With her election in New Mexico’s 1st District, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham continues her family’s political dynasty. Her grandfather, Eugene Lujan, was the New Mexico Supreme Court’s first Latino chief justice; her uncle, Manuel Lujan Jr., served as a GOP congressman for the district as well as Interior secretary under President George H.W. Bush; and her distant cousin, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, represents New Mexico’s 3rd District.
The daughter of a dentist, Lujan Grisham was born in Los Alamos, N.M., and attended high school in Santa Fe. After earning bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of New Mexico, she was named director of the State Bar of New Mexico’s Lawyer Referral for the Elderly Program, which provides basic legal services to seniors. In 1991, then-Gov. Bruce King appointed Lujan Grisham director of the New Mexico State Agency on Aging. She remained in that position for the next 13 years, serving under a Republican as well as two Democratic governors—a point she often stressed later on the campaign trail, making the case that she can be bipartisan.
In 2004, Lujan Grisham’s college sweetheart and husband of 22 years, Gregory Alan Grisham, collapsed while jogging and died the next day from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Three years after the incident, Lujan Grisham filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, seeking damages from an Albuquerque physician who had misdiagnosed her late husband with migraines. The suit was dismissed.
After her husband’s death, Lujan Grisham was named secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, which had 3,800 employees and a $440 million budget. In that role, Lujan Grisham emphasized prophylactic care, or “precautionary principles.” In 2007, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against New Mexico in response to substandard conditions and practices at the state-run Fort Bayard Medical Center. A settlement was reached four days later, but Lujan Grisham resigned the next month, telling the Albuquerque Journal that overseeing the Department of Health was the “hardest job on the planet.”
In 2008, Lujan Grisham made an unsuccessful run for the 1st District seat, placing third in the Democratic primary. Two years later, she was elected a commissioner of Bernalillo County.
The 1st District, which encompasses Albuquerque and most of its suburbs, is tacking leftward after decades of Republican dominance. Created in 1969, the district did not elect a Democrat to Congress until it voted for Martin Heinrich in 2008. The ascendance of Democrats is mostly due to an influx of Latino voters, who now make up 48 percent of the electorate.
When Heinrich decided to run for retiring Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s seat, Lujan Grisham entered the 1st District race as a long shot, saying her real-life hardships gave her insight into voters’ problems. “As a widow and a caregiver and a single mother, I’m living the experience that New Mexicans are,” she told the Albuquerque Journal.
She conserved cash while her rivals for the Democratic nomination, state Sen. Eric Griego and former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez, vilified each other. Eventually, Lujan Grisham surged past her opponents, who did not take her seriously until it was too late, and she won the primary with 40 percent of the vote. With that bruising battle over, Lujan Grisham cruised to victory over former Republican state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones.
Christopher Snow Hopkins