Bill McCamley just quit one of the most difficult, demanding and depressing jobs in state government.
He headed the agency that for a year has tried to manage the claims of more than 100,000 unemployed people at a time.
McCamley stuck to canned statements regarding his departure, but he was definitive about one part of his future.
I asked him if he would make another run for Congress.
“No sir,” McCamley wrote in a text message.
What are you running for, if anything?
“Nothing,” McCamley replied.
He probably expected those questions. McCamley, 43, has been running for public offices for more than a third of his life.
At 26, he was elected as a Doña Ana County commissioner. By 29, McCamley was running for Congress in the 2nd District, which sprawls across the southern half of the state. He lost to an oilman in the Democratic primary election.
At 32, McCamley lost again, this time to a Republican for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission. He rebounded at 34, winning the first of three terms as a state representative.
McCamley had higher ambitions than the Legislature. He gave up his seat to run for state auditor in 2018.
It was the job he coveted. McCamley holds a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The thought of becoming state auditor fit his interests and energized him.
As a legislator, McCamley wouldn’t accept so much as a cup of coffee or lunch from lobbyists. He would talk to any constituent or advocate. But he didn’t want their gifts or the appearance of being unduly influenced.
Being state auditor would have authorized him to double-check the spending practices of other politicians and their governments.
But McCamley lost by a landslide in the Democratic primary. Fortunately for him, he had a politician’s connections.
A fellow Democrat, Michelle Lujan Grisham, was elected governor. She hired McCamley as Cabinet secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions.
In another era, the agency was called the Labor Department. Somehow, labor became a politically loaded word instead of something to take pride in.
More important than the department’s name are the drawbacks of the system.
Cabinet positions are political appointments. And the jobs often go to politicians instead of proven administrators.
Aside from the prison system or the mammoth state Department of Health, no agency is as difficult to run as Workforce Solutions. Its leader must learn to navigate the Byzantine federal laws the state has to follow in deciding if someone qualifies for unemployment benefits.
Workforce Solutions had 9,600 unemployment claims on March 9, 2020, the beginning stage of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of claims soared to 150,000 in June. It dipped after that, but still remained above 100,000.
Each week I received calls or emails from people who were desperate. Their unemployment benefits had stalled or been denied. They complained about a heartless bureaucracy.
After checking as far as I could on the more outrageous complaints of government inefficiency, I would call McCamley. He always responded, though he said privacy laws prohibited him from discussing the specifics of any case.
I would provide him with details anyway, and he would listen.
A drug counselor who no longer could work in a county jail because of COVID-19 had stopped receiving his unemployment checks. He didn’t have a computer, and he couldn’t get anyone from Workforce Solutions on the phone.
McCamley looked into the snag. Soon after, the drug counselor was told he needed to submit another form for his benefits to resume. Someone who’d been worried about surviving got the help he needed.
A retail store worker who’d been grievously injured on the job, then fired, wasn’t receiving unemployment benefits. He couldn’t understand why.
It took a few weeks, but McCamley’s department removed the roadblock. The ousted retail worker began receiving benefits.
In another case, management ordered a worker at a national pizza chain to transfer to another store. The new assignment required many miles of travel, but the worker didn’t have a car or other means of transportation. He was out of work because he couldn’t get to the new restaurant.
The pizza company fought the worker’s claim for unemployment compensation. McCamley ruled for the former employee. He had wanted to work but was thrust into an impossible assignment — during a pandemic, no less.
McCamley and his crew made mistakes, I’m sure. No one — not a CEO or a school principal or a Cabinet secretary — can make thousands of decisions without getting some wrong.
McCamley worried about errors, knowing every decision had human consequences. He also balanced emotion with the law.
Many times people quit jobs to look for something better, then applied for unemployment benefits. They didn’t qualify. McCamley’s agency had to deny money to people who’d made an uninformed decision.
“The job is heartbreaking,” he once told me.
On that day, he had been investigating the unemployment claim of a man living in his truck.
McCamley understands the dignity of work. And he learned that losing elections isn’t the worst setback, not by a long shot.