Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lujan Grisham: ‘Leadership matters. Experience matters’ | Local News

ALBUQUERQUE — Wearing a knee brace and high heels, Michelle Lujan Grisham carefully navigated gravel on the ground as she prepared to address dozens of supporters at a backyard meet-and-greet in the Nob Hill neighborhood.

“I don’t know if all of you had an opportunity to see, but the governor’s got a new accessory, which she’s matched with some extraordinary shoes,” fellow Democrat and attorney general candidate Raúl Torrez told the crowd beforehand.

“I don’t really know what the story is behind this brace, but I think it has to be related to her kicking butt so much,” Torrez quipped, generating cheers and applause.

To be sure, Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection Nov. 8, can count a large number of accomplishments in her first term as governor, from reducing the gross receipts tax rate for the first time in 40 years to her successful push for free College tuition for New Mexico residents to the legalization of recreational marijuana and the repeal of a decades-old law that criminalized abortion in the state.

But Lujan Grisham, who is dealing with an old knee injury on the campaign trail, has been on the receiving end of a tumultuous term, too.

A surge in violent crime that has hit Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, particularly hard.

A sexual harassment complaint by a former campaign staffer who accused her of grabbing his crotch.

Intense media scrutiny over taxpayer-funded purchases of such items as alcohol and wagyu beef.

Disputes with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Low proficiency scores in public schools in reading and math.

A wildfire that turned into the largest in state history.

“There isn’t a governor in the country who didn’t say, and this is the technical term, but we got kind of a poo-poo sandwich; it’s been unbelievable,” Lujan Grisham told The New Mexican’s editorial board. “It was as if we asked Stephen King to write a novel about our term as governor.”

The governor, 62, also experienced a deeply personal loss with the death of her 82-year-old mother, Sonja Lujan, in April.

Despite the challenges of serving as the state’s chief executive and living in a fishbowl, Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman, Bernalillo County commissioner and state cabinet secretary, said she loves her job and is the most qualified candidate in the hotly contested race.

Lujan Grisham is running against Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former longtime television meteorologist who has the backing of the national GOP, and Libertarian Karen Bedonie, a businesswoman from the Navajo Nation who previously sought the nomination for governor as a Republican.

“Leadership matters. Experience matters. Cooperation matters,” Lujan Grisham told the audience at the backyard meet-and-greet last month. “These are agendas that lift people up and create equality and equity, no matter who you are or where you’re from.”

A “show horse” isn’t what is needed in politics, she said in an apparent reference to Ronchetti, who has catapulted his celebrity into politics.

“I don’t understand how anyone in the state or anyone in America doesn’t understand what happened to us in the Trump presidency,” Lujan Grisham said.

“There is this underlying current that we want to think about electing people who don’t have the experience or the leadership and what you get when that’s the design is an unfair system that is never about all of us and isn’t about getting the things done that matter, frankly, to all of us. And that’s the case that I think we need to be making on the campaign trail,” she said.

Lujan Grisham’s critics, however, call her a polarizing politician with a know-it-all attitude, and they point to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic to make their case.

A former state health secretary, Lujan Grisham instituted some of the strictest public health orders in the nation. She generated praise from some for saving lives and preventing New Mexico’s hospital system from collapsing and contempt from others for shuttering nonessential businesses, some of which never reopened, as well as closing schools for nearly a year, mandating face masks longer than other states and requiring government employees to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.

“There was no playbook,” the governor, who contracted COVID-19 for the first time this year, said about the pandemic.

During the meet-and-greet, State Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, thanked Lujan Grisham for her “selflessness and courage” during the pandemic.

“She had to make heartbreaking decisions. She did it with grace under fire and was guided by compassion and science,” she said.

Wendy Wilke, a retired social worker who grew up in Albuquerque and moved back with her husband three years ago, said Lujan Grisham has been unfairly criticized for her response to the pandemic.

“It’s just been hard. Nobody believed it. Nobody accepted it. They’re still talking about that,” she said. “So she did the best she could, honestly.”

Among the reasons Wilke supports Lujan Grisham is because she “cares so strongly” about the state.

“She gets things done,” she said. “She has a cause, a purpose, and she gets it done. And people do respect her.”

Robert DiGiulio, who developed a campaign ad that seeks to differentiate Lujan Grisham from Ronchetti, which he pitched to the governor privately during the meet and greet, said the choice for voters is clear. Lujan Grisham, unlike Ronchetti, has “a vast amount of experience,” he said.

“Like [President Joe] Biden, they are the epitome of what the government should be doing,” he said. “They should be looking at problems and finding answers and getting them into law, not some other personal things or vendettas or whatever. That’s what she does. That’s what Biden does. I support her.”

Polls show Lujan Grisham ahead of Ronchetti, though by different margins. In the two most recent polls, Ronchetti trails by 16 points in one and by 8 points in another. The political analysis website FiveThirtyEight has Lujan Grisham ahead of Ronchetti by about 9 percent in its polling average.

A self-described tough cookie, Lujan Grisham is facing a formidable challenge from Ronchetti, who has high name recognition in the state after years on TV and who made a big splash in his first foray into politics when he ran for the US Senate in 2020 and finished with 46 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In the most recent campaign reporting period, Ronchetti outraised the governor by nearly $330,000 and is heading into the final weeks of the election season with about $800,000 more in cash on hand.

Since the US Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion, Lujan Grisham has made a woman’s right to choose the top issue of the election.

“Everything is at stake,” Lujan Grisham said at the meet-and-greet. “Choice, as you all know, for me, there’s no negotiation. There’s none.”

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