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Top New Mexico Democrats could be tapped for Joe Biden Cabinet positions

Dan Boyd
Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Election Day may be over, but the political dominoes are just being lined up.

In New Mexico, several top Democrats could be contenders for high-profile Cabinet posts in Joe Biden's administration.

Although Cabinet picks are not expected to be announced for several weeks with election results not yet certified, those generating national buzz include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is reportedly being considered to lead the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

In addition, both of New Mexico's U.S. senators — Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich — have been touted as possible interior secretaries, as has U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who won re-election last week to a second term in Congress.

The appointment of one — or two — New Mexicans to Biden's Cabinet could increase the state's national profile, but it could also cause more political shuffling.

MORE:President-elect Joe Biden seeks diverse Cabinet to 'look like America'

That's especially the case if Lujan Grisham were to leave the Governor's Office for a high-profile post in the Biden administration.

Already, Lujan Grisham is one of the co-chairs of Biden's transition team, and her chief of staff, John Bingaman, recently took a leave of absence to assist with transition-related tasks.

As part of that work, the governor said last week, she has been focusing on aiding the Biden transition team with COVID-19 policies.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removes her face mask at the start of an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico on May 27, 2020.

However, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Monday that the governor is "100% committed" to her elected job.

"As was the case with the vice presidential speculation, the governor is flattered by the talk in the media circles, but it's only that — talk," Lujan Grisham spokesman Nora Meyers Sackett said. "She's eager to help President-elect Biden get the virus under control and get our economy moving again as governor of New Mexico."

MORE:Biden wants masks mandates nationwide, but he can't actually enforce them. Here's what he could do instead.

University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Biden's team may have already done background research and vetting on the governor.

"With pressure on the Biden team to have the most diverse Cabinet in history from the coalition of voters that helped him win the race, our governor, to me, would be the front-runner for the health and human services position," Sanchez said Monday.

If Lujan Grisham were to be tapped by Biden for a national post, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales would be in line to take over as governor for the remainder of Lujan Grisham's term, which ends in 2022.

Sanchez also pointed out that Biden would make history if he were to choose Haaland to be the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet.

Rep. Deb Haaland, N.M.-1st District, on Nov. 3, 2020.

Haaland, who is a Laguna Pueblo member and former San Felipe Pueblo tribal administrator, said in a statement that the Interior Department will play a key role in implementing Biden's policies on renewable energy and climate change.

"It is notable that our country has finally reached the point where having the first Native American Cabinet secretary is a serious consideration and there are people putting it down on paper," Haaland said. "New Mexico is my top priority, and I am open to opportunities where I can best serve our state, Indian Country, and our country at large and pushing the Biden climate plan."

MORE:Wins for indigenous candidates in Congress give hope for change

The U.S. Interior Department oversees the management of public land nationwide, and the agency has been frequently helmed by Westerners in recent decades.

Two New Mexicans have led the agency, most recently Manuel Lujan Jr., who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush and served from 1989 to 1993.

In addition to Haaland, Udall and Heinrich could also be on Biden's short list for the interior secretary job, according to Politico.

Both senators have been active in environmental and federal lands issues, including intervening in a legal dispute over a 2017 New Mexico rule dealing with private landowners' authority to restrict public access to water flowing across their land.

Heinrich, who is not up for reelection until 2024, did not discount the possibility of a Cabinet position in a Monday statement.

"I will do whatever I can to ensure the success of the Biden-Harris administration and the nation that is counting on all of us to build America back better," he told the Albuquerque Journal.

If Heinrich were to be appointed, the governor would appoint his successor, who would serve until the next state general election in November 2022.

The process would be different if Haaland were to be chosen, as it would require a special election to be held for her Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District seat.

Sen. Tom Udall on May 16, 2018.

For his part, Udall, who did not seek reelection to his U.S. Senate seat this year and will step down at year's end, said last year he intends to find "new ways" to serve New Mexico and the country.

MORE:New Mexico Sen. Udall blasts Bureau of Land Management under Trump

While a Udall spokesman said Monday that the two-term senator was focused on a strong finish to his term, he did not rule out the interior secretary position either.

"Sen. Udall is looking forward to helping a Biden-Harris administration support indigenous people and tribal governments and advance the bold conservation vision that is needed to create jobs, save nature and fight climate change," Udall spokesman Ned Adriance said.

Udall's late father, Stewart Udall, served as interior secretary for eight years in the 1960s under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

And the Interior Department's main building in Washington, D.C., was named after Stewart Udall shortly after his death in 2010.