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With President-Elect Joe Biden considering adding Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to his cabinet, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales may soon move up a notch.
Lujan Grisham, who was on Biden’s list of potential vice presidents, is co-chair of the president-elect’s transition team, and, according to the Washington Post and other media, is being considered as a cabinet secretary. With her background in state government, the appointment likely would be as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Morales, a Silver City native and former state senator and Grant County clerk, will turn 48 Jan. 5. He and Lujan Grisham are both Democrats.
Morales would be the state’s 33rd governor and the first to succeed to the governorship from the office of lieutenant governor since Tom Bolack in late 1962.
Bolack, a Farmington Republican, served as lieutenant governor under Edwin L. Mechem, the former Las Cruces district attorney and state representative, during Mechem’s fourth and last two-year term as governor. Mechem (1912-2002) lost his bid for re-election Nov. 6, 1962 and resigned to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by Bolack 24 days later. He succeeded U.S. Dennis Chavez, D-N.M. (1888-1962), who died Nov. 18 in Washington, D.C.
Bolack (1918-98) served the remainder of Mechem’s gubernatorial term, which ended Jan. 1, 1963, when former New Mexico House Speaker Jack Campbell (1916-99), an Albuquerque Democrat, became governor.
Bolack had served as mayor of Farmington and as a state representative in the late 1950s. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives against then lieutenant governor and future U.S. senator Joseph Montoya in a special election in 1957.
The New Mexico Constitution was amended in 2008 to allow the governor to nominate a replacement if there is a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. The nominee has to be approved by a majority vote of the state Senate. That appointee would complete the previous lieutenant governor’s unexpired term.
One of the lieutenant governor’s primary duties is to preside over the state Senate when the legislature is in session. In the absence of a lieutenant governor, the president pro-tem of the state Senate presides. The 2021 session of the New Mexico Legislature convenes Jan. 19, and Biden becomes president Jan. 20. So, if Lujan Grisham is named to the cabinet, there could be a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office during the 60-day session.
The state constitution says a governor can be elected to only two consecutive four-year terms, but it does not address partial terms. So, Morales likely could run for re-election as governor in 2022, and, if he wins, again in 2026.
Only one New Mexico lieutenant governor, Ezequiel Cabeza de Baca (1864-1917), has been elected governor in his own right. A native of Las Vegas, New Mexico, de Baca was the state’s first lieutenant governor, serving with Gov. William C. McDonald, 1912-17. He defeated Republican Holm O. Bursum in the 1916 General Election but served only 48 days before dying.
After the lieutenant governor, the line of succession is the secretary of state, followed by the state Senate president pro-tem and the speaker of the state House of Representatives. That’s a reversal of the presidential line of succession, where the vice president is followed by the speaker of the House, then the president pro-tem of the Senate and the secretary of state.