New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is finishing her first term in office. She previously served three terms in the US Congress, representing the state’s 1st District, and as a cabinet secretary for the state’s Health and Aging and Long Term Services departments. The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SFR: What is your response to critics who say we remained in lockdown for too long, and to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study that gave New Mexico an F grade for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
MLG: I actually am critical of that review—both my critics and the Heritage Foundation report [Editor’s note: One of the report’s three researchers works for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank; another for the conservative Committee to Unleash Prosperity]. They were trying to make a case that you just let this deadly virus run its course and people will die. And frankly, they don’t believe that it caused any of those deaths. New Mexico is unique in a bunch of areas, which, in the context of a pandemic—where we had the politicization of a deadly virus by a president and an administration who said states were on their own and literally tried to steal our PPE and testing equipment—creates a dangerous, complex situation to try to navigate. We have less per-capita health care. We have a sicker population, including with kiddos. We also have one of the highest grandparents-raising-grandchildren population. We also have one of the oldest educators-in-the-class population. But we were one of the only states that wasn’t providing intense health care in a parking lot in a hospital. The rest of the country started to use our modeling and data. Our Native American populations are some of the most highly vaccinated populations. New Mexico led the nation standing up testing sites; having the highest testing-per-capita in the nation for quite some time; having the best vaccination access and outcomes in terms of percentage of population. Those are things that showed New Mexico can be a leader, even though the circumstances are clearly stacked against us.
How should voters set their short- and long-term expectations for improvements in public education?
I think New Mexicans recognize that under the best-of circumstances, educational reforms take some time. It’s not an overnight prospect and add to that COVID and all the underlying systemic issues we have. The early childhood education [investments] have yet to fully be realized because a lot of those three-year-olds are just now getting in. I’m very energized and confident about what we’ll see in the next couple of years.
Your opponent has been very critical of your stances on crime and police. You’ve indicated you still support revamping pre-trial detention policies, despite studies showing they might not be effective. Can you explain why you continue to back that approach, and also respond to the depiction of New Mexico as a crime-ridden cesspool?
Yep. Right out of the national GOP playbook. They don’t take responsibility, in my view, for gun violence. We have way too many guns available, which creates risk in any number of ways. Another issue about crime is, as with education, COVID… made it worse. It was a very difficult period for the world, and certainly the United States. So, you bet: Crime is worse everywhere.
I feel very confident that a system where you have a rebuttable presumption for the most dangerous offenders and violent repeat offenders will give both the community the confidence they need; will signal to jails and prisons who you have to retain and why; and still doesn’t erode the due process rights that are required in a fair, unbiased, criminal-defense/ criminal-justice system. I also want more arrests. That means highly trained, effective community policing statewide. We’re down at least 1,000 officers. We need more [district attorneys] and more [public defenders]; the entire judicial system has been weakened and is broken. I inherited a system where nobody was really paying attention to that. We are and I think it’ll pay off.
What will you be prioritizing in the next legislative session?
We want to keep doing public safety. We want to get up to 1,000 officers; I think we really ought to plan over a long haul for more than that. I want a lot more in affordable housing and I want the kind of affordable housing that allows us to have childcare built in it; that we’re really clear about both single-family and stabilization housing where you build equity in a model that’s meaningful.
I’d like to be the first state in the country to get to universal childcare. I want to really focus on what we’re paying childcare workers and early childhood education workers. Tax reform has to be comprehensive, which is really tough to do, but it’s time in this state, and we have the resources, in my view, to do that.
We want to keep doing infrastructure. We’ve spent a lot of money in water and broadband. We need more and I want to keep making sure that we stay partnered with the federal government.
Health care. I want that rural health care delivery fund and I want a very specific focus on a health care authority that rebuilds and frankly revamps in-person and telehealth behavioral health. We need in patient services, and I want in-campus behavioral health services, which is a fancy way of saying long term residential—but not inpatient—living resiliency working operations that allow you to have much more access to in-person case-managed health care, behavioral/health services. We have to have it. Not having it for a decade has been crushing and I want to re-build and I wanted it available right now.
You’ve obviously taken important actions to protect access to abortion in the state. What’s next on the queue?
Building access points. We know that women and their families through reproductive health care access receive comprehensive primary health care. We need more cervical cancer screenings… prenatal and post baby care—these are really important access points that is a public health response. The private HMOs need to be doing their part to make sure that women’s health gets the attention it deserves. I want to see better outcomes for maternal health. I certainly want better outcomes for women who are struggling. All of this is related in a comprehensive reproductive health care state—and abortion and abortion access are key components of that—and all of that is going to be part of our agenda: building, rebuilding and making sure it’s available readily in every single community.
New Mexico has a front-row seat to climate change, between the drought and wildfires. What will your focus be there in the next four years?
Expect to see accountability. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of oil and gas producers stopping the use of fresh water. We want that to get as close to 100% with real accountability. You’re seeing real accountability in methane: Expect that to go further. Expect ozone protection to go further. Expect more innovation in that space. Watch Calf Canyon/ Hermit’s Peak and the stewards of the land—acequias, land grants, people and families who have lived in these communities for hundreds of years—do the reforestation. We’re going to see both economic opportunities, but also cleaning up the environment, including that the feds want to work with us to finally do something about all of our legacy pollution. And, certainly, expect us to keep trying to prevent New Mexico from being a place where high-level radioactive and nuclear waste gets dumped. Expect that fight to be turned up several notches.
You’ve been in public life a long time. Do you think the rancor for elected officials is worse now than it’s been?
Yes. If you had told me that in my public career, people would actively be trying to make good on threats of physical harm, or engage in emotional abuse…You know, there are things we implement and try and they don’t have the results that we thought they would and then we change course. For me that’s always been effective leadership. You can’t be so risk averse that you don’t try things that would make a difference. You can’t be reckless, but you also have to be earnest when it doesn’t quite work the way that you thought. And there is no tolerance for that. There is a sense that public sector work isn’t meaningful, that people don’t work hard. I love my job. I’ve always worked hard. It’s something I pride myself in. I have never worked this hard in my life. And my team, I guarantee you, has never worked this hard. And they want to do work; they’re proud of it. This rancor is really hard on the men and women who are willing to do public work. It’s a tough nut to crack, disinformation and misinformation, but I hope every elected leader spends some time trying to get back better and leave it better than the way we found it.
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