Whatever your opinion on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s policies, serving in her Cabinet can be a challenge. Just witness the turnover in top spots in her administration.
Last week the governor announced her latest Cabinet shuffle — appointing new secretaries for the Public Education Department and Department of Public Safety.
She’s also missing a Department of Health secretary (Human Services boss Dr. David Scrase is running both departments) and a Department of Information Technology leader. Dr. Tracie Collins — the second to serve in the Department of Health post — resigned from the job to return to academia while technology’s John Salazar retired last month to care for an ailing wife.
The top job at Workforce Solutions is filled by an interim appointment, too; former Secretary Bill McCamley quit over safety and security concerns — although the crush of unemployment claims during the pandemic and the department’s lagging response likely played a role.
And this is just turnover in recent months.
Lujan Grisham famously has been a taskmaster as a boss, demanding of both herself and her employees.
Her first Public Education Department secretary, the late Karen Trujillo, barely made it six months before being pushed out. Then came Ryan Stewart, recruited from out of state to run PED and criticized for not moving his family here. He managed to last more than two years in the job.
The latest pick for secretary, retired Los Alamos Public Schools Superintendent Kurt A. Steinhaus, 67, will bring to the position both a record of accomplishment and an understanding of New Mexico’s complex system of funding and running schools. That gives him a head start on continuing important reforms that direct money and programs to help at-risk students receive the best education possible.
The new Department of Public Safety secretary, 49-year-old Jason Bowie, has almost 30 years of law enforcement experience. Some of his work in the Rio Rancho Police Department includes supervising the training of officers and ensuring a diverse and inclusive force. Those are important skills given the concern over too-aggressive policing against civilians.
He’ll need all his skills, considering the first DPS appointee, Mark Shea, was fired with little explanation last fall.
However solid the appointments are, watching appointees come and go is unsettling. Part of leadership is creating stability so employees can do their jobs. Rapid turnover can be a sign of high standards — and don’t forget, the state lived through a pandemic, adding to the stress — but it also can be a signal the boss needs to allow people room to do their work.
Lujan Grisham is running for reelection in 2022, and one issue on the table will be her record of managing state government bureaucracy. She needs to be able to explain turnover in her administration. Already, GOP critics are calling the latest departures a sign of “chaos” at the top.
That’s too harsh. Lujan Grisham can point to stability, too, with Economic Development Secretary Alicia J. Keyes; Environment’s James Kenney; Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources’ Sarah Cottrell Propst; and Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer, to name just some of the original appointees still in place.
On the other hand, Lujan Grisham might have to explain why Brian Blalock remains in charge of Children, Youth and Families, considering a whistleblower lawsuit, his endorsement of secrecy apps for phone messages and questions about the department’s process for purchasing a new computer system.
She can make a case that whatever the personnel problems are, others have seen worse. When Gov. Susana Martinez was in charge, her first Corrections Department secretary had an abrupt, embarrassing exit — forced out after her live-in boyfriend fired a gun on state prison grounds. Former Gov. Toney Anaya went through six Department of Health secretaries in one four-year term. That’s a record — for now, anyway — Lujan Grisham isn’t close to topping.