If the presidential election swings in favor of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Donald Trump is forced to vacate the White House, New Mexico’s highest political office may see another transition of power soon after.

In an August interview with Vogue, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was asked if she’d be interested in the position of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary under a hypothetical Biden administration.

“Like in the context of being vetted for vice president, I want them to look to governors, because the HHS secretary is going to have to immediately deal with COVID and a whole different strategy for public health,” she replied, floating the very real possibility that Lujan Grisham could exit the Governor’s Residence for a Biden cabinet position with two years left in her first term.

Such a scenario would elevate Lt. Gov. Howie Morales to the head of the state’s executive branch.

According to the New Mexico Constitution, if “a vacancy occurs in the office of governor, the lieutenant governor shall succeed to that office, and to all the powers, duties and emoluments thereof.”

Lujan Grisham is also currently one of five co-chairpersons advising Biden’s transition team “on responding to the ongoing public health crisis and the recession” in light of her work guiding New Mexico through the pandemic, per the Santa Fe New Mexican.

This begs the question of what New Mexico would look like under Morales if Lujan Grisham were to take a position in Biden’s cabinet and leave the governor’s seat open.

Morales took office on Jan. 1, 2019 alongside Lujan Grisham and has since made it clear that education is his top priority. He even served as the interim secretary of education for the Public Education Department of New Mexico until Lujan Grisham could appoint a permanent secretary.

In a phone interview with the Daily Lobo, Morales said that this time period “allowed (him and the governor) the opportunity to drive home the aspect of public service, to lift schools up rather than shut them down,” with a focus on not “education reform but transformation.”

Morales, who holds a doctorate in education, has an extensive history as an educator and is the father of children in K-12 education, explained that his background “assisted (him) in day-to-day issues” and helped him understand the pressure that parents are under during virtual schooling.

A more immediate focus of Morales is the handling of the pandemic, as it continues to wreak havoc on the state. Over the past two weeks, there has been a 111% increase in cases, 82% increase in deaths and 85% increase in hospitalizations in the state of New Mexico, according to data provided by the New York Times at the time of writing.

When the subject came up, Morales was quick to highlight the strong leadership of Lujan Grisham during the beginning of the pandemic, which showed that “New Mexico was a leader and can continue to be a leader, because we took this seriously.”

On how COVID-19 has affected marginalized communities in a state with fewer resources than most, he said, “It goes back to the fact that COVID-19 has magnified a lot of areas that the state has needed to improve for many years, and infrastructure is always a piece of that,” specifically citing water, roadways and broadband internet as critical aspects of infrastructure improvement.

Besides a strong emphasis on education and continuing to address the myriad problems COVID-19 has brought to light, Morales also wants to focus on bridging the divide between the two major political parties.

“Having been a legislator, I understand both sides of the aisle, and I understand how we can do what’s best for the state,” Morales told the Daily Lobo. “It’s always about relationships.”

To Morales, fostering relationships expands beyond the political sphere.

“Being connected to the community is what’s always been at the heart of what I do,” Morales said. “I believe service is about providing support and uplifting what community you're a part of.”

When asked what his priorities would be if he were to hold the seat of governor, he led with the fact that New Mexico is where he was born, raised and educated, and that the state of New Mexico means “everything” to him.

Morales also made it clear that his attention would be on jobs, the economy and the education system, which he said are “key for making changes not just for the next year or two but making drastic, much-needed changes for the next generation.”

The interview ended with a question about what Morales would like his legacy to be, and he said he wants to be remembered as being approachable and for maintaining mutual respect despite differences in opinion and beliefs.

“It’s the way that you’re able to make a difference by having people realize they’re valued and how they bring improvement to our state,” Morales said. “People always remember how you made them feel.” 

Shelby Kleinhans is a freelance photographer and reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @BirdsNotReal99