SANTA FE, New Mexico — Michelle Lujan Grisham has not received the attention of many higher-profile candidates under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate. But she has a resume that few of them can match.
The New Mexico governor has executive experience and served in the U.S. House and as her state’s health secretary. Tested by the coronavirus pandemic, she has taken strong steps — including a mandatory face mask order and invoking the state’s riot act to isolate one city — that have been credited with saving lives.
She’s taking an increasingly tough stand against President Donald Trump, who has sent federal agents to Albuquerque to combat violent crime despite local skepticism about the timing and intentions.
And she’s one of the nation’s highest-ranking Latina officials as Latinos emerge as the fastest-growing demographic for eligible voters.
But as Biden prepares to make a vice presidential pick as soon as next week, Lujan Grisham is at risk of being shadowed by more prominent contenders, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Lujan Grisham is undeterred, pledging to help Biden in any way and making the case that Latinos could decide the election.
“The Latino and Hispanic vote will be essential,” Lujan Grisham said last week at a fundraiser for Biden. “You know it. I know it. The occupant in the White House knows it.”
Biden can’t afford to ignore that sentiment. The Pew Research Center estimates that the number of eligible Latino voters is expected to reach 32 million on Election Day. Crucially, Latinos account for 20% of eligible voters in the swing state of Florida and 24% in Arizona.
During the Democratic primary, Latinos overwhelmingly sided with Biden’s progressive rival Bernie Sanders, exposing a potential weakness for the eventual nominee.
But Biden is also facing pressure to choose a Black running mate as the country confronts a reckoning over institutionalized racism and police brutality.
Choosing a Latina for vice president “would be the smartest electoral strategy move he could make,” said Chuck Rocha, a Washington-based Democratic strategist and Texas native. “It may not be the best political move. The best political move would be to pick a Black woman.”
New Mexico’s third consecutive Hispanic governor, Lujan Grisham succeeded a termed-out Republican in 2019 on promises to improve the state’s faltering public education system, root out entrenched poverty and broaden an economy tethered closely to oil production — initiatives now upended by Covid-19.
The pandemic has thrust governors into fraught conversations about public health and the economy — a challenge Lujan Grisham has seized at hourslong remote news conferences streamed over social media.
“My North Star is to be unequivocally focused on saving lives and protecting New Mexicans — all ages, all locations, all persuasions,” Lujan Grisham said, announcing a decision to roll back indoor dining at restaurants and enforce a two-week self-quarantine for visitors from out of state.
Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are surging in New Mexico, but the state is faring better than neighboring Arizona — among the highest in the U.S. for new per capita cases over the past month.
New Mexico ranks among the five states with the most testing per capita, as health officials emphasize rapid responses to outbreaks at businesses including nursing homes and child care centers. About 1 in 4 residents has been tested.
Lujan Grisham’s approach to restricting the economy has outraged many Republicans and business owners. The state Supreme Court is weighing a GOP-backed legal challenge of the governor’s authority to ban indoor restaurant service or levy hefty fines against businesses that flout public health orders.
“Her style of leadership has been, ‘Do what I say — or else,’” said GOP state Rep. Alonzo Baldonado of Los Lunas, a board member at the campaign support group Latinos for Trump.
New Mexico Republican Party Chair Steve Pearce, who lost his bid for governor in 2018, says Lujan Grisham’s approach has infringed upon basic rights and freedoms while crippling the local economy as big-box retailers flourish under light restrictions.
The governor has seized on the pandemic and recent civil rights protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in ways that may bolster her appeal among Democrats, seeking to expand the use of mail-in balloting and signing off in June on policing reforms from the Democrat-led Legislature that mandate police body cameras. In February, she signed a red-flag bill that allows judges to remove firearms based on signs of danger — a response to the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in nearby El Paso, Texas.
Despite precautions, COVID-19 rampaged across northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation in April and May. Lujan Grisham cordoned off for 10 days the trading post town of Gallup, where infections raced through a detox center, retirement homes and the staff at Rehoboth McKinley Hospital. New Mexico went into triage mode, evacuating virus patients from overwhelmed rural hospitals.
Christine Sierra, a political science professor affiliated with the University of New Mexico, says the bottom line for the Biden campaign is whether Lujan Grisham can expand the ticket’s voter base.
She noted the governor’s ethnic heritage does not automatically resonate with all U.S. Latinos — a melting pot in their own right that includes exiled Cuban families, waves of laborers from Mexico and recent refugees from a natural disaster in Puerto Rico, an economic collapse in Venezuela or gang violence in Central America.
Lujan Grisham campaigned for governor as a 12th-generation Latina. Her maiden name ties her to a grandfather on the state Supreme Court and a distant cousin, Manuel Lujan, who served as a Republican congressman and U.S. interior secretary.
“I have no doubt that a Black woman from the South would mobilize the African American vote,” Sierra said. “The Latino angle on that is a lot more complicated and a little more ambiguous.”