Hispanic caucus unhappy with transition team treatment of Lujan Grisham
Hispanic groups and lawmakers expressed surprise and some anger Thursday at how New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has been treated by President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team.
Lujan Grisham was offered but rejected a Cabinet position as Biden’s Interior Department secretary, a transition team source told The Hill on Wednesday. Advocacy groups had been pushing her for Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary.
It’s possible the New Mexico governor is still in the mix for that position, particularly after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday publicly said she was no longer up for that role.
But lawmakers and other supporters of Lujan Grisham expressed surprise that the Biden team would leak that she had been offered and rejected a different Cabinet role.
“I’m just kind of confused, it throws all of us off,” said Paul Martinez, who serves on the board of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which had pushed for Lujan Grisham to get the HHS slot and were unaware she was being considered for Interior.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus “laid into the transition team” during a virtual meeting Thursday for the way Lujan Grisham was treated, according to a source familiar with the discussion.
During the conversation, the transition committed to putting a Latina in a Cabinet role, the source said, though it’s unclear if it will be the New Mexico governor.
Another source close to the caucus said members “were pissed” and that the Biden transition team did “a disservice not only to the caucus but to the governor.”
“The feeling is that those leaks coming out of transition were an attempt to hurt the governor, and the caucus is not happy about it,” this source said, lamenting the limited number of Hispanic women being mulled for positions.
“This is a lot bigger than checking the box. These are people that can do the job, so that’s where the insult comes in.”
The Biden transition team did not comment for this story.
Another complication came Thursday when Lujan Grisham was tapped to lead the Democratic Governors Association for 2021, a signal to some observers that she is unlikely to leave for the Biden administration.
Lujan Grisham’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the governor on Monday called it “flattering” for her name to be mentioned for roles in a Biden administration but stopping short of saying she’d been offered a position.
“Nobody has spoken to me about any job because I am in the job that can make the most difference,” she said.
Many were surprised to learn the Interior role had been offered to Lujan Grisham, with sources familiar with the department saying they had never heard Lujan Grisham was under consideration for the position.
Instead the discussion has revolved around other New Mexico lawmakers that are close associates of Lujan Grisham’s: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who would make history as the first Native American to serve as Interior Secretary, as well as Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). Michael Connor, a former deputy Interior secretary from New Mexico, is also being considered for the job.
“People are just kind of baffled by the whole thing,” said one congressional source, noting it was unusual to see such a dismissal publicly.
Lujan Grisham, like other lawmakers from New Mexico, has experience working in a state that has balanced oil and gas development with other conservation values. But she isn’t seen as having the same passion for that issue as for health care, while figures such as Haaland and Udall are seen as more keen on environmental issues. She also served as New Mexico’s health secretary from 2004-2007, part of the reason she was seen as a more natural fit for the HHS job.
The spat comes as the Biden administration is under increasing pressure to fulfill his pledge to select a Cabinet that “looks like America.”
Latino advocacy groups have pushed for Biden to appoint at least five Hispanics to top-level cabinet posts.
LULAC, along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had backed Haaland for the Interior spot, and she is already being vetted by the transition team for the Interior spot.
“It’s sad, because what that does is it puts two very good people in a very compromising situation,” Martinez said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) had initially been backed by the caucus for the Interior job before it threw its weight behind Haaland.
“We’re talking about a formidable candidate with a great deal of support from various constituencies,” Grijalva said of Haaland. “It would be good for the Biden administration, good for history, and it’d be good for the agency that badly needs to be repaired and reprioritized. This is a woman that has the capacity for the job.”
Three of Biden’s first nine hires for the White House were Hispanic, and the president-elect is naming Alejandro Mayorkas as Homeland Security Secretary, the first Latino to lead the Department.
“There are multiple, highly qualified Latinos and Latinas for Interior and any other cabinet position,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), adding that the Interior pick should have no impact “on the Biden administration’s ability to ensure that at least five members of the Cabinet are from the Latino community.”
Others posited that Lujan Grisham could still make the cut for HHS.
“I’m not convinced that the door has been closed on Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham,” said Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of UnidosUS, who has also been pushing for broad Latino representation in Biden’s cabinet. “We’ve seen a lot of twists and turns on this HHS role or position. And I think we have to just, you know, continue to advocate for who he believed can be qualified to fill those roles.”
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