John Garcia, General Services Department Cabinet secretary, poses for a portrait at his office earlier this month. The Republican recently joined the governor’s administration.

In his first semester at the University of New Mexico, John A. Garcia flunked each and every one of his classes.

He improved in his second semester, though not by much.

“I got a D. Everything else was an F,” recalled Garcia, who was eventually kicked out of UNM.

Garcia managed to get his academic career back on track with the help of a restauranteur who called him his son, and he ended up graduating from UNM’s Anderson School of Management with honors.

Since then, Garcia, 63, has built an impressive résumé that will include a new entry for 2021: Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico General Services Department.

Garcia, a Republican, joined Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration at the beginning of the month. It’s the latest in a long line of career moves that make him hard to pigeonhole — though wherever he’s gone, colleagues say he was easy to like.

“It’s a great honor to be asked to serve, and I respect that,” he said. “Do I agree with [Lujan Grisham] on everything? Probably not. But she is the governor, and I hope she’ll keep wanting my opinion on things, and I expect to give it to her if she wants it.”

Garcia describes himself as a moderate Republican. He said he’s a fiscal conservative but open minded on social issues.

“I saw my son’s struggle with being gay and how hard it was and the stigma of that,” said Garcia, the father of two adult children. “I know my son better than anybody in the world, and in my opinion, he’s gay because that’s who he is.”

Garcia said his son is in charge of cybersecurity for a large software company in Seattle, and his daughter works as a doctor at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Garcia said the only reason he registered as a Republican is because his late father was a Democrat.

“My dad was like, ‘When you’re 18, you’re out of here.’ That’s the way it was in those days,” said Garcia, one of seven siblings.

Garcia said his party affiliation never surfaced in his talks with the governor.

“She wants me to be John Garcia, and she trusts me with the responsibility of this agency — its people, its budget, its service to the public, its service to her,” he said.

Lujan Grisham has called the General Services Department the backbone of state government.

It comprises a mishmash of divisions, including purchasing, risk management, transportation services, facilities management, printing and administrative services. Garcia described the department as “kind of like the Walmart” of goods and services for state agencies, which he called his customers.

“I am confident that under John’s leadership and with his broad range of experience, the department will continue to improve how state government works and how it serves the people of New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement last month.

Garcia and Lujan Grisham have a long history.

Both served as Cabinet secretaries under former Gov. Gary Johnson, then a Republican who has since switched his party affiliation to Libertarian.

Lujan Grisham announced her appointment of Garcia during a large gathering of an influential commercial real estate group last month.

Politically, it was a smart move. Garcia, who most recently worked as executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico, is an ex-officio board member of the group, and Lujan Grisham signaled she was bringing one of their own into her administration.

“I’m really excited he’s joining this team,” she told the crowd. “I hope you are as well.”

The pair, both jokesters in their own right, put their jovial relationship on full display that day. When introducing Garcia, who is 5-foot-3, the pint-sized governor told the crowd there was at least one person on her Cabinet who was her “same size.”

In an interview that day, Garcia called Lujan Grisham a friend.

“She’s tough minded and [has] a lot of energy; I don’t know if I can keep up with it,” he said, smiling.

Garcia served in a similar role in the past. His mix of private and public sector experience includes serving as a Cabinet secretary of two different departments — tourism and economic development — under Johnson.

Bridgette Madrid, communications and membership specialist for the Home Builders Association, said Garcia is dedicated.

“No matter what the task is, he will put in 110 percent effort,” she wrote in an email. “He is loyal to his friends, staff and family beyond words. He tells horrible dad jokes that now have turned into grandpa jokes.”

Madrid called Garcia a supportive, hardworking and fair boss.

“He knew exactly what his employees could accomplish and he pushed us further than that because he had so much faith in us,” she wrote. “John was definitely easy to work with. One of the best things about John is he would ALWAYS take the ‘tough’ phone calls. He was never scared to have the hard conversations and would defend his staff, no matter what.”

Garcia was born and raised in Albuquerque. His father, Tom, who died 10 years ago, worked as an electronic technician for Sandia National Laboratories, and his mother, Jean, now 85, stayed at home to raise their children.

“I know what it’s like to get Levi’s after the third patches on the knees,” said Garcia, who has a twin brother, Jim, a well-known Albuquerque business leader.

Garcia described himself as “scrappy” as a kid.

“We were five boys in a row before [my parents] had two girls,” he said. “My dad settled disputes between us with boxing gloves, so I learned how to box early.”

Garcia said he sometimes forgets his small stature.

“Like the governor in that regard, I think I’m bigger than I am,” he said. “You don’t learn to fight until you learn how to get beat up is what I think I learned growing up.”

His professional life includes a mix of business and government experience. After starting out as a room service waiter for Marriott International, Garcia said he got “pushy” and insisted he could do more.

Marriott placed Garcia in a management program after he obtained his bachelor’s degree from UNM.

He worked for Marriott for about three years before joining the Bennigan’s chain of restaurants in 1983. He started as a trainee and worked his way to regional manager and later moved to New Jersey, where he said he was “working all the time” but making “pretty good money for a kid from the barrio.”

After his ex-wife moved back to New Mexico to be close to her ailing mother, Garcia returned as well. In 1990, he became executive director of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, where he worked until 1994 before joining Johnson’s administration as secretary of tourism. Garcia said he and Johnson were friends before Johnson ran for governor.

“We were just kind of yahoo skiers,” he said.

During his time as tourism secretary, he said he managed the New Mexico State Fair one year. The fair was administratively attached to his department, he said.

“We had problems; we were $8 million in debt,” he said. “We had problems with the general manager at the fair. He got involved in a few scandals.”

After telling the governor the state should run the fair like a business, Johnson assigned Garcia to oversee operations, he said.

“We made a profit [of] $1.2 or $1.4 million,” he said.

Garcia said he was ready to return to the private sector after Johnson’s first term. But after he won reelection, Johnson asked him to serve as economic development secretary.

“I kind of got bitten by the challenge of economic development,” he said.

After Johnson’s second term, Garcia worked as an economic development consultant for Grubbs and Ellis Commercial Real Estate in Albuquerque before going to work at UNM as senior officer of economic development. During that time, he was appointed by former President George W. Bush to serve on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, where he continued to serve an additional two years under former President Barack Obama.

In 2009, he joined the city of Albuquerque as its director of economic development under former Mayor Richard J. Berry, a Republican. Garcia did that job until he joined the Home Builders Association in 2013.

“They made me a really nice offer to go there because of my experience in government and in lobbying and things like that,” he said, adding he had only planned to stay with the Berry administration for one term and then return to the private sector.

Garcia said he and Lujan Grisham had stayed in touch. When she asked him to lead the General Services Department, he said he was “truly honored.”

“The folks I’ve met in the Cabinet so far are good people,” he said. “They got here because they also earned it.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(1) comment

Chris Mechels

Another Friend of Michelle (FOM). Like Scrase, the gerontologist, another FOM whose best attribute is not competence, but loyalty. They won't disclose her (many) failings and miscues. Unlike those who report on "crotch grabbing" and other unseemly things, best forgotten. MLG, like most politicians, is about MLG, full stop. The rest is PR... and nondisclosure. The Governor has no clothes, after all, but this must not be mentioned.

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