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.