The question of the day isn’t rhetorical, though it might seem that way at a glance.
Can Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lose her bid for reelection in what’s mostly a bright-blue state?
Probably not, but she’s giving it her all.
Two announcements last week helped keep an uninspiring collection of Republican candidates for governor on life-support.
The first came from WalletHub, a Washington-based financial website. It ranked New Mexico’s public school system as the worst in America.
Two days later, Lujan Grisham hired her third Cabinet secretary of public education in 31 months.
Teachers, principals and the governor herself can scoff at WalletHub rating New Mexico 51st in education, behind all the other states and Washington, D.C. Lists of the best and worst schools are always subject to debate.
What Lujan Grisham cannot deny is instability at the top of her Public Education Department. Three top administrators in less than three years is a failure of the governor.
Lujan Grisham fired her first public education secretary, Karen Trujillo, after only six months. The governor’s stated reason was Trujillo didn’t meet expectations.
Trujillo was puzzled by Lujan Grisham’s critique. At the time of Trujillo’s firing, she said no one in the governor’s administration had discussed any shortcomings with her.
Trujillo resurrected her career as superintendent of schools in Las Cruces. She died in an accident in February, struck by a minivan while walking her dogs.
Lujan Grisham’s next choice to run the Public Education Department was Ryan Stewart, just 38 when she hired him in August 2019. He arrived from a nonprofit organization whose mission was to improve schools in a section of Philadelphia.
Stewart promised a commitment to New Mexico kids during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee.
“I take the pressure to deliver on this moment home with me every day,” he said.
The location of Stewart’s home soon became a contentious issue.
Stewart once admitted spending four months of 2020 in Philadelphia with his wife and son.
That left him 1,900 miles away from schools in New Mexico that were trying to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
At least seven state senators, five Democrats and two Republicans, questioned Stewart’s commitment to the job and, by extension, Lujan Grisham’s wisdom in appointing him.
The senators advanced a bill Stewart inspired. It would have required state Cabinet secretaries to live in New Mexico. What the bill really did was express unhappiness with Stewart and the governor.
Stewart knew Lujan Grisham would veto the bill if it cleared the Legislature. It stalled. He decided to rebut the bill anyway.
Contradicting his earlier comments about residing in Philadelphia for a stretch of 2020, he stated he had lived in New Mexico since his appointment. Even with the pandemic, Stewart said, he’d visited 70 schools spread across every region of New Mexico.
Stewart says he is resigning from his job Aug. 20 for family reasons. His stay in the New Mexico Public Education Department lasted two years, including time spent on the East Coast.
Lujan Grisham has hired Kurt Steinhaus, 67, as Stewart’s successor. Steinhaus is coming out of a brief retirement to take the job. He was superintendent of the Los Alamos Public Schools until stepping down in May.
He’s entering a pressure cooker. Lujan Grisham needs stability in the Public Education Department to quiet criticisms of mismanagement as she campaigns for reelection.
New Mexico residents have more than politics at stake. Good jobs and good schools are always linked. Employers don’t want to locate their businesses in a state whose education system is inferior.
If New Mexico Republicans had a leader instead of Amarillo Steve Pearce, Lujan Grisham might be in more danger of being upset in the election.
Pearce, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, identifies with ruby-red Texas. He moved a New Mexico Republican convention to Amarillo this year, calling it Operation Freedom.
Pearce had more than a Lone Star misstep. After Donald Trump’s defeat and a riot at the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, Pearce stood up for the defeated candidate.
“God bless President Donald J. Trump. He will be our President FOREVER and no one can take that away from us,” Pearce wrote in a tweet.
Pearce deleted the tweet, perhaps realizing presidents have term limits, or that Trump is unpopular in most of New Mexico.
Amarillo Steve’s biggest failure is his thin bench. He hasn’t built a roster of Republican candidates who can win statewide elections, the operative state being New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham can’t afford to have Pearce to defect to Texas. Her side needs him.