Sidonie Squier says in an interview that she left the job she "loved" as the head of the state's Human Services Department because New Mexico's politics are "too blue for this red girl."
Squier's four-year tenure as the leader of a state agency that uses its $5.8 billion budget to administer federal and state assistance programs for the needy came to an abrupt end following Republican Gov. Susana Martinez' 15-point reelection victory in November.
"Being secretary of the Human Services Department has been the job of my dreams—the hardest job of my dreams, but the happiest time in my career," she wrote in a letter, resigning from the post where taxpayers paid her $131,029 annually to oversee services that provide child-assistance, healthcare and medical coverage to low-income New Mexicans.
Why resign from the job of your dreams?
"Mainly the reason is because this is a very blue state, and mainly I'm a red girl," she tells SFR in an interview this week. "It's not like people are bad here or anything. But it's very difficult to get things done here. And I'm just a very red girl in a blue state. I loved this job. I had a blast."
Squier adds she "made the decision myself" and "told the governor several weeks before."
"It's an overwhelmingly blue state—with the exception of the governor, of course," she adds. "And she gave me all the help she could. But it's just too much. It's too blue for this red girl. I swear that's the beginning and the end of the story."
A California native, Squier built a career in government overseeing federally subsidized programs for the needy in both Washington DC under President George W Bush as well as in states like Florida and Texas.
The safety net
Email messages obtained by SFR through a request to HSD under the Inspection of Public Records Act illustrate her political frustrations during her tenure in New Mexico.
In an April 2012 email, Matt Kennicott, spokesman for the department, wrote to Squier that Gov. Susana Martinez was "too afraid" to speak out against the federal expansion of Medicaid through President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Medicaid subsidizes medical insurance with federal taxpayer money for individuals living up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (that's almost $16,000 in annual salary for a single person).
"Why Matt?" replied Squier. "Why is the [governor's office] so weak on this issue?"
"It all boils down to polling and not saying something that will upset the approval numbers," Kennicott wrote back.
Bucking calls from the right of the Republican Party to fight the implementation of Obamacare, Gov. Martinez decided to expand Medicaid rolls to cover an additional tens of thousands of New Mexicans through the new healthcare law. The federal government is covering costs of the expansion through 2016 and 90 percent of the costs afterward.
Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell dismisses the messages as "two-year-old e-mails that show agency staffers speculating about a decision made by the Governor, not them."
The governor's decision, he writes, “has proven to be correct, as an
by The New York Times shows New Mexico as one of the states that has benefited most from Medicaid expansion,” adding that 183,000 New Mexicans have signed up for Medicaid as the rate of uninsured New Mexicans fell by 5 percent from 2013 to mid-2014.
"New Mexico healthcare providers are reporting significant increases in Medicaid patients, and major drops in the number of uninsured patients," writes Knell. "Our Medicaid program is now more patient-centered, thanks to the reforms implemented under Centennial Care, (reforms that other states are now trying to emulate), and we've dramatically expanded access to health care services for New Mexicans in need."
"My conclusions were nothing more than conjecture," Kennicott writes in an emailed statement. "Expanding Medicaid was the right decision to make for New Mexicans."
But the messages—which Kennicott calls "my personal opinion, where I was blowing off steam"—shows the cabinet secretary and spokesman of the state agency opposed to expanding some of the very public-assistance programs the agency administers.
"That so sucks," Squier replied to Kennicott's email about polling. "This state and the people who think it's OK to live off of other people is going to drive me crazy."
Politics and policy
Squier faced scrutiny before for similarly candid remarks.
In 2013 email first reported by KOAT Action 7 News, she wrote, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary, "There has never been and is not now any significant evidence of hunger in New Mexico."
A campaign representative for Martinez in her first gubernatorial bid, Kennicott found himself in a similar position when, in a conversation caught on audio leaked to Mother Jones, he told Martinez that "somebody told me" former Democratic House Speaker Ben Luján is "absolutely eloquent in Spanish, but his English—he sounds like a retard."
Kennicott remains HSD spokesman. He's paid an annual salary of $84,905 in taxpayer money, according to the state's Sunshine Portal.
"Me too," Kennicott replied, continuing the April 2012 chain. "It's terrible. Maybe we can begin softening them a bit over the next few months. We're going to have to be prepared with reaction when SCOTUS [The US Supreme Court] comes out with their opinion—hopefully the right way—and it's going to have to be strongly worded."
Squier now says the governor was "never for Obamacare—never. She was always opposed to it."
The governor's office didn't respond to Kennicott's contention in his 2012 email that Martinez didn't speak out against Obamacare because of polling numbers. SCOTUS upheld the law's legitimacy. Martinez helped implement it in New Mexico, even admitting in her 2013 State of the State address that "I didn't support Obamacare."
"But it's the law of the land," she added. "The election is over and the Supreme Court has ruled. My job is not to play party politics, but to implement this law in a way that best serves New Mexico."
In another 2012 email exchange obtained by SFR, Kennicott emailed Squier about a memorandum of understanding between HSD and the state's Taxation and Revenue Department that allows information about SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program commonly known as food stamps, to be sent to New Mexicans receiving a tax refund.
"Do we really have to do this?" Squier asked. Acting Director of HSD's Income Support Division Ted Roth suggested that HSD attempt to delete by "accident" the statutory language that creates that "unfunded mandate"—which didn't result in "any surge in SNAP applications."
Yet Knell says Martinez "believes in the safety net" and has "continually strengthened it throughout her time in office, from expanding childcare assistance and school lunches, to expanding Medicaid and protecting food benefits for New Mexicans."
"It was under Governor Martinez's leadership that this administration restored state supplemental funding for the SNAP program after the Legislature slashed it in 2011," writes Knell. "We invested $150,000 of discretionary federal stimulus money to maintain benefits for New Mexicans on the SNAP program, and then ran a bill in the special session that year to fully restore the funding."
At state agencies, politics clash with policy. And it's difficult to get around the law if you can't change it. The day after the election, on Nov. 5, HSD officials confirmed with KOB-TV that it would not fight a restraining order signed by First Judicial District Court Judge Sarah Singleton. The restraining order halted new work requirements HSD imposed on SNAP recipients—about one-fifth of the state's population. The New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty and Southwest Organizing Projects alleged in the lawsuit that HSD violated the law in implementing the rules because it didn't give adequate public notice.
Squier's resignation became public the same day, and went into effect Dec. 1. Her replacement, Brent Earnest, has said that HSD will again try to implement rules, suspended during the recession, that would require certain New Mexicans to prove to the state they're looking for work in order to receive SNAP benefits.
Squier says her husband, Steve Arthur, vice-president of an Arlington, Va.-based government relations firm, "has got his heart set on perhaps me not working" but that she's "looking around" for work.
Squier says she's moving out of the state, but she's not sure where yet.
Wherever that might be, she won't be mired in the politics of New Mexico's state bureaucracies.
"Guess we have to do it," Squier replied to Kennicott's February 17, 2012 email about the program that allowed SNAP benefits to be sent with tax returns.
"Ok. Darn," wrote Kennicott. "I like Ted's idea of deleting it."
"Good luck with that," Squier responded.