A seat at the table for a pay-to-play buffet—the kind that CEOs, lobbyists, and captains of industry might have in a government more willing to listen to the powerful than the average citizen.
At least, that was the pitch.
An over-the-top description of an auctioned-off dinner with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has her office shaking its head and an Albuquerque public relations business owner doing the same thing, albeit for different reasons.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor. “That’s not what this would be. That’s not how the governor operates.”
The dinner is meant to benefit a widely praised nonprofit that provides business development and training support, largely for women. Joanie Griffin, owner of Sunny505 public relations firm and a longtime PR face in New Mexico, touts the auction item in email newsletter sent Tuesday as an opportunity to buy influence over dinner at the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe.
“Dinner with the governor is PERFECT for impressing those business associates or friends with whom you have been trying to get to the next level,” Griffin’s email exclaimed. “Access to the governor normally costs CEOs, lobbyists and politicos hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, multimillion-dollar business deals, and/or an impossible level of land-owning!”
“Now this opportunity is yours for a fraction of that level of investment,” it continues, concluding with a few details and a link to a website to bid on the dinner.
“That was just us trying get our clients to bid on it,” Griffin said, reached by phone Friday. “I don’t think it’s much of a story, but whatever.”
The governor’s office disagrees.
“That kind of language, even in a salesmanship type of context is troubling and inappropriate, because that’s not what dinner with the governor entails,” Stelnicki said.
As part of its fundraising effort, the Women’s Economic Self-Sufficiency Team, or WESST, contacted the governor’s office to request an appearance at its 30th anniversary banquet in Albuquerque on Friday night. The governor was already engaged, Stelnicki said, but was happy to support WESST and its mission. The statewide group has earned broad support in its three decades, providing business advice and support to entrepreneurs, most of whom are women and often are classified as low income, according to federal guidelines.
In lieu of a banquet speech and some gladhanding, the governor agreed to sit down for a meal at her official residence in Santa Fe.
WESST’s description of the auction was more understated, and fine by the governor.
“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can be yours to enjoy! You and five friends will experience an intimate evening of food and conversation with the governor of New Mexico,” it read.
Dianne Campbell, WESST’s head of development, said the group did not sign off on the language in Griffin’s newsletter. Griffin has been a longtime supporter of the nonprofit, and pitched clients on another auction item, a package of advertising, in the same newsletter.
The use of a state-owned property like the Governor’s Mansion to raise money for a private group—even a nonprofit one—can be problematic. The government is generally forbidden from spending public money to benefit private people, groups or businesses.
Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said that while it sounds more like a gaffe than a sinister invitation to influence government, the bad optics are obvious.
“It looks like the governor is only responsive to people who have lots of property or money to donate,” she said. “In an environment where the public is very concerned about influence in government in general, this kind of thing seems to play into that playbook.”
Rob Preuhs, chair of the Political Science Department at Denver’s Metro State University, said there’s an uncomfortable ring of truth to Griffin’s newsletter.
“The pitch is actually correct. What we know about donor influence is it tends to buy access,” he said. “The over-the-top version [in this case] seems to be that not only are they admitting that this goes on but also really publicly stating that this is not only the goal of the dinner but there’s an expectation of influence.”
Campbell said the state’s liaison at the Governor’s Mansion told her group the state couldn’t technically donate use of the mansion or the cost of a meal, and would bill WESST for the dinner and use of the home. The governor’s office confirmed the arrangement.
“The only thing that is being provided is the governor’s presence,” Stelnicki explained. “While priceless, it is of no monetary value.”
“They were really clear,” about the financial arrangement Campbell said.
“It really wasn’t meant to be anything other than ‘Would you like to have dinner with the governor?’” she explained. “This is about empowering women, families and economic development.”
Stelnicki said it’s common for groups to request a speech from the governor or to ask her to drop by an event. He also said it’s common for the governor to attend and even host dinners, though never with a promise of the official government ear.
“She has all kinds of dinners with local government,” he said. “She’s not doling out favors over dinner.”
WESST said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller offered his support in a similar fashion during last year’s fundraiser by agreeing to an auction for lunch with the mayor.
The auction ended Thursday, and the governor has no plans to cancel the dinner, according to Stelnicki. Despite the disappointing sales pitch, her spokesman explained, Lujan Grisham still supports the group and its mission.
This story was first published by New Mexico In Focus.