Democrat Lujan Grisham asks voters to look upward
ALBUQUERQUE–Where is she?
The woman who hopes to be the next governor is nowhere in sight. Still, the South Valley backyard is humming. They’ve come from down the block, around the corner, these Sunday afternoon revelers, eating Frito pies from plastic bowls, chasing rambunctious children, new friends and old talking about what comes next.
A state senator leans over. Everyone comes through here, he says. It’s almost a rite of passage, the Frito pies and campaign pamphlets. He nods toward the city councilors standing in a circle. A county commissioner grabs a lemonade from the fridge. That man there was on this state board, on and on.
This part of Albuquerque runs together. And this race has galvanized their optimism. There’s work to be done, yes, but this crowd feels like their standard-bearer is halfway to the fourth floor of the Roundhouse already.
“She’s not a typical politician,” says Luis Villa, who works in education administration. “She showed up at the White House even though they didn’t want her there. She really cares. She’s not afraid to fight.”
“If you need help,” says Benny Sedillo, 86, reclining in a lawn chair, “she is gonna make the call. I love her like she’s my daughter. I would do anything for her.”
But where is the woman? Late for her own celebration?
No, there: A flash of golden hair in the crowd, bobbing and weaving through the dozens of handshakes, hugs, cheeks to be kissed. Blink and you’ll miss her. Don’t blink and you still might miss her. Like a running back tunneling through invisible holes in the line, a running back in blue leather boots, hardcharging and frenetic. There she goes again.
The microphone they brought for her goes dead, but Michelle Lujan Grisham doesn’t exactly need one.
“All right! So!” she begins, somehow screaming and smiling at once.
“New Mexicans are ready to take state government right back!”
Explanations, hypotheses, parentheses.
Lujan Grisham, 58, began early. She was the first candidate in the race, launching her bid in December 2016 , only weeks after winning her third term in Congress and while the parts of New Mexico that look like that South Valley backyard were still reeling from a presidential upset.
Since then, she’s been going a mile a minute, her only speed, sprinting across the state, through bus tours and tailgates, pitching voters her singular brand of personal enthusiasm, asking New Mexico residents frustrated by a dismal education system and economic malaise to envision a brighter future in her seemingly boundless energy.
“We are on the edge of being able to transform every single thing we do,” she said in a recent interview.
She is a rapid-fire talker, a “firecracker,” in the words of Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada. She is a high-volume dispenser of ideas. She is the type who, when asked what state government can do to address a specific issue, responds matter-of-factly, “Everything.”
And then follows a cascade of proposals, explanations, hypotheses, parentheses, sidebars and side-sidebars.
Methane recaptures. Paying for pre-K. Recreational pot – carefully, carefully.
Another thing: She won’t bend in the progressive winds of the moment. “I’m not Pollyanna,” she likes to say, meaning she is not naive, suggesting her optimism is cut with adult restraint.
Recognize the value of oil and gas, she says, and ride the boom while diversifying to an “all-of-the-above” energy approach with plentiful renewables alongside the fossil fuels. Don’t abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but do cut the Washington-directed harassment right out (‘Homeland Security and ICE agents do human trafficking, child pornography, money laundering. They are engaged in incredibly important reduction of nefarious activity,” she said). Don’t sprint straight to Medicare for All but do “lay the underpinnings,” like a Medicaid buy-in option, that would facilitate how states might make the popular reform concept work.
“There’s no easy way from here to there,” she said. “The only way to do it is take these fundamental steps.”
Lujan Grisham has led every poll. She has raised almost $8 million, a bit less than double the amount raised by her Republican opponent, Steve Pearce, the seven-term congressman from Hobbs.
But Pearce has campaigned hard, and his moderate message is aimed directly at the hearts of the state’s many independents and conservative Democrats, the must-have bloc for any Republican running statewide in New Mexico.
Even liberals who feel optimistic about blue tidings in November quietly acknowledge that Lujan Grisham, despite her consistent lead, cannot yet begin measuring for new carpet on the top floor of the Roundhouse.
Her advantage in a well-regarded mid-September poll was 7 points, but 7 percent were undecided. And that was before Pearce began unloading attack ads: the ownership stake in a “corrupt” firm making money managing a program for sick residents, a “record of failure” as a state Cabinet secretary.
Lujan Grisham has flatly refuted the characterizations. Indeed, she has fired back. Still, only this month did her campaign, in 30-second television advertisements, begin to link Pearce to the deeply unpopular Donald Trump, with whom he campaigned in 2016.
Which begs the question: With an opponent determined to claim the middle of the political spectrum, has the Lujan Grisham messaging left the left flank open?
A group of progressive activists protesting outside a Pearce appearance in Albuquerque this fall thought so. They displayed anti-Pearce signs for passing motorists. One was simply an enlarged photograph of Pearce and Trump shaking hands.
“I think it could be better,” said Rayellen Smith, one of the demonstrators, referring to Lujan Grisham’s campaign approach. “She’s trying to remain very positive, which is good. But I don’t think that’ll be the case all the way through the general election.”
Perhaps, but it’s the front-runner’s prerogative to run a clean campaign, said Lonna Atkeson, political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
“The person who is the underdog starts the negativity,” Atkeson said. “And then the candidate on top might respond to that.”
As yet, Lujan Grisham has been content to let lengthy policy platforms -- the road map,
she says, to a jump-started economy and rebuilt education system and more comprehensive approach to energy production -- speak for themselves.
Let the candidate’s go-go-go enthusiasm carry the day.
The usual suspects are on board.
“I think the reason the polls show her with a consistent lead is because voters have heard what they need to hear in order to decide she’s the better choice,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
Making the case
There is no silver bullet. “I wish we could address them all overnight, but there’s not a single thing going on in state government that’s easy,” the candidate said.
But the forecast from the southeast has changed the context in the contest’s final months.
An unprecedented Permian Basin oil boom is projected to deliver an additional $1.2 billion, and perhaps more, to state coffers next year. Lujan Grisham, Pearce, legislators and armchair appropriators across the state understand the stakes.
“We don’t get do-overs,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s been spent a thousand times over already. We’re going to have to be very careful and prudent.”
The winner of this race will inherit huge responsibilities (and maybe debts, too, stemming from some high-profile court cases). Black gold is going to provide the fourth floor a checkbook the likes of which New Mexico has never known. At least till the next bust.
The surplus provides some wiggle room, or recovery room, but in that cautious spirit, the congresswoman who has placed education reform at the heart of her campaign would rather not say how much she’d like to budget for schools. As governor, she said, she will think “culture shift” first, dollar amount second.
“And I think her answer is exactly the right answer,” said Charles Bowyer, executive director of the state chapter of the National Education Association, a powerful union voice. “What we tend to do is say, ‘Oh, look, we have a lot of money for public education; let’s figure out what we can do inside that number.’ What that ends up causing us to do is repair damages rather than actually transform public education.
“The right way to look at it is, ‘What will real transformation of public education require?’ And then pay for it.”
Early childhood education is the linchpin, Lujan Grisham says. Like Pearce, she wants to spend more in the classrooms. Unlike Pearce, she’s committed to axing the PARCC tests and moving onto something much different, saying in a recent interview that was a “day one” priority although she said she would like to have a transition plan for evaluations in place.
The “all-of-the-above” energy approach she espouses hasn’t scared off oil and gas. On the contrary, several large oil companies have donated to her campaign, and a spokesman for the nonpartisan state industry advocate, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, made clear the state’s workhorse industry feels it can work with a Gov. Lujan Grisham.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, cite her commitment to renewable benchmarks in insisting Lujan Grisham will lead the state to greener energy pastures.
“This is literally a life-ordeath decision for New Mexicans. I used to feel like I was exaggerating when I said that,” said Camilla Feibelman, executive director of the regional chapter of the Sierra Club, citing the recent United Nations report that determined humans have 12 years to avert mass climate catastrophe. “Michelle Lujan Grisham has a plan for the state to deal with climate change. And the other candidate pretends it’s not happening.”
Lujan Grisham’s experience in state government, serving as Cabinet secretary of both aging and health for 16 years total across three state administrations, makes her well-suited for the governor’s office, various allies and backers said.
The candidate herself says a decade-plus inside the machine is experience you can’t duplicate.
And she presents the election Nov. 6 as a simple choice: her visionoraconservativestatusquo.
“Are we going to take this opportunity to lay a foundation for the next 50 to 100 years, or are we going to be a bit myopic and hang onto the things we know, like a one-size energy (approach) and one-size economic sector?” she said. “Are we going to be riskaverse about health care, education, child well-being, or are we going to set aside those attitudes, which we find in government all too often, and lead?”
Still running, still waiting
The backyard speech is through, and it’s time to run. The handshakes, hugs and cheek-kisses are quicker on the way out. The woman who hopes to be governor is indeed late now.
But not too late for this woman, an elderly late arrival who appears before her on the driveway. Lujan Grisham recognizes her. Yes, she recognizes everybody. The passenger-side door on the SUV is hanging open; aides are beckoning.
Not before this one final and characteristically intense oneon-one. A long hug.
Another long hug. It really is time to run.
“You’re awesome,” Lujan Grisham calls over her shoulder. “You’re awesome.”
Michelle Lujan Grisham leaves The New Mexican after an interview on Oct. 8.