As Joe Biden’s long-anticipated vice presidential reveal draws near, plugged-in Democrats nationally and locally say Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham isn’t the most likely person to be offered the spot.
Yet there’s another position they say is more probable for Lujan Grisham if Biden is elected: secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Colm O’Comartun, a partner at Washington-based consulting firm 50 State and the former director of the Democratic Governors Association. “Some of the people who were talking about, ‘Wouldn’t she be a great VP?’ are also saying now, ‘Wouldn’t she be a great secretary?’ ”
The New York Times reported Friday that Lujan Grisham has expressed interest in the HHS Cabinet spot, citing officials familiar with the governor’s thinking.
There are many reasons why that reported interest could become a reality, O’Comartun and others said — ranging from Lujan Grisham’s experience as state health secretary to the national recognition she’s gained for her response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the possibility she would be on Biden’s radar for Cabinet positions after all the vice president speculation.
“The governor has a background that would certainly lend itself to running HHS,” Doug Sosnik, who was White House political director under former President Bill Clinton, told The New Mexican.
Lujan Grisham has long maintained her main focus is New Mexico and that she is committed to remaining governor.
As far back as October, a spokesman said her national profile was “not at all what we’re paying attention to or aiming for or interested in.” As recently as mid-July, she told the Washington Post the vice presidential speculation “is flattering, but I try to just keep focused here.”
Still, Lujan Grisham has remained in the picture as running mate speculation has swirled. Biden, who was vice president under President Barack Obama, had said he would announce his pick this week, but the Times reported Biden aides said the announcement would come the week before the Democratic convention, which begins Aug. 17. National publications report the presumptive Democratic Party nominee has narrowed his list, and top contenders include Susan Rice, the former national security adviser under Obama, and California congresswoman Karen Bass.
Other pundits say Biden might look to people with larger national profiles, including Sen. Kamala Harris of California or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Of course, if Biden loses the election to President Donald Trump, Cabinet talk becomes a moot point. And even if Biden wins, Lujan Grisham might not be offered any position, or she could turn down any offerings in order to complete her term as governor.
On Friday, the Governor’s Office was even more emphatic when asked about the Biden speculation.
“I will continue to answer this question as many times as you would like to ask it and play this game and engage in this speculation no matter the hypothetical or imaginary premise — but know that the answer will not change,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said. “The governor has a job. She loves her job. She worked very hard to get this job. She has no plans to change jobs.”
Sackett did not directly respond to a question of whether Lujan Grisham has had any conversations with Biden or his team about an HHS position, nor did she directly address whether the governor would reject an offer from Biden for any position.
“You’re asking about a potential position in a potential administration that currently does not exist,” Sackett said.
Some political experts said it’s hard to speculate about Cabinet positions at this point, as much can change.
“Lots of people who thought they would get appointed X, don’t get appointed X,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “They may get Y.”
The chatter about HHS doesn’t just bubble forth from Washington — it’s also circulating among longtime Democratic legislators and former officials in New Mexico.
“During the special session, you had people from the House who were floating that idea — that the governor would be considered for a Cabinet position if Biden wins,” said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales.
“Historically, if you look at people considered for VP, they typically get a job somewhere,” he added. “I would think it’s a natural progression for the governor.”
Others said they thought Lujan Grisham likely would say yes to a Cabinet offer if it were to occur.
“I think she probably would accept if she was asked,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen said of the HHS job. “She’s in politics, and I think it’s a plum for her to be appointed to that position.”
Former state Attorney General Paul Bardacke said he believed it would be “almost a moral imperative” for Lujan Grisham to accept any offer that came her way because of how the Trump administration has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
“When the country is in dire need of talented and dedicated and experienced people, especially in the area of health and human services, there would be a calling which would put a tremendous amount of pressure on her,” said Bardacke, who was chairman of former Gov. Bill Richardson’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
If she did go that route, Lujan Grisham wouldn’t be the first governor to lead HHS.
Like Lujan Grisham, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was considered a contender to be Obama’s running mate in 2008.
She wasn’t picked, but after Obama became president, he nominated Sebelius as his secretary of Health and Human Services, and she cut her gubernatorial term short in Kansas to head for the nation’s capital.
HHS is a mammoth organization that employs almost 78,000 people and had a budget of $1.3 trillion in 2020. The department is responsible for nearly one-quarter of all federal outlays, administers more grants than all other federal agencies combined and oversees the federal health care programs Medicare and Medicaid.
Lujan Grisham would bring a wealth of relevant experience to a federal position in health. She headed New Mexico’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department under former Govs. Bruce King, Gary Johnson and Richardson, and she was secretary of the state Health Department under Richardson.
Since January 2019, she has been the executive of a state with a low per capita income level and a high percentage of people covered by Medicaid.
“I think her experience in that regard would be a good fit for the people who want to approach health in a more progressive way under Democratic leadership,” O’Comartun said.
The governor also has plenty of Washington experience after serving three terms as U.S. congresswoman, fostering relationships with federal lawmakers.
She clearly has had contact with Biden, too. Lujan Grisham said in March that Biden’s campaign had reached out to her “incredibly early” for her endorsement in the presidential primary. In July, the governor spoke at a virtual roundtable event organized by the Biden campaign.
Perhaps most important, Lujan Grisham has been recognized on a national level for New Mexico’s aggressive response to the pandemic. That could make her a good fit for a national health role given the country might still be grappling with the coronavirus in January.
The governor herself often has blasted the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 in her recurring news conferences, including criticizing HHS on Thursday.
“What HHS is doing with data, I wish I could tell you,” Lujan Grisham said of a recent decision by the department to change the federal government’s novel coronavirus data collection process. “I don’t think they’re particularly equipped to deal in the COVID world.”
If Lujan Grisham has been vetted by the Biden campaign for the vice president process, that could also give her a leg up for a potential Cabinet position, said Sosnik, who helped President Bill Clinton research candidates for top posts at the start of his second term.
“The vetting process for VP accelerates the vetting process they’d have to go under if they were appointed to something else,” Sosnik said. “That’s an advantage for the governor or anyone else who has been at some level in the VP process.”
Lujan Grisham also has appeared on a number of national television news shows recently to speak about the state’s efforts against the virus.
The Governor’s Office said Lujan Grisham has not made any intentional effort to raise her national profile — rather, it said the media had done this.
“We did not create this horse race,” Sackett said.
Still, Sosnik said it would be unlikely for anyone to continue to be mentioned this far along if they hadn’t been vetted and hadn’t agreed to accept the nomination if it were offered.
“My guess is she made it fairly far in the process,” he said, noting he had not spoken about the matter with anyone in Biden’s campaign.
Sosnik also said it’s not too early for Biden’s team to start thinking about who they might ask to fill Cabinet positions should he win the election.
If Lujan Grisham left her post before the end of her term, which ends in 2022, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales would finish the remainder of the period. Morales held a virtual fundraiser Tuesday, but he said there was no connection between the event and any future plans the governor might have.
“We wanted to make sure to start to raise some funds and to give assistance to certain campaigns around the state,” Morales said Friday.
He also said he has not had any conversations with Lujan Grisham about her political future and whether it will affect his.
“There’s been no discussion with the governor as far as any plans moving forward,” he said.