President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda has few more outspoken opponents than Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who, as chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has served as the voice of Hispanic and Democratic members of Congress in condemning the administration’s policies.
The New Mexico Democrat is hoping to take that message to a new platform next year, leaving Congress to run to be governor of her border state, where a win would position her to square off directly with Trump on everything from National Guard deployments on the border to his policies affecting legal and illegal immigration.
Signs of what could be to come are obvious on the campaign trail. At a pep talk for volunteers headed out to canvas on a recent Saturday at her Albuquerque campaign office, Lujan Grisham was introduced by two young undocumented advocates, one of whom, Ivonne Orozco, is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and was New Mexico’s teacher of the year.
Lujan Grisham dedicated part of her remarks at that event to an update on efforts in Congress to force a vote on preserving DACA on the House floor – and slammed what she called “racist” and “bigoted” recent remarks about immigrants from Trump chief of staff John Kelly, which were met with boos and hisses from her supporters.
“So we called him out, we’re going to keep calling him out, and while we do that, what they’ve done is now 50 Republicans are fighting with their speaker, and … that is a big deal,” Lujan Grisham said, crediting the local advocates with keeping the pressure on to force the vote. “Can you imagine the power we have as New Mexicans if we take that attitude and we bring it to every single neighborhood, every single community, we take it statewide and we show the rest of the world what New Mexicans are made of?”
The week since has seen the growth of that effort in Congress, including Lujan Grisham leading the way for almost all members of the Democratic Party in the House to sign on. In the meantime, she’s also continued quieter efforts to push Republican leadership to work with her on immigration. Amid the tumult on immigration in Washington this week, reporters caught Lujan Grisham delivering one of her daily gifts to Speaker Paul Ryan, in this case a piñata shaped like a horse that she said symbolized the need to do more than be “show ponies.” Lujan Grisham has been delivering gifts of items she has on hand every day she’s in town with a note imploring Ryan to meet with her to fulfill a promise she says he made her to work together on the issue.
Lujan Grisham has two challengers in the Democratic primary but is widely considered the favorite to win on June 5. In March, she secured 67% of the vote at the state’s party convention, to 21% for businessman Jeff Apodaca and 10% for state legislator Joseph Cervantes.
If she clears the Democratic primary, she would face fellow Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican running unopposed in the primary who represents the southern part of the state in Congress. The state of New Mexico went for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, by 8 points in the 2016 election.
Along the way, Lujan Grisham has had strong words for what she calls the “racist White House,” as well as the wall (“misguided, discriminatory campaign promise”) and National Guard troop deployment (playing “politics with people’s lives”).
But on the trail in New Mexico, Lujan Grisham sometimes doesn’t talk about Trump at all. She spent as much time talking about education as DC politics in Albuquerque and didn’t mention Trump at a stop in Santa Fe. Her campaign website has no section for immigration among its issues of focus, and Lujan Grisham says the single most pressing concern she hears from her constituents is jobs.
She’s a 12th generation New Mexican from a well-known family in Santa Fe. On the trail, it’s difficult to distinguish her interactions with people she has known her entire life from those she’s meeting for the first time. She’s also racked up endorsements from a host of New Mexicans, from state lawmakers to author George R.R. Martin, whose books are the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” as well as a collection of outside groups and labor unions.
She says she’s confident that the national debate on immigration will come up on the campaign trail, especially expecting outside groups to spend millions on ads attacking her on illegal immigration. She said she is welcoming it as an opportunity to talk about a record she believes will help her in November.
“One of the reasons that our (New Mexico) families are resilient, strong even in the face of extreme poverty and difficulty is because we are open, we integrate well, and we think we can message that about the economy,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview between campaign stops. “The wall is not a positive message. So it will give us an opportunity to distinguish ourselves and to talk about that advocacy which we think will be very beneficial.”
Lujan Grisham also rejected the idea of sending her state’s National Guard troops to the border, as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has done under Trump’s request, without a clear need for them.
“There’s no way without real evidence I would ever send the National Guard to the border,” Lujan Grisham said, noting that border crossings are the lowest they’ve been in decades and that many people crossing illegally are asylum seekers fleeing violence at home. She also noted the state, which has been suffering a dramatic drought, has a dangerous fire season that often engages the Guard in response.
“It’s the National Guard who helps us with those fire seasons, and the notion that this governor played politics with Trump and that he would play politics with people’s lives and properties and home towns – that would be a productive, we believe, area for us to continue to be a harsh critic and will drive voters to support our campaign as well,” Lujan Grisham said.
The state has a history of bucking the incumbent party. Martinez has also been plagued by low approval ratings, all of which bolsters Lujan Grisham’s bid, said Gabriel Ramon Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and principal at pollster Latino Decisions, who has done contract work for the Democratic congressional campaign arm.
Sanchez called Lujan Grisham the “clear frontrunner” in both the primary and the general election and said that given the state’s population is almost 50% Hispanic, for whom the immigration debate is particularly salient, the issue could play well for her in the race.
But Sanchez also noted that an anti-Trump platform could backfire in office. As much as Lujan Grisham would be in a position to question and perhaps stymie Trump’s policies, she could also risk essential federal money that comes to her state, where national laboratories and military bases are a fundamental part of the economy.
“Is bashing President Trump a wise idea once you get elected given that New Mexico has arguably the most reliance on federal funding of any state in the union?” Sanchez said. “Is it really a good thing to be on the President’s short list of enemies?”
Lujan Grisham noted that Congress sets the federal budget and has rejected many of Trump’s proposed cuts.
“I have always worked well within the federal agencies to ensure New Mexicans have the resources and tools they need to succeed and cultivated valuable, bi-partisan relationships over my time in Congress in order to ensure continued full funding of New Mexico’s state of the art national defense facilities and labs,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexicans want a Governor who will continue to fight and hold President Trump accountable for policies that hurt New Mexicans and hard-working families.”
In fact, in many ways, the way Lujan Grisham describes New Mexico – hard hit by the opioid epidemic, struggling with unemployment, plenty of rural voters – could describe Rust Belt states seen as Trump country. But she says there’s one key difference.
“Trump in particular was such an unpopular candidate, because he’s so anti communities of color, and we’re a minority majority state, are you kidding?” Lujan Grisham said. “Every negative, hurtful, biased, racist remark, it stuck here.”