Senate committee recommends reappointment of Cultural Affairs secretary

Sep. 8—The Senate Rules Committee recommended the reappointment of Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego after a nearly two-hour confirmation hearing that drew both fervent support and stinging criticism of one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's most loyal and longest-serving Cabinet members.

The committee voted 7-2 Friday in support of her reappointment, with state Sens. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, and Greg Baca, R-Belen, voting in opposition.

"I am grateful to state leadership for their clear demonstration of support today," Garcia y Griego said in a statement issued minutes after the vote.

Garcia y Griego's reappointment, which will go before the full Senate during next year's legislative session, had been a source of controversy sidelined for months over her decision to fire the longtime director of the state Office of Archaeological Studies, as well as other personnel and management decisions her opponents used to argue she was ill-suited to continue to serve.

"You know that this is going to be a highly contentious nomination because we've gotten stacks of letters in support and in opposition," Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who served as Garcia y Griego's Senate sponsor at the hearing, said soon after he sat down to present the conferee.

"My suggestion is that that indicates somebody who's been willing to make hard decisions," he said. "It's very easy to be popular."

Public testimony took up the first half of the hearing, which was held at the Continuing Education Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and featured a somewhat unusual seating arrangement, with people providing public testimony — both for and against — sitting next to Garcia y Griego as they spoke, sometimes in unflattering terms.

Supporters spoke first.

They included Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal, who said Garcia y Griego helped repair "unconscionable harm" to her community at the hands of the Office of Archaeological Studies. Roybal laid much of the blame on the former director, Eric Blinman, whose firing ignited much of the criticism against Garcia y Griego.

Roybal said the pueblo turned to Blinman for consultation a decade ago, "but rather than work with our community, he used falsehoods and deception, obfuscating and insulting and [ultimately] stealing our sovereignty and appropriating our history and culture."

Roybal claimed Blinman removed "human remains and sacred dog burials from ancestral village sites" over objections from the pueblo.

"He was excavating, storing them and allowing research, ignoring the pueblo's direction to leave them in place and not disturb them further," she said, adding Garcia y Griego "immediately remedied the situation" after she was contacted by the pueblo.

"I don't have access to any of my records due to the confiscation of my computer and phone, and the charges against me don't make any sense without knowing the chronology of events," Blinman responded in an email. "In recent times I have had only one meeting with members of the pueblo, and at the end of the meeting I thought we had a clear path forward. At that point the next step in the repatriation process was in the pueblo's hands, and I never received the expected communication from them. If they had come to me with additional concerns after the meeting, I would have addressed them."

Other supporters of Garcia y Griego's included an uncle: Lorenzo F. Garcia, a retired federal magistrate judge.

"I've been on the bench for 45 years, and I learned that if you want to be popular, you should go sell Häagen-Dazs ice cream," he said, generating laughter.

Among those speaking against her reappointment were Tom Wilson, former director of the Museum of New Mexico; Viola Martinez, a former trustee of the Museum of Natural History and Science; and Thomas Chávez, former director of the Palace of the Governors.

Chávez said the Department of Cultural Affairs "has fallen into its most dismal state" and is "sick with a malady" under Garcia y Griego's tenure.

"Has anyone bothered to ask the foundations who try to raise money in support of our cultural institutions?" Chávez asked. "Fundraising is down."

Kent Jacobs, a former member of the Museum of New Mexico's board regents, emailed the Rules Committee to tell them he withdrew a proposed gift to the museum foundation valued at more than $2 million as a result of decisions at the department with Garcia y Griego at the helm, including the "chopping of museum director's [sic] heads." That would have included, he wrote, a home and land north of Las Cruces, an art collection and a "substantial monetary gift.

"Since we have never met [Garcia y Griego] ... or the director of the Museum of Art, they will never know what they are losing, but they will recognize the monetary value we just deleted from our future gift," Jacobs wrote. "Don't let the carnage or damage to our once beloved Department of Cultural Affairs continue."

Martinez accused Garcia y Griego of removing multiple directors throughout the department "in a chaotic and unprofessional manner."

"I implore you, seriously, to rethink the reappointment of the Cabinet secretary," she said.

After the public hearing, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, offered Garcia y Griego a chance to respond to some of the criticism.

"One of the things I would like to respond to is the notion that there has been excessive turnover and excessive vacancies within my agency," she said. "That is simply not true."

She also disputed the assertion fundraising was on the decline.

"I respectfully disagree with that, and the numbers provided by any of the foundations would demonstrate that that is untrue," Garcia y Griego said.

Garcia y Griego faced varied questioning — and some criticism — from lawmakers.

Stefanics, for example, indicated the department wasn't doing enough to provide library services to rural communities.

"I think this is something to pay a little attention to," she said.

Baca, who thanked Garcia y Griego for her willingness to serve, noting "these positions are difficult," asked her opinion on the "removal and even destruction illegally of some of our most prized monuments." He mentioned the Soldiers' Monument on Santa Fe Plaza, which was torn down by protesters in 2020, and the statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas in Santa Fe.

"I think you're asking one of the fundamental questions of our time," she said. "We are moving to a place where we are understanding, increasingly, the complexity of history and that there is not one view of any given historical event. Everybody has a different perspective."

In the end, Garcia y Griego received bipartisan support.

"I tend to agree with Senator Ortiz y Pino that if you do your job right, there's probably going to be people who are going to be mad at you, no matter what you do," said committee Chairwoman Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.

Still, others acknowledged turmoil.

"I think there needs to be some healing in your department," Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, told Garcia y Griego.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on X @danieljchacon.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.