The setting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's first meeting of her Cabinet this week was a huge round table that dominated a big, wood-paneled room on the fourth floor of the state Capitol. The table was familiar; the faces around it were not.
With four appointments yet to make, the new governor has asked 10 women and eight men to lead her Cabinet departments.
In interviews with several agency heads and conversations with other staffers, SFR found that the governor's choices reflect more than a desire for symbolic relevance. The expectation is that the 18—and eventually 22—people she's appointed to lead prominent state agencies will push forward an agenda that more broadly represents New Mexico.
"I used transition teams to put out recruitment messages and to identify folks who they believed had the expertise and the vision and the advocacy skills to lead their departments and the state," the governor tells SFR. "Many of them are individuals I met for the first time in the interview process," she says.
That's a key point, and one picked up on by Alice Liu McCoy, the Albuquerque attorney chosen to lead the Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
"I think she opened it up, the application process," she tells SFR, adding bluntly: "You didn't have to know somebody to get a job."
What that means for state government—ideally—is a step away from the groups that have traditionally had a seat at the table.
"If historically, a certain group of people has had power from generation to generation and [a governor is] willing to step outside the collective comfort zone, then you're really tapping into talent that's never been utilized before," Liu McCoy says.
That approach can help with the hunt for agency heads from both sides, Cabinet picks tell SFR, by opening government to underrepresented groups and by attracting people who wouldn't normally consider government service. It may also have contributed to the length of time it's taken for Lujan Grisham and her team to find choices to lead key agencies for schools, prisons, taxes and Native issues. The governor has said she hopes to fill those roles soon.
"I think it starts with the governor being a woman," says Secretary-designate Sarah Cottrell Propst, who's taking the helm at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. "[Women] tend to notice the numbers when you walk into a room. That's very human, regardless of who you are."
Cottrell Propst says she didn't lead her interview with the fact that she's a woman; she relied on her education, experience and expertise. But when she sat down at the big, round table in the governor's Cabinet room on Monday?
"It did feel good to have equal numbers," she says.
Kate O'Neill, the former head of UNM Taos who is expected to lead the state Higher Education Department, says the process has yielded a true search for the "best and brightest," a catch phrase often used by governors as they fill out Cabinets that end up looking awfully male and awfully white.
"It is significant," she tells SFR. "I think the sense of many people I've spoken with is that she's true to her word in looking for the best-qualified people."
The secretary designate (the official title of all appointees until they're confirmed by the state Senate) says she's found diversity not only demographically but in terms of location—"where people are from"—and, at least in her experience with other agency heads, a belief in good governance and effective policy.
Still, it's hard to ignore what is currently a mostly female Cabinet.
"I don't know that there was even parity ever before," she muses.
Cottrell Propst and others also say there's been a clear edict to work together on agenda items, something that attracted her to the position.
"It was literally part of our interview process," she says of the expectation to collaborate both within the Cabinet and among agencies at a lower level.
It's a best practice, she says, and one echoed by Department of Cultural Affairs secretary designee Debra Garcia y Griego in an interview with SFR last week.
"That touch comes from [Lujan Grisham] having been a Cabinet secretary herself," Cottrell Propst continues. "In a world where the budget is limited and you're competing for time and attention from the governor, it can be all too easy to fall into a competitive trap."
So far, she says, her colleagues at other agencies have been receptive to working together.
"It's sort of easy to say and hard to do, but it seems like she tried to select some of us who have done the hard-to-do part," she says. If widespread collaboration works, she thinks it's likely to lead to a government that works better for the public and, in some cases, the industries they regulate.
"Good process leads to acceptable outcomes, right?" she says, sounding very much the part of an agency head.
This is all, so far, an experiment. It's a design that signals a new approach to a government that hasn't experienced a lot of collaboration in years past. It's no guarantee of success, though, and Lujan Grisham's skill at fostering cooperation while keeping agencies from losing focus will matter.
While Democrats are certainly anxious to move away from the Susana Martinez years, O'Neill sees value in looking back, and a significance to the first-ever transfer of executive power in New Mexico from woman to woman.
"I think the fact that there's a transfer from Susana to Michelle, both the first hispanic woman for their parties, that's a sea change in terms of governance," she says.