A few weeks ago, Sonia Montoya, 26, landed a job interview at Garcia Nissan Santa Fe, off St. Michael's Drive. A single mother of an active eight-year-old boy, Montoya had made it to the interview phase for an administrative assistant position at the car dealership. Her résumé boasts three similar positions, she says, and Montoya felt qualified for the work.

Then came the hiring manager's observation: Montoya had been out of work for a year.

"I'm sure during that time you've gotten lazy," Montoya says a woman at Nissan told her.

"I was a little taken aback," Montoya says. "Just because I'm at home, it's not all rainbows and flowers."

Rather, she says, it's applications and more applications. She says that in any given day, she submits up to seven. But the longer she's unemployed, the tougher it becomes to convince employers of her aptitude.

With elections fast approaching, politicians are ramping up the rhetoric about jobs. But so far, an honest discussion about how to help people like Montoya get back in the workforce hasn't happened.

"One of the big issues that obviously is on the mind of every American is obviously the lack of jobs and the state of our economy," New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez told reporters in a conference call from Tampa, Fla. Gov. Susana Martinez echoed that talking point in a prime-time speech on Aug. 29., telling the Republican National Convention that "too many Americans are out of work."

But New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela touts the Martinez administration's economic record.

"Fact of the matter is, when we took office, we had an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent," Barela said in the conference call. "The unemployment rate has declined to 6.6 percent."

(Indeed, a report released last month by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions puts July's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 6.6 percent.)

But until now, the Martinez administration has been largely silent about unemployment—perhaps because those numbers don't tell the whole story.

Over the past year, New Mexico has actually experienced negative job growth. Since July 2011, the state shed 2,800 jobs—making it one of the weakest states in the nation in job growth—for a negative growth rate of 0.4 percent.

How can unemployment and job growth be down at the same time? Because New Mexicans might be out of work so long that they're not looking for it anymore. They're called "discouraged workers," says Jeff Mitchell, a senior research analyst at the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

New Mexico's labor force has actually shrunk, Mitchell explains. Since February, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state's civilian labor force shrank by almost 9,000 workers. In January 2008, before the recession hit, New Mexico had more than 943,000 people in its workforce. In July, based on preliminary estimates by the BLS, New Mexico's labor force had 923,000 people.  This means that while a smaller percentage of people are technically unemployed—defined as people without jobs who "had made specific efforts to find employment" in the past four weeks—there are simply fewer jobs to go around.

"The decline in the unemployment rate is entirely explicable in terms of changes in the labor force," Mitchell says. "There's really no other way of explaining it."

As a result, people like Montoya stay unemployed longer and, in some cases, give up.

The Martinez administration nonetheless touts private-sector job growth, arguing that job losses have come mostly from a shrinking public sector. According to DWS, that's true: Most job losses occurred in government, which lost 3,900 jobs at the local, state and federal levels. State government was the biggest loser, with 2,400 fewer jobs than July of last year.

"The cuts in the public sector are more than offsetting the gains in the private sector," Barela notes.

Still, the private sector is gaining jobs sluggishly, and it's still experiencing some losses, especially with financial services shedding 4,400 jobs and construction losing 600 jobs. In Albuquerque, the construction industry lost 2,200 jobs. Raymond Seagers III, who owns Albuquerque-based Seagers Construction, LLC with his two brothers, says his small businesses is doing "a lot more work for the same amount of money."

"We can't hire anybody," he says. "We'd like to."

And given that the private sector isn't recovering fast enough to make up for public-sector job losses, State Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, says he'd like to see government jobs restored.

"Those jobs are not being replaced in an expedited manner," he says.

 But on the other side of the aisle, Monty Newman, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, says in an emailed statement that the "loss of government jobs here in New Mexico proves that it is not the government that creates jobs…Susana Martinez pledged to shrink the size of our ballooning state government and that is what she has done."

In Santa Fe, where Montoya has been a lifelong resident, private-sector employment is up 2.7 percent—but she's not feeling the results. On a recent morning outside the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions office, she tells SFR that, after her interview at the car dealership, she called and left several follow-up messages. She heard nothing back. The rejection doesn't mean she'll be joining the ranks of "discouraged workers," but the longer she's unemployed, the harder it gets for her to find work.

"This is the longest that I really haven't worked," she says. "I feel that takes a toll on even being a candidate."

Email the author at justin@sfreporter.com.