There’s no preset formula for decision-making in the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Policy ideas can come from the governor. Sometimes staffers or Cabinet members pitch concepts, and if she likes them, she orders them fleshed out. Other times, there’s a sort of execution by consensus.
One thing is apparent — there doesn’t appear to be any one person with an outsize influence in the process — other than the governor, of course.
“It’s constant dialogue,” said Teresa Casados, whose title at the Governor’s Office is chief operating officer. “Everybody’s in communication with each other and nobody appears working in a silo.”
Casados, a deputy chief of staff under former Gov. Bill Richardson, shares the top job of managing and supervising the office with chief of staff John Bingaman, who previously had a career as an investment manager.
The list of senior staff also includes senior adviser Dominic Gabello — who was Lujan Grisham’s gubernatorial campaign manager and her chief of staff when she was U.S. a congresswoman — as well as deputy chief operating officer Caroline Buerkle and deputy chief of staff Diego Arencon.
Determining how a staff helps a governor make decisions is a little like asking a college football coach what’s in next week’s game plan. The answers are usually hard to glean.
But the picture that emerges from interviews with top advisers, other directors in the administration and legislators is that of an operation that doesn’t rely on a structured, predetermined way of approaching policy or problems.
Casados and Bingaman said all the top staffers have had a role in the flurry of initiatives that have come out of the office since Lujan Grisham took over in January — from environmental measures and education proposals to the array of bills expected for the 2020 legislative session starting in January.
The governor’s ideas
Many of the ideas originate with the governor. Here are some examples:
• Opportunity Scholarship
Lujan Grisham first suggested the idea that morphed into a massive scholarship expansion proposal that would help eliminate tuition and fees for New Mexicans attending public community colleges and universities. The Higher Education Department is requesting $35 million for the program for next fiscal year and the administration projects it could benefit around 55,000 students.
“The governor is a policy expert in her own right and is keenly interested in the details of policy,” said Bingaman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman. “So she will develop ideas from all sorts of different sources, and that was an idea she developed.”
Lujan Grisham asked Higher Education officials to research the concept and put numbers together, and then senior staff fleshed out a plan that was announced in September.
“A lot of work goes into those decisions,” Casados said. “It’s not just an idea that she has and an announcement that we do.”
• Domestic terrorism summit
In a staff meeting on the Monday after the August mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, the massacre was the first topic that came up.
“She said, ‘Something needs to be done about this,’ ” Casados recalled.
Ten days later, the governor hosted a summit with Cabinet secretaries, sheriffs, the state police chief, the state attorney general and lawmakers, as well as representatives of the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and others. Several proposals were made, including potential action in 2020 on gun control, hate crimes and mental health services.
• Climate change
Other ideas have a longer incubation period. Climate change was a topic Lujan Grisham was “concerned about” when she was a congresswoman, Casados said.
Fighting it became a campaign promise, and in the first month in office, she drafted an executive order with staff and Cabinet secretaries that set out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state and called for regulations to lower the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions.
Other ideas originate with senior staff or Cabinet members.
• Early childhood permanent fund
After the governor’s effort to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood spending failed in the last legislative session, her head of Finance and Administration came up with an idea to create a new fund specifically for that purpose.
Bingaman then worked with Secretary Olivia Padilla-Jackson to flesh out the proposal and present it to the governor, who “was supportive of the idea from the outset,” he said. The secretary unveiled it at a legislative meeting in Red River in late August.
“Our number one question on early childhood is, ‘How are we going to put all the money together?’ ” Bingaman said.
• Recreational cannabis
As another example, during the last session, Gabello and spokesman Tripp Stelnicki suggested to Lujan Grisham that she make a more concerted push for legalizing recreational cannabis in the following session.
She agreed, said she would make the issue a priority and created a task force on cannabis that worked throughout the year.
‘No Jay McCleskey’
Whom does the governor draw on most for advice?
“I don’t think you could pick one person,” Bingaman said.
“I think it just depends on the subject,” Casados added.
“There’s no Jay McCleskey,” said Stelnicki, referring to the political consultant who was thought to have considerable influence during the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez.
Instead, Casados and Bingaman stressed that the governor’s staff works together — the words “collaboration” and “collaborative” were mentioned eight times in an interview.
“She doesn’t just take somebody’s advice and go with it,” Casados said. “Whether you have one subject matter expert in the room or not, everybody has a voice.”
Senior staff meet daily with the governor, while Cabinet meetings take place weekly on specific subjects. So, wouldn’t the senior staff be called upon most?
“That’s just the org chart,” Casados said, referring to the executive branch’s organizational chart.
Staff members added they don’t go to the governor directly with an idea. Instead, they’ll loop in Gabello, Bingaman, Casados and potentially Cabinet secretaries.
Some lawmakers who were consulted had that impression as well.
“I think they all have access to the governor,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. “Whenever I’m needing something, it gets through quite quickly to the governor. And she’s even called me back before.”
He added Lujan Grisham has a lot of experience in policy herself.
“When it comes to policy, she’s pretty independent. She can hold her own,” Smith said. “She’s got a lot of experience in state government to begin with.”
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen said she has met with a number of senior staffers in the Governor’s Office, from Bingaman to Arencon to director of legislative affairs Victor Reyes, who previously served as a senior staff member for the state Senate Democratic caucus.
“I meet with Victor quite often,” Papen said. “He’s really a liaison with us. I had a working relationship with him before he moved upstairs.”
The governor has the final word on issues and what she says in her speeches.
“We advise her, we give her all the information so she can make the best informed decisions, but at the end of the day, she’s up there and she’s speaking,” Casados said.
Still, some New Mexico political veterans perceive Bingaman, who largely stays out of the public eye, as a backbone of the operation.
“John is incredibly smart, thoughtful and understated. It’s unusual to have that combination in politics these days,” said Paul Bardacke, former state attorney general and chairman of Richardson’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t the go-to person on difficult issues that the governor was confronting.”
The coming session
With the 30-day legislative session growing closer, many meetings and decisions in the Governor’s Office currently revolve around the legislation Lujan Grisham will put on the agenda. There are weekly legislative meetings with senior staff about potential bills that the Governor’s Office and state departments want to propose. Arencon and Reyes are main liaisons with legislators about potential sponsors for bills and strategies for the session.
“In fact, we’re having a meeting about it later today with some legislators to kind of flesh it out,” Bingaman said of the early childhood permanent fund proposal.
And not all proposals are treated equally.
“The governor will have a set of priority bills that build on her overall vision of building New Mexico’s future, and those will be the priority,” Bingaman said. “And then our agencies have priority bills that filter up through our office that are vetted and selected, and then legislators and outside advocates have bills as well that we will consider.”
Senior staff added they don’t base their decisions of whether to pursue legislation on how much support it has among lawmakers. If it turns out to be a heavy lift, they work on building support in the Legislature.
So, how close are they to deciding on bills for January’s session?
“We’re in the end stages of making those decisions,” Bingaman said. “Pretty close.”