And, no, my Ph.D. is in the earth sciences, stable isotope geochemistry and paleoclimatology. I have stated that before when asked, I have never presented myself as an MD. And what did you specialize in in high school?

Jim Klukkert

Mike- Given that so often discussions on these pages are concerned with issues of Public Health, would it not be more forthright and candid to present yourself as Dr. Michael Johnson, Ph D.?

Just saying, and despite our heated exchanges, saying this is a friendly way, not as a 'gotcha.'

Angel Ortiz

Yes, I know you. Worked for the oil companies in Texas. Probably supported fracking while making the big bucks before you transplanted to NM. Yes. I finished high school, received my MBA, served my country and worked in public service. I love my community. All you seem to do is sit behind your keyboard and insult people. As for the Governor, your distain for her is because she is Latina, a woman and a Democrat. I would expect for insight from the Most Interesting Man in the world with a PhD!

Mike Johnson

Mr. Klukkert, when I signed up to this discussion section many years ago, I registered as Mike Johnson, Ph.D., and that is still what I see at the upper right corner of the page right now, Welcome, Mike Johnson Ph.D.. I don't know where the SFNM got Dr. Michael Johnson from, I did not sign up that way, as I do not use Dr. except in university settings and lectures I give.

Mike Johnson

Mr. Ortiz, thank you for your service. I too served in Viet Nam, flying off the Big E and having lots of fun, sort of. To correct your impressions wrt my views of the Governor, I am a lifelong Democrat, voted for Obama in 2008, I have donated lots of money to Democrats over the years, I now describe myself as a Democratic Capitalist, as our party has moved so drastically left. My disdain for her is NOT based on gender, ethnicity, and obviously not being a Democrat, because I view her as closer to a socialist than a Democrat. Her recent, drastic, left wing/socialist values and agenda disgust me, and her recent dictatorial/authoritarian bent is not something I can respect, endorse, or any longer financially support, as I have in the past. I support people like Carl Trujillo, John Arthur Smith, Joe Cervantes, Mary Kay Papen, and Joe Sanchez. Perhaps you like ones like Egolf, Wirth, Webber, and Andrea Romero (#ResistRomero), so I know where you stand most likely. I am a third generation New Mexican, and my great grandfather fought the original Santa Fe Ring and was the lone socialist member of the 1910 NM Constitutional Convention. Yes, I worked for an oil company most of my life, all over the world. Yes I have supported fracking my entire career. I have also incubated many NM businesses in various technology based endeavors after retiring and moving back home.. to try and make NM better for business I only tell you all this to let you know I am not as simple as you would like to think.

Mike Johnson

Fixed it.

Mike Johnson

And Mr. Ortiz, I am never the first with an insult, but I will reply in kind when insulted.

Angel Ortiz

Dr. Mike, thank you for your honesty, finally

Thank you for your service as well. I do not support the individuals that you noted in your recent post for i am also not as simple as you assume

My grandparents came from Mexico.

Grandfather worked in the coal mines. Single Mon who made sure my brothers and I learned respect, and the value of an education. We all have MBA. All of us served our country. So please understand that when you insult the Governor and NMSP with derogatory words and stoking the flames, I will also be here to respond. Have a wonderful weekend!

Mike Johnson

You're welcome Mr. Ortiz, and thank you for more context. I was also raised in a dirt poor single Mom home, where she worked 60 hours a week at minimum wage jobs to get us an education, as she only finished the 8th grade and knew what an education could do. So we have more in common. I didn't understand that you take my derogatory comments about the Guv personally, as I would never think such things directed at a politician, even the rare ones I like, is anything to do with me. Maybe it is because I lack any respect for them. As for the NMSP, I have many friends and college classmates who are on that force, and they are not responsible for what the Guv has ordered them to do, well beyond their normal duties. As one told me, "Mike, don't blame us if she wants to use us like her secret police force (he used a different word I hav repeated before), we have to follow orders". But I know now you take such things personally, as the old saying goes....Cada cabeza es un mundo.

Angel Ortiz

Mike. Thanks for fixing your profile. Now I can once again be a fan of Johnathan Goldsmith. In the end. Tu no sabes nada de mi Corazon y mi Barrio. Mi Mundo no es tuyo. As my contemporaries always say , "Always in the fight. I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. " Gracias chico!

Ted Nugent

"In yet another high-profile departure, the state’s former lead epidemiologist, Michael Landen, stepped down from his role amid the novel coronavirus outbreak last month to search for work closer to his relatives in Virginia." Really? *Wink*

Chris Mechels

The three Cabinet members having statutory responsibility for dealing with Covid, under the Public Heath Emergency laws are; Kunkel at DOH, Shea at Public Safety, and the head of Emergency Planning. All three positions are in trouble. Kunkel, at DOH, is an old attorney, not an MD, and this left MLG getting advice from Dr. Scrase, who has no legal authority. Weak.... Mark Shea, at DPS, is the weakest DPS Secretary in years, and he helped to destroy police training in NM. The Emergency Planning head, Jackie White, was solid, but left after dealing with Egolf and MLG. The current head is unqualified, Chief of Staff for Udall, needed a soft spot to land. So, Michelle gets to run everything, which she seems to like. Too bad she's not qualified. Nora's making big bucks telling the lies, with Tripp. What a crew...

BOB SCHWARTZ

Chris Mechels, Mark Shea will fall sooner or later. He has the least qualifications of any and provides zero input to the dept of public safety and simply warms a seat. I remember stopping him one day on I25 at La Bajada Hill, southbound, as he was driving his DPS white Crown Victoria. (forgot his position at DPS) smoking his cigarette windows rolled up with AC, and he had a completely flat rear tire. He asked me if I stopped him for speeding, self conscious, and i said "no" your rear tire in completely flat at which time he looked at it. He them exclaimed, "oh, that's why it was driving like that". I said "yeah" and then her wanted me to change it even though he was wearing a polo and utility pants. Mindset has not changed.

Lee DiFiore

If mlg was a republican headline would be "top official abandons sinking ship".

Ted Nugent

Yeah, right. What about just a 69-year old senior citizen who just wants to stop working? Nothing wrong with that, ese.

BOB SCHWARTZ

Another MLG casualty. Must be tough working for "one flew over the cuckoos nest". It would be tough having to report MLG's perception as compared to reality

Ted Nugent

Bob, the only cuckoo is you, bro.

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