Demo­crat Lu­jan Grisham asks vot­ers to look up­ward

The Taos News - - ELECTION 2018 - By Tripp Stel­nicki tstel­nicki@sfnewmex­i­can.com

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.

Not Pollyanna.

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.”

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mex­i­can

Michelle Lu­jan Grisham leaves The New Mex­i­can af­ter an in­ter­view on Oct. 8.

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