Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has had an invisible companion while directing New Mexico’s coronavirus response efforts this summer: incessant national political speculation about her potential role in a Joe Biden administration.
The first-term Democratic governor has been repeatedly mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick – Biden has said he will pick a female running mate – or Cabinet member.
Unlike some candidates, Lujan Grisham has not rejected the speculation or said she would decline an offer, but she has also not publicly touted her own credentials.
“It’s flattering, but I try to just keep focused here,” the governor said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that was broadcast online.
However, Lujan Grisham has hit the virtual campaign trail for Biden, participating remotely in an Arizona roundtable event hosted by the Biden campaign last week and headlining a virtual Pennsylvania fundraiser in June.
That’s led to some criticism from Republicans, including from President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, who have argued that a Biden presidency would hurt New Mexico’s energy-reliant economy.
“If Michelle Lujan Grisham spent as much time governing as she does auditioning to be on Joe Biden’s presidential ticket, New Mexico would be in a better place,” Trump Victory spokesperson Andres Malave said.
While Lujan Grisham has stumped for Biden, the speculation has led to some unfounded rumors, including one that Biden recently traveled to New Mexico to attend a fundraiser with the governor.
University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said the governor has handled the speculation well overall, adding, “I think she’s playing it as smartly as she can.”
Sanchez said Lujan Grisham’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic could demonstrate her executive chops, though it’s also exposed her to lawsuits and second-guessing.
From a geographic perspective, New Mexico’s limited national political stature – and its relatively small number of electoral votes – could put the governor at a disadvantage compared with other candidates, Sanchez said.
But he said Lujan Grisham, who is New Mexico’s second Latina governor, could still bring regional appeal.
“If they perceive she could be helpful in flipping Texas, that’s a game changer,” Sanchez said.
He also said that Lujan Grisham would be a logical pick to lead the U.S. Health and Human Services Department if Biden were to beat Trump in the November general election, citing her background in health care policy and services for the aging.
“That seems to be an ideal position for her,” Sanchez said.
Biden and Lujan Grisham are familiar with each other. The governor was a member of Congress, representing the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District, during Biden’s second term as vice president, from 2013 through 2016.
Top aides say Lujan Grisham did not work one-on-one with Biden on legislation but did attend several events at the vice president’s official residence.
There are also other connections, including Lujan Grisham’s former congressional press secretary, Richard Ruffner, who went on to work for both Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.
Ruffner was working for Biden’s presidential campaign as recently as last summer, according to federal campaign filings.
Top Biden campaign officials did not respond to Journal questions about the Ruffner connection and Lujan Grisham’s qualifications.
Lujan Grisham is the latest in a string of New Mexico governors to be mentioned in connection with national politics.
Former Govs. Gary Johnson and Bill Richardson both ran for president, Johnson as a Libertarian in 2012 and 2016 and Richardson as a Democrat in 2008.
Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican former Gov. Susana Martinez, also faced questions about national political speculation, especially during her first term as governor.
In recent years, presidential nominees have generally made their vice presidential selections in July or August, although the coronavirus pandemic could affect the timing of Biden’s announcement this year.
Recent speculation on Biden’s pick has increasingly focused on African American women, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif; and former national security adviser Susan Rice.
If Lujan Grisham were to leave New Mexico for a position in the Biden administration, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales would be in line to serve out the rest of the governor’s four-year term, which ends in 2022.
However, there are reasons to think Lujan Grisham might have reservations about relinquishing her current job.
She is the caretaker for her mother, Sonja Lujan, who lives in Albuquerque and has had recurring health problems.
Lujan Grisham is also only 1½ years into her first term as governor, meaning she could still hold the office for six-plus more years if she wins reelection two years from now.
In response to questions about the national speculation, Lujan Grisham has said she wants to be governor but will do whatever it takes to support Biden.
“I want Biden to pick the person who gets his ticket elected and allows him to do the kind of leadership renewals and efforts in this country that are so badly needed,” the governor said in a recent interview.
In addition, Lujan Grisham has regularly criticized Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and accused the president of lacking leadership skills.
In one recent campaign event, Lujan Grisham described Biden as a mentor, saying, “We need a leader who’s respected and kind and fair and ethical.”
She also said her late father, Buddy Lujan, would have been proud that his daughter is being mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate.