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A prominent health record in a pandemic: Why NM Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham could be Biden's VP pick

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) speaking at The Center for American Progress CAP 2019 Ideas Conference.

Michael Brochstein | SOP Images | Getty Images

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is under more pressure than ever to choose a Black woman as his running mate, but several other names are still floating around.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the first Democratic Latina in the U.S. to be elected as a state’s top executive, continues to rank on the shortlist to become Biden’s vice presidential pick, according to pundits.

Lujan Grisham’s government experience, and her deep background in health and aging, could bring authority to the Biden campaign as it presents an alternative vision to the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. And as a Latina, Lujan Grisham could help shore up crucial voting blocs to turn out in November. 

“The governor has been in conversation with the Biden campaign about how she can best support the campaign, boost turnout, and ensure a Democratic victory,” a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham told CNBC. “Those conversations are ongoing.”

A longtime focus on health

Health care has long been a core issue for Lujan Grisham. Her own family’s medical battles exposed her to the crippling costs that long-term care can take, and instilled in her a zealous commitment to improving health care in her state.

Lujan Grisham’s sister, Kimberly, died at 21 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 2 years old. Her parents reportedly spent decades paying off the debt accumulated from her care. 

In 1997, Lujan Grisham made headlines when, as head of the New Mexico State Agency on Aging, she went undercover in a state-run nursing home after hearing complaints about the facilities. She reportedly faked a stroke and checked herself into a center, where she was neglected for hours on end and had items stolen. She later touted the sting operation in her congressional and gubernatorial campaigns.

Lujan Grisham’s husband died in 2004 from a brain aneurysm, just a few weeks before she started as New Mexico’s secretary of Health. Lujan Grisham, a mother of two, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her husband’s physician that was later dropped. She stayed in the role until 2007.

Near the start of her first term in Congress in 2013, Lujan Grisham faced another family health crisis when her mother fell ill. Lujan Grisham tended to her mother, forcing the new congresswoman to balance her legislative work with her duties as a primary caregiver. 

Her expertise in health care and seniors’ issues carried over to her three terms in Congress. Nearly a quarter of the bills she sponsored focused on health, according to a GovTrack analysis.

“This is a place where you have to be really tenacious. You have to know what’s at stake,” Lujan Grisham told Politico in 2013. “But I’m tenacious, especially when I know people’s lives are at stake.”

Responding to a crisis

Lujan Grisham’s years of health-care experience were put to the test during the Covid-19 crisis, and she’s earned plaudits from Democrats for her strong response.

New Mexico’s status as one of the poorest states in the country with among the fewest hospital beds per capita put it at high risk. But that danger has so far been averted: As of Monday, New Mexico’s cases were on the decline, even as a growing number of states report increases in the number of infections. 

University of New Mexico disease specialist Helen Wearing told The New York Times that “hundreds of lives were saved because of what the state did early on, and that’s using conservative estimates.”

That praise could give Lujan Grisham an upper hand in a possible debate against Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force. Most Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday.

At least 10,565 Covid-19 cases and 134 deaths have been confirmed in New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham herself said in a recent Rolling Stone interview that she drew on the lessons she learned as secretary of Health when confronting the coronavirus.

“I’m no stranger to the significance of any infectious disease, and I know the danger in a pandemic. You take an abundance of caution, even if you don’t know everything that you need to know. If there is no vaccine and no real treatment, then you better keep people from being in contact,” she said.

“I made quick and very broad, decisive actions, telling people to stay at home, closing schools, and narrowing essential businesses. We quarantined people coming across borders for 14 days. We were working on taking the temperatures of truckers coming in and out of the state and doing questionnaires about whether they were symptomatic. We really were aggressive on the front end, and I believe, unequivocally, it has paid off in where the state is today.”

A national outlook

Lujan Grisham has gained a reputation as a dogged fighter for her passion projects — even the politically volatile ones.

She came into the governor’s office after a resounding electoral victory in 2018 — beating Republican Steve Pearce by nearly 15 percentage points. But by mid-2019, her approval rating had fallen after she took progressive stances on gun control and abortion.

On guns, she signed a law expanding background checks for nearly all firearms sales. Politicians in more than two dozen counties out of 33 total pushed back on the law, signing “Second Amendment sanctuary” declarations in protest.

The following year, she signed a red-flag gun bill into law, warning sheriffs that if they don’t intend to enforce it, “they should resign as a law enforcement officer and leader in that community.”

She also gained attention in her final year in the House, when as chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, she crashed a bipartisan meeting at the White House with Trump on immigration.

“There are a couple of things in New Mexico we don’t talk about: abortion and immigration,” said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. “Occasionally someone brings it up, and it’s usually not good for them.”

Lujan Grisham also pushed to repeal a decades-old anti-abortion law, but the effort failed in the state Senate, with eight members of her party voting against the repeal. But Lujan Grisham hasn’t given up, reportedly telling a Planned Parenthood event earlier this year that the bill will be “gone” as soon as she can muster up the votes. 

“She has a very national Democratic outlook,” Atkeson said. “She’s willing to take on things. She’s strong and aggressive, but she also has this ideological side. … She represents sort of the rising side of the Democratic Party.”

What Lujan Grisham brings

Lujan Grisham has less national name recognition than other potential vice presidential candidates, and her state has voted reliably blue in the last three presidential elections. But she could still bring racial and geographic diversity to the Democratic ticket, potentially helping Biden connect with key voting demographics.

In a period of civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Biden has faced growing calls to pick a Black running mate.

Political betting markets seem to think he’s headed in that direction. PredictIt’s rankings show Sen. Kamala Harris of California leading the pack, followed by Rep. Val Demings of Florida and former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice. All three women are Black.

But Trump outperformed expectations among Latinos in the 2016 election against Democrat Hillary Clinton, and at least one recent poll shows more than a third of Latino voters have not committed to a candidate in 2020.

Chuck Rocha, a strategist for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ now-defunct Democratic presidential primary campaign, told Slate in May that Biden’s campaign “spent little time and money actually having a conversation” with Latino voters.

Atkeson noted that diminished Black turnout in the 2016 election from 2012 were key factors in Clinton’s losses in Michigan and Wisconsin. But Atkeson added that Biden won’t be basing his No. 2 pick solely on the electoral map.

“He’d get along well with her,” Atkeson said of Lujan Grisham. “She has a personal connection, maybe.”

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