In a year of tough calls, the most difficult for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was the one on the phone with her mother.
“You left me here,” 80-year-old Sonja Lujan said from the assisted living facility in Albuquerque where she lives.
“I didn’t leave you, Mom,” Lujan Grisham assured her mother, whose memory is deteriorating.
The governor then had to remind Lujan of the ongoing situation many would rather forget: the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended New Mexicans’ lives, crippled the state’s economy, pushed its health care system to the brink and claimed the lives of more than 300,000 Americans.
“She can forget a decade, so I have to give her the decade back and review,” the governor said in a phone interview Friday.
“I said, ‘I haven’t seen you for a year,’ ” Lujan Grisham recalled. “And my mother broke down.”
The heart-wrenching conversation between mother and daughter marks the hardest moment Lujan Grisham has faced in 2020. But it’s hardly the only difficult one.
From consoling families mourning the loss of a loved one to talking to small-business owners unable to survive the economic fallout of the pandemic — or when she had to make the highly unpopular decision to restrict business activity across the state when the virus erupted — the governor, like so many others, hasn’t had it easy in 2020.
But Lujan Grisham is resolute.
“You lose your health or your life, nobody can put that back,” she said. “I don’t want to ever … look back and say, ‘I knew that we would lose more people, but the economy was more important.’ ”
While the year has been mired with tough choices for the nation’s first Democratic Latina governor — who reportedly turned down an offer from the Biden administration to be interior secretary — Lujan Grisham is optimistic about the future, particularly as vaccines become more widely available.
The governor, 61, even is planning to tie the knot in 2021.
“What 2020 certainly presented to me is: Don’t take for granted the beauty and love in your lives,” said Lujan Grisham, who is engaged to businessman Manny Cordova, affectionately known as New Mexico’s “first Manny.”
“We think that we’re going to be setting a date in 2021 — at the end, you know, just to be safe,” she said.
Hindsight in 2020
Though 2020 is a year most people would rather put behind them, it got off to a promising start in New Mexico, from positive trends in job growth to an increase in the minimum wage.
“Overnight, it came to a screeching halt,” Lujan Grisham said, referring to the arrival of the pandemic.
The decisions she made at the onset of the pandemic were especially difficult.
“The very first important decision on March 11 is that we’re going to ask businesses to shutter and people to stay home, and we’re going to get ready to close schools,” she said.
“We knew it was going to be a year of tough decisions, but that very first one, that was hard,” she said.
Asked if she had any regrets in her handling of the pandemic, Lujan Grisham said she wished she could’ve made a bigger impact as a leader in the National Governors Association — she’s a member of the group’s executive committee — in getting the federal government and states to develop a coordinated response.
“That’s something I really pride myself on, that I can bring people of different parties and different perspectives together, and I couldn’t do it at the federal level,” she said.
A similar struggle played out at the local level. While leaders in some communities such as Santa Fe, Taos and San Miguel counties jumped on board with her public health orders, others resisted, she said, putting more people at risk.
“Maybe there was something in the messaging,” she said.
Other early efforts to try to combat the spread of the virus didn’t gain enough traction, either, which had deadly consequences, Lujan Grisham said.
“I wish I could have convinced more tribal governors to go into very strict containments — I think we could have saved more lives there,” she said. “And I wish, in particular, I could have convinced the Arizona governor and Utah governor to coordinate our responses for the Navajo Nation.
“And I still have, you know, moments where I just feel poorly that I was unable to get other policymakers on the same page.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
“I tried hard,” Lujan Grisham said. “I’m tenacious. I can usually succeed just by sheer will of force. But I couldn’t, and I do think New Mexicans have suffered longer and harder because of the lack of federal responses and state coordination.”
Lujan Grisham has been singled out — both positively and negatively — as one of the governors who took the most aggressive action early in the pandemic, a strategy that initially flattened the curve of infections in New Mexico. After restrictions were lifted, however, people began to let their guard down and so-called pandemic fatigue set in. Cases spiked to unprecedented levels.
The governor’s strong approach wasn’t without sharp criticism or without protests. Republican officials and others accused her of ruining New Mexico’s economy and killing small businesses.
Some critics dubbed her “Gov. Wuhan Grisham” — a reference to the virus’s likely origin in Wuhan, China.
In Silver City, a restaurant owner threatening to defy her public health orders posted a banner outside his business in May, stating, “Dining Room Open” and “Let’s get rid of Wuhan Lujan.”
‘Love her, like her, dislike her’
Lujan Grisham, who recently announced she plans to seek another four-year term in 2022, said it’s hard to say how much political capital she lost based on her decision to shut down or limit parts of the economy.
But she said people want a decisive leader, and she is.
“Governors are polling all around the country, and the numbers seem to strongly indicate that people expect their elected leaders when times are tough to make the right decisions, even when they don’t like the decision,” she said. “They want clarity. They want courage. They want truthfulness. … Even people who disagree with you will recognize those qualities and typically want them in a leader.”
But she acknowledged some of her decisions will follow her to the polls. There will be parents of school-age children who may never vote for her again because of classroom closures, she said.
“ ‘Be mad at the pandemic,’ is what I tell everyone,” said Lujan Grisham, a former three-term congresswoman who handily won the governor’s race in 2018. “It’s not political.”
The governor’s chief spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said internal polling consistently has shown very high marks from New Mexicans for the governor’s handling of the pandemic, as well as her of overall job approval.
“That might run counter to the perception you get from angsty corners of social media, but I think New Mexicans overwhelmingly recognize that a crisis calls for decisive leadership and a willingness to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions,” Stelnicki said. “Love her, like her, dislike her — you can’t say the governor hasn’t been battling for New Mexicans and making those tough calls every day this year.”
Stelnicki said the administration will continue to work to get more pandemic relief to individuals and businesses early in 2021.
“You can’t make assumptions in politics, but we feel pretty good about public support,” he said.
The governor said she’s looking at “some really good signs” for New Mexico’s future.
“Oil and gas, the price per barrel, up,” she said. “More people moving to New Mexico than leaving. … I think we’re in a really good position to get Space Command; we’re one of a handful of states that are being considered.”
New Mexico’s congressional delegates announced last month the U.S. Air Force had selected Albuquerque as a finalist in its search for a location for the new Space Command headquarters.
The governor also said the state’s laboratory and environmental innovation investments are “stronger than they’ve ever been.”
Film production hasn’t slowed as much as in other states, she said, and New Mexico has continued to announce grant funding agreements with businesses through the Local Economic Development Act, signaling companies want to be in the state.
But New Mexico, like other states, will have to catch up in education, she said.
“I don’t want anyone … to assume that we are in the same productive economic position that we were in at the end of ’19. But I think New Mexicans should not expect New Mexico to languish like we did in the last recession,” she said.
Reasons for optimism
New Mexico is beginning to turn the corner in its efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, but state officials are bracing for another spike after the holidays.
“We’re not through the worst of this as a country, and we’re probably not as a state,” Lujan Grisham said. “I would love to tell you that I believe that 48 deaths [as reported Thursday] will be the highest [daily number]. I don’t think that’s going to be true. If you look at the number of hospitalizations, it can’t be, so two weeks from now, it will be higher. That hurts me. I take that personally.”
The governor said half the patients on ventilators will not make it out of the hospital.
“Half,” she emphasized. “It’s unrelenting.”
Still, there have been positive developments.
Last week, the state began distributing a federally authorized novel coronavirus vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer. The company will send more doses this coming week, state officials have said, and they expect a shipment from Moderna, which received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday for its vaccine.
In addition to increased availability of a vaccine, Lujan Grisham said New Mexico will have more suppliers to do more testing, and in-home testing will soon be available statewide.
“I still don’t have my contract executed, but it’s eminent, so it’s going to be easy for everyone [to get tested],” she said. “Everyone can get a home test and send it out. In 24 hours, it’s right back to you. That’s a game changer.”
Lujan Grisham also expressed excitement about a federal agenda that will help put children safely back in school under the administration of President-elect Joe Biden. The National Governors Association is working directly with the incoming administration “to make sure schools are a focus,” she said.
According to published reports, Lujan Grisham was offered and declined the opportunity to be part of the Biden administration as secretary of the Interior Department — a post New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland was nominated for last week.
National news organizations also reported Lujan Grisham was named as a top contender to be Biden’s health and human services secretary, a Cabinet post that interested her far more. She didn’t directly respond to questions about those reports but confirmed she was among those considered to join the Biden administration.
“I did not have a conversation with the president-elect about any positions, except early on, I got to talk to the president-elect about transition work and about the vice president’s job, and that is an honor of a lifetime,” she said.
As a member of Biden’s transition team, Lujan Grisham said she pushed for the recruitment of more women and men of color for Cabinet positions.
“The hard part is that I’m one of those elected officials,” she said. “I’m the only Hispanic [female governor] in the 50 United States, and so I become sort of an obvious public persona to talk about.”
Lujan Grisham said Cabinet-level offers don’t come easily.
“If people want to assume that they’ve made lots of offers, they don’t really do that,” she said. “They make a solid offer when it’s all ready and done.”
The administration did that Thursday, she said, when it named Haaland as the nominee for interior secretary. Lujan Grisham called Haaland “the candidate who’s going to make New Mexico and the country proud. And I’m proud to have stood with the Biden administration to make sure that happened.
“But I do appreciate that they saw that I could do any number of jobs,” she added.
Lujan Grisham said she expects to have a role in the Biden administration but isn’t ready to announce it just yet.
The governor, who gets up early and doesn’t stop working until 1 or 2 in the morning, said her resolution for the new year is to lose what she jokingly called the “COVID 40” and focus more on her physical and mental health.
“We’re working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we need to model that we can be more efficient during the day,” she said about her administration. “We can be more strategic, and we can take better care of ourselves because when we do that, then New Mexico will take better care of itself.”
Lujan Grisham said she’s also looking forward to getting the coronavirus vaccine.
“I am so looking forward to having a group hug with my family and starting with my mom,” she said. “I mean, I can see it, and that’s going to be the best gift ever in 2021.”