Bill Richardson heard a common refrain from scores of senior citizens just about everywhere he went when he campaigned for governor of New Mexico in 2002.
“Almost at every stop, they would say, ‘Keep Michelle,’ ” Richardson recalled Friday, referring to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was serving as director of the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department at the time.
Richardson heeded their advice and later elevated Lujan Grisham to health secretary.
“I think she’s the only member of [former Gov. Gary Johnson’s] Cabinet that I kept,” he said, “and it was because there was a campaign by seniors who felt she’d done a great job for them.”
Two decades later, New Mexico voters of all ages will decide whether Lujan Grisham has done a good enough job to deserve another four years in office following her official announcement Thursday she’s running for reelection in November 2022.
But as evidenced by the disruption dozens of noisy protesters created at her announcement event when they tried to drown out the governor’s speech with nonstop screaming and shouting into megaphones, Lujan Grisham’s reelection bid won’t be easy. Security concerns stemming from the raucous protest prompted her campaign to pull the plug on a meet-and-greet Friday in Española.
And it’s not just angry constituents Lujan Grisham will have to face on the campaign trail. Republicans plan to mount a vigorous challenge to try to unseat Lujan Grisham and regain control of the Governor’s Office. Though the GOP has yet to produce a big-name contender, Republicans say Lujan Grisham’s first term has exposed multiple flaws that will make voters question whether she should lead the state again.
Strength or weakness?
Chief among those flaws is what they describe as an inordinately hard-line response to the coronavirus pandemic that has caused irreparable harm to New Mexico and its residents. The state’s public health orders were among the strictest in the nation, generating both praise and contempt for Lujan Grisham.
Under her mandates, businesses were forced to shut down, and some closed their doors forever.
Workers lost their jobs and then encountered a bureaucratic nightmare when they tried to collect unemployment benefits from state government.
Tens of thousands of students were locked out of the classroom for a year. No field trips. No proms. No football games. No homecoming dances.
But while Republicans will use her handling of the pandemic as a weakness, Lujan Grisham will play it up as a strength and assert she saved lives and acted in New Mexico’s best interest, said Johnson, who served as governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 as a Republican.
“That’s going to be the tug of war, and I think a lot of money will come into play in this election because I do think that thousands of businesses went out of business and aren’t coming back, so I think there’s a lot of animosity over what has happened,” said Johnson, now a Libertarian.
If he had been governor when the pandemic hit, Johnson said, he would’ve shut down the state initially.
“But after the initial shutdown, in my opinion, we all got it when it came to COVID and the practices that should be followed,” he said. “At that point, I would have left it to everybody to make their own choices and that would have [included] businesses and how they handled it, but that has not been the case in New Mexico.”
Marg Elliston, former chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said Lujan Grisham kept the state safe during the pandemic.
“She’s used the science and been very careful about when to open up,” Elliston said. “We’re about to open up wide, and I’m really proud of all that she’s done for that.”
But Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, described Lujan Grisham’s response to the pandemic as overkill and said New Mexico didn’t fare much better than other states that had looser restrictions.
“The shutdowns were very destructive to small businesses, and small businesses are New Mexico,” said Pearce, a former congressman who ran unsuccessfully against Lujan Grisham in 2018. “I think New Mexican jobs have been hurt really dramatically, so that’s one thing we’re going to be talking about.”
The closure of schools also will be a big campaign issue, he said.
“Just the mental stresses and the problems that came downstream,” including an increase in substance abuse among youth and thousands of public school students being unaccounted for, he said.
“I think parents of students are hostile that they gave up a year of their students’ lives and A students became failing students and families moved out of the state,” he added. “For her to claim that her policies saved lives and it was justified to keep the kids out of school, that’s a conversation that I’m going to welcome, and also keeping the big-box stores open while she shut down local businesses.”
Richardson, a former congressman and energy secretary who served as governor from 2003-11, said Republicans are poised to embark on a losing strategy.
“The Republican Party is seriously weakened; it’s no longer the party of [Pete] Domenici and Manuel Lujan [Jr.],” he said, referring to the late U.S. senator and the late congressman and interior secretary, respectively.
“The party was a moderate party, and they’d work with us on issues … but the party’s been taken over by the Trump faction,” Richardson said. “So, what I believe that the Republicans are going to do with Michelle is they’re going to use the freedom issue, crime. They’re going to use immigration. They’re going to use policing. They’re going to make noise at her events. That’s going to be their tactic. A lot of Trumpism noise, and it’s not going to work.”
The governor’s campaign team isn’t taking anything for granted but looks forward to highlighting the progress Lujan Grisham has spearheaded for New Mexico, Kendall Witmer, the governor’s campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
“In less than three years, the governor has demonstrated that she’s a strong, smart, capable leader who is carrying our state forward,” Witmer wrote. “She invested in our small businesses, legalized cannabis, and gave more than half a million New Mexican families tax breaks — all while saving thousands of New Mexican lives and rolling out one of the most successful vaccine distribution programs in the country.”
Ammunition for her opponents
History is in Lujan Grisham’s favor.
Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff said 1994 marked the first time in New Mexico a governor could run for two consecutive four-year terms. And the state’s last three governors — Johnson, Richardson and Susana Martinez — all won reelection with comfortable margins, he said.
“Incumbents have a particular advantage,” Sanderoff said. “They can have an easy time raising lots of money, and so really what this race will come down to is that it will be a referendum on the governor and whether Republicans can persuade voters that she does not deserve a second term.”
Sanderoff said the GOP will have to run a hard-hitting negative campaign to win.
Lujan Grisham has provided her opponents ammunition.
While the governor’s handling of the pandemic will loom large on the campaign trail, her opponents will have other avenues to criticize or attack, including the taxpayer-funded purchase of alcohol, Wagyu beef and other questionable expenditures through a state government expense account and revelations Lujan Grisham’s campaign paid off a former staffer who accused the governor of sexual assault for allegedly grabbing his crotch.
As workers across New Mexico were dealing with furloughs, pay cuts, reduced hours and even layoffs amid the pandemic, Lujan Grisham handed out hefty pay raises to staffers in her inner circle.
The governor also will be portrayed as a hypocrite for reportedly ordering jewelry from a store in Albuquerque in April 2020 while a stay-at-home mandate was in effect and nonessential businesses were supposed to remain closed.
More recently, the editor of a conservative online news site filed an ethics complaint against the governor accusing her of violating campaign finance laws because she spent more than $6,000 on hair and makeup services provided by her daughter.
The ethics complaint, which is pending, was filed around the same time legislative staffers issued a blistering report that found the Department of Workforce Solutions overpaid an estimated $250 million in unemployment benefits after the pandemic started, including $133 million in potentially fraudulent claims.
Johnson believes Lujan Grisham’s response to the pandemic will override all the other bad publicity.
“It would be good if those things didn’t exist, but they are static,” he said. “I just think that voters get numb after a while hearing all that.”
The Republican Governors Association, which started running unflattering digital ads against Lujan Grisham earlier this year, has set its sights on New Mexico as one of five or six states where a Republican could take control of the Governor’s Office.
“Folks are sick and tired of seeing Gov. Lujan Grisham create scandal after scandal while simultaneously mismanaging the state,” said Will Reinert, an association spokesman. “When fellow New Mexico Democrats start negatively comparing her to Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo [of New York], you know Lujan Grisham has a big reelection problem on her hands.”
Reinert was referring to a quote from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who has been critical of the governor in the past.
“She’s failed to provide competent leadership at a time when the state needs it the most,” Reinert said.
A strong candidate
How much money Republicans will pour into the race to try to defeat Lujan Grisham depends on the strength of her opponent.
David Adkins, a former state representative who is now a partner at Rival Strategy Group, a New Mexico-based political consulting firm, wrote in an email he has “no doubt” Republicans will nominate a strong candidate who will make Lujan Grisham a one-term governor.
“Whether it’s her sexual harassment hush payments, taxpayer-funded splurges, pandemic hypocrisy, mismanagement of state agencies or support for Joe Biden’s open border policies, the governor has no shortage of vulnerabilities,” he wrote. “Not to mention New Mexico’s place at the bottom of national education and economic rankings under her watch.”
Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said he could come up with a long list of reasons Lujan Grisham doesn’t deserve to be reelected. But the “biggest issues that she’s done nothing to deal with since she’s been in office” include education in the state, which she only made worse by shutting schools down for more than a year, he said. Crime is also escalating and the economy is “in ruins,” he added.
“Only the election will tell whether the people of New Mexico are OK with horrible education, a horrible economy and one of the most dangerous places to live in the country. At that point it’s up to the voters, and at that point you get what you vote for,” he said.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican, said time could be on Lujan Grisham’s side “if things turn around and get better between now and the election.”
“There’s still a lot of time for her and her campaign to change the hearts and minds of quite a few people,” he said. “But there’s just some issues — I think that Wagyu beef and the jewelry purchases and some of the things while we were shut down, you know, playing by different rules while we were held to a certain standard — I think those are things that for the voters should really make them take pause and think about it.”
But Pirtle said he didn’t know whether it would be enough to sway voters.
“A lot of it just depends on what kind of candidate is found to go against the governor,” he said. “She’s a very likable person, a very engaging person, and so these are all positives for her that she has that are going to be hard to overcome for somebody trying to win an election against her.”