On Jan. 17, the opening day of New Mexico’s 2012 legislative session, longtime state House of Representatives Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, stood before a hushed chamber. Luján, a diminutive man in his 70s who for years had controlled much of what happened at the capitol, had just announced that he had lung cancer and planned to retire from politics. The 2012 session would be his last. It was the end of an era.
While many House members wept openly during Luján’s emotional speech, one politician sat quietly in his assigned seat in the back row of the chamber. A year ago, Andy Nuñez, an outspoken, drawling rancher from southern New Mexico who wears a large cowboy hat and can often be seen with a childlike smirk on his face, was the most vocal backer of a southern coalition united to replace Luján as speaker.
Now, Luján’s poor health overshadowed any intraparty turmoil in the Roundhouse. But it couldn’t halt a political shift already underway across the state. Luján’s coming retirement marks the declining dominance of northern Democrats in state politics; conservatives from agricultural, oil-and-gas-dominated southern New Mexico are positioning themselves for greater influence. As a former Democrat turned independent and the champion of an effort to repeal the state law allowing foreign nationals to obtain driver’s licenses, Nuñez has become the unlikely poster child for a rising right.
But like Luján, he’s also a vestige of times past, when politics had more to do with internal compromise than with super PACs and robocalls. Through the combination of his stubborn individualism and conservative appeal, Nuñez embodies both the end of one political era and the beginning of another for New Mexico.
For all of his 11 years in the Legislature, Nuñez has represented his district, which contains rural areas and parts of Las Cruces, from the Village of Hatch, a tiny community 30 miles north of Las Cruces and famous for producing the bulk of New Mexico’s native chile.
Near Interstate 25 just west of the Rio Grande, pockets of pine trees and acres of dry chile fields dot Hatch’s entrance beneath the Robledo Mountains. Several farm stands, restaurants and storefronts advertise the town as the “Chile Capital of the World.” The community of 1,600 residents is also a hub for the greater region’s agriculture; from here, chile, pecans and onions grown in and around Hatch are exported all over the country and sometimes as far away as to China and India. The majority of voters in Nuñez’ district are Hispanic. Registered Democrats edge Republican voters by a slim, six-point margin, yet few of them vote along party lines.
On a 60-degree Saturday afternoon in mid-February, the town is quaint and quiet, minus the salsa music coming from some of the chile stands. Spanish-speaking field laborers and chile stand operators shy away from political questions posed by an Anglo reporter.
The Nuñez home, located just yards from the Rio Grande, is one of the first landmarks near Hatch’s east entrance. Behind a field of red chile crops, a dirt road leads back to a tan, one-story house with white trim. Years ago, the chile field belonged to Nuñez, but he later sold it.
Nuñez, 76, was raised on a ranch near Roswell and moved to Hatch in the mid-1980s. Spanish was Nuñez’ first language, but he wasn’t allowed to speak it at school. Later on, he dropped out of high school and joined the Marine Corps near the end of the Korean War, serving until 1956.
Nuñez met his future wife when the two attended New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, now New Mexico State University, in the early 1960s.
“I knew who he was; he knew who I was; but we didn’t like each other, so we steered clear from each other,” Carolyn Nuñez, who at 74 still wears her hair in a long, brown ponytail, tells SFR. “Later on, we met at a dance. He asked me to dance, and that was it. We were married a few months later.”
The romance bloomed quickly, as did Nuñez’ career.
Work with NMSU and the American Farm Bureau took him as far as Puerto Rico and Paraguay. He would spend weeks or months traveling between home and wherever his work took him. Carolyn stayed in Las Cruces and raised their five children.
“I stayed home, took care of the kids, held down a job,” she says. “Probably that’s why we had a really good marriage. We weren’t together all the time. We were separated and were glad to see each other when he came back.”
A rancher all his life, Nuñez’ biggest area of expertise is agriculture; he has helped farmers obtain water rights and funding for laborers.
“He understands the plight of the chile farmer,” Matt Rush, executive director of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, tells SFR. “That’s his background. That’s what he does.”
But Nuñez’ work in Puerto Rico also opened him to politics. As part of his job, he testified for every agriculture-related bill before the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly. Later in life, he took these efforts to the Roundhouse, first as an agriculture industry lobbyist and then as a Democratic state legislator.
For most of his Roundhouse career, Nuñez caucused with the state’s majority party, introducing bills that, in large part, addressed agricultural and water issues. In 2007, Luján made him chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee—a position that fit with Nuñez’ interests and experience.
The leadership role came with a higher profile, but it also led to friction with the speaker. In late 2010, Nuñez accused Luján of intentionally assigning key bills to bypass his committee.
“He was always battling me because I’m more conservative than I am liberal,” Nuñez tells SFR.
That same year, Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, unsuccessfully challenged Luján for the speaker position during a Democratic Party caucus vote. By January 2011, Cervantes was ready to cross the aisle and pick up Republicans during a full vote, and Nuñez was ready to support him. Many thought Cervantes could protect southern interests with a more centrist approach.
“At the time, I thought it was important to bring some change and some new blood to the process,” Cervantes tells SFR. “Democrats around the state need to be unified. That means having southern Democrats participating in all parts of the party.”
Nuñez was among the most vocal of the southern Democrat group who hoped to join with Republicans to put Cervantes in the speaker’s chair—but on the day of the vote, the coalition united around Cervantes collapsed after a group of Republicans refused to support any Democrat. Cervantes withdrew, but Nuñez held his ground.
“I didn’t want to vote for a Republican, but I damn sure didn’t want the present speaker in there,” Nuñez says.
When Luján’s name came up for a vote, Nuñez doggedly voted “present,” in effect refusing to vote for or against his rival. Later that day, tensions between the two came to a head.
“[Luján] called me into his office that afternoon,” Nuñez says. “He said, ‘I’m taking you off as chairman of the ag and water committee, taking you off of the energy committee, and I’m putting you on transportation and education.’ I said, ‘You’re the speaker. You do what you want.’”
The next week, Nuñez went to the New Mexico secretary of state’s office to change his party registration from “Democrat” to “decline to state.” In doing so, he became the first independent ever to serve the Legislature—and, perhaps unwittingly, the harbinger of a new political era.
Nuñez’ switch to an independent is part of a larger trend in New Mexico’s voter registration. Between 2000 and 2011, the share of New Mexico voters who are registered independents grew from 12 percent to 17 percent; the percentage of Democrats declined, while that of Republicans remained relatively constant.
“Younger people and voters who are new to New Mexico are registering as independents,” Brian Sanderoff, the president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., tells SFR. “You can see that in the numbers.”
The state’s political winds are also shifting to the right. In 2010, Republicans swept the state House and Senate elections, narrowing the Democratic majority to the slimmest it’s been since the 1960s. The once-a-decade process of redistricting could further close that gap—and, depending on a pending court battle, may eliminate it altogether.
Though Nuñez says he’s never voted straight ticket—the term for voting along party lines by checking a single box for one party or the other—he was a lifelong registered Democrat before that fateful day in the Secretary of State’s office last year.
“I think it’s a family thing,” Carolyn says. “His family was Democrat, so of course he was a Democrat.”
Carolyn says she hates politics—during elections, she and her husband never discuss their votes—but admits she’s become steadily disillusioned with Democrats, both nationally and in New Mexico. For her, Luján’s decision to strip her husband’s leadership was the final straw, prompting Carolyn to change her registration back to Republican for the first time in decades.
Her husband, however, still harbors some Democratic views.
“The Democrats have a way of, ‘If there’s money, spend it,’” he says. “But some of the Republicans don’t want to spend money on anything. And sometimes you’ve got to spend some money.”
He’s had a good relationship with labor unions and often supports safety-net programs.
“I am one of those who thinks the working man needs to get paid right,” he says, “but I also think you don’t need to screw up a business to do it.”
Nuñez’ conservative leanings come mostly in opposition to government regulations; for instance, he considers the pit rule, which requires oil and gas pits to be properly lined so wastewater doesn’t contaminate the surrounding soil, a needless regulation.
But it’s his stance on immigrant driver’s licenses that has made Nuñez something of a right-wing populist hero. Almost singlehandedly, Nuñez has spearheaded a campaign to repeal the 2003 law allowing foreign nationals to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses—a law he initially voted for.
In July 2010, Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez officially announced her candidacy for governor. Her opponent would be the milquetoasty former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. Martinez hit the ground running, swiftly producing a campaign ad that accused Denish of granting driver’s licenses to 50,000 undocumented immigrants under the 2003 law. When Martinez took office in January 2011, she promised to make repealing that law a top priority.
In 2010, both Nuñez and his wife voted for Denish. But when the 2011 legislative session opened, the first bill he introduced was the soon-to-be-infamous House Bill 78, which called for repealing the immigrant driver’s license law.
Ultimately, the bill failed, but Nuñez’ parliamentary expertise was integral in keeping it front and center in the public consciousness during the session. After HB 78 died in committee, Nuñez used a rare parliamentary tactic to make it the next order of business on the House floor.
Luján, fighting back, abruptly adjourned the session over Republicans’ cries of outrage. The next day, the House debated the bill for more than six hours, with Nuñez standing the whole time, and eventually passed it; a version of HB 78 amended by the Senate later failed. But Nuñez hasn’t wavered: He introduced the same bill during the 2011 special session and again in 2012, and Martinez has promised to keep pushing the issue.
Nuñez says his rationale lies not in any anti-immigrant sentiment, but rather in the law’s potential for abuse.
In 2003, supporters of the legislation argued it would result in more insured drivers, but according to an NMSU study, it has been minimally effective in achieving that goal.
“I was snookered,” Nuñez says, chuckling.
Nuñez says seeing people in his hometown abuse the system changed his mind. Over the years, as other states dropped similar laws, Nuñez says the problem worsened.
“Some of them would come in; a bunch would use the same addresses,” he says. “It’s a small community. I know what the addresses are.”
Carolyn says he started talking about the issue several years ago and resolved to address it by the fall of 2010.
“It was just getting to be a snowball effect,” she says. “And Andy said, ‘I don’t care who the governor is; I’m going to introduce this bill.’”
Nuñez has also taken action locally. The Hatch Village government, of which Nuñez serves as mayor pro tem, barred its contract Motor Vehicle Division office from registering undocumented immigrants, and employers must pay a $10,000 fine if they are caught hiring undocumented immigrants. Dickie Ogaz, a chile farmer from Garfield, just 10 miles north of Hatch, says many area residents are behind the repeal.
“We don’t hire illegals anymore like we used to,” he tells SFR.
Despite that, residents say undocumented immigrants likely continue to live in and around Hatch. Immigrant advocates, for their part, accuse Nuñez of pandering to Martinez and fomenting anti-immigration sentiment.
“It hasn’t been an issue for the last eight years,” Marcela Díaz, executive director of immigrant rights group Somos un Pueblo Unido, tells SFR. “Clearly, it’s an issue because of the last election.”
Díaz mentions the half a million Martinez has raised in her political action committee, which many expect her to use to target the Democrats who voted against the repeal during election season this fall.
Nuñez, who says he probably spent more time in the governor’s office in 2011 than most Republicans, scoffs at suggestions that he’s pandering to Martinez or to the growing Republican ranks.
“They’re full of baloney,” he says. “That was my bill. I had it written and drafted before she was elected.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, one of the most outspoken critics of the legislation—he compared the rhetoric backing it to Nazi propaganda on the House floor earlier this month—says Martinez could have no stronger advocate on the repeal attempt than Nuñez.
“The governor is doing everything in her political power to help him succeed,” Maestas tells SFR, “but she did not ask Andy to do it. Frankly, she should be grateful he is the one championing that cause.”
And she is: In her State of the State address this January, Martinez mentioned Nuñez by name, thanking him for sponsoring the bill.
But such alliances are fleeting. During the September 2011 special session dedicated to redrawing New Mexico’s political districts, Nuñez made a last-minute switch and voted for the state House of Representatives redistricting plan favored by Democrats. Without Nuñez’ vote, the plan wouldn’t have passed, and the Democratic leadership may have been forced to offer some concessions to Republicans.
In the days before the vote, Nuñez had repeatedly told media, including SFR, that he would support only a bipartisan redistricting plan because Doña Ana County “wasn’t being taken care of.” Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-McKinley, had made the same promise.
Jeff later criticized Nuñez for not keeping his word, but Nuñez says his vote in favor of the plan was one of “principle.” Shortly before the vote, he met with other southwestern Democrats and agreed on districts, he says. Nuñez agreed to support the overall plan as long as the southwest districts stayed intact.
“If I make a promise, I keep it,” he says. “I know the governor got mad at me.”
Nuñez’ politics is a combination of dogged iconoclasm and political expediency—a sort of bare-knuckle philosophy that defies the indirect attacks increasingly carried out not by candidates themselves (witness the Republican presidential primary), but by organizations barred from even communicating with them. As such, he’s a throwback to an earlier time, when politicians had it out on the House floor rather than via robocalls or TV spots.
“He’s been called stubborn and hard to work with,” Kimberly Acosta, one of his five daughters, tells SFR. “He taught us that it’s OK to have a strong opinion as long as you can back it up.”
Nuñez’ ideology also places him squarely among a dying breed of “cowboy conservatives”—conservative Democrats from southern New Mexico who, under Gene Samberson, D-Lea, staged a Roundhouse takeover in 1979 that resembles Cervantes’ attempted overthrow of Luján.
Under Samberson’s leadership, a southern coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats successfully ousted Walter Martinez, a liberal Democrat from the north and father of current House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Cibola (widely considered Luján’s likely successor). Samberson, a Democrat from southeastern New Mexico—who Sanderoff says voted “lock, stock and barrel” with the Republicans—came in the elder Martinez’ place.
“I was a cut of the same cloth as the old Dixiecrats,” Samberson, who works as a lawyer in Lovington, tells SFR.
When Samberson first ran for state House in 1970, Democrats in Lea County out-registered Republicans by a roughly six-to-one margin, so many conservatives registered as Democrats in order to be able to vote in primaries. (Today, the districts differ, but in most of the surrounding districts, Republicans outnumber Democrats by at least 2-to-1.) Nuñez is therefore the product of a region that once accommodated a range of viewpoints within a single party; as Republicans gain traction, that phenomenon is fading. And Nuñez relishes his new partisan independence for reasons that extend beyond personal ideology.
For one, he no longer has to caucus with the Democrats—or with any party, for that matter.
“They sit there and they caucus for four or five hours, and they argue and never come to an agreement,” he says of the Democrats. “But then, when you come out of the caucus, they expect you to follow what the caucus voted on.”
Another plus: more leverage. Nuñez sits on both the Transportation and Public Works, and the Education committees, where he’s a key swing vote. His influence also extends beyond the committees.
Despite his clout within the Round-house, Nuñez’ refusal to toe either party’s line may bring him a tough challenge in this fall’s elections. Independent candidates remain at a disadvantage: They can’t run or vote in primaries, and the leadership from both parties is interested in keeping it that way. Independents also hard to elect.
“On the House floor, if I get one or two Democrats to side with me, I can control every vote in the House,” he says.
“The only way you’re going to [win] is if you’re personally well-known and liked,” Sanderoff says.
But former Hatch Mayor Tom Halsell says Nuñez fits that description, and Nuñez says switching to an independent is the best thing he’s done as a legislator.
“He is very popular—a good, honest man,” Halsell says. “You can depend on what he says.”
Both parties intend to run candidates against him, but none have declared yet. Aaron Henry Diaz, who manages social media for political campaigns and has made headway as a young face among the state’s Republicans, is mulling a run for Nuñez’ seat. Diaz says Nuñez is a true independent.
“He’s taken votes that have pleased those on the right and pleased those on the left,” Diaz tells SFR.
But Diaz, a committed conservative, says he thinks constituents are wondering what Nuñez’ accomplishments are and whether his switch to independent is in their best interests. Diaz adds that he doesn’t think Democrats will want to let the seat go.
In an email that appears to have been accidentally sent to SFR, Doña Ana County Democratic Party Chairwoman Christy French instructs spokesman Stephen Jones to say that “there are several (okay, it’s a little bit of a stretch) people” interested in opposing Nuñez this year. In a statement, Jones says Doña Ana Democrats “encourage and welcome his return to our party.”
Nuñez says he’s also had several meetings with Republicans, who have urged him to switch over to their side.
“They’re after me every day to join them,” he says. “The Democrats do the same. But I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Nuñez never says never, but for now, he doesn’t envision joining either party. He adds that he’ll run for his seat again because nobody can fight for agriculture like he can. He admits his wife doesn’t want him to seek another term.
When the subject comes up, Carolyn Nuñez sighs and her eyes start to water. She mentions how much of their marriage has been spent apart.
“It’s not just 30 days or 60 days,” Carolyn says, referring to the length of the legislative sessions. “The whole year he’s gone, doing, doing, going, going, and on his nickel, too.”
She stopped accompanying her husband to Santa Fe years ago. Before that, she would often get together with Carmen Luján, the speaker’s wife. During the two politicians’ falling out, Carolyn and Carmen spoke to each other.
“It’s not her fault [and] it’s not my fault that these guys can’t work together,” Carolyn says. “A lot of this stuff is so political, it’s ridiculous.”
Nuñez says any bad blood between him and Ben Luján is merely philosophical. He recalls a day about a year ago when Luján, long before he publicly revealed his lung cancer, called Nuñez into his office.
“He told me he wanted to start working closer with me,” Nuñez says.
According to Nuñez, Luján told him he was having health problems and wasn’t going to run again. Luján denies ever mentioning anything about his health.
“I told him, just like he told me that he was thinking of not running, that I was thinking about not running for another term,” Luján tells SFR. “I told him, ‘I think you and I have always been able to work with each other, and I think that there’s no reason why we can’t continue to work on issues.’”
Regardless of what happened during the discussion, Nuñez and Luján didn’t end up working together. Now, Luján’s work is done.
In the 2012 legislative session, both were civil to each other, at least publicly. At one point in February, moments after Nuñez’ bill to repeal the driver’s license law passed the House for the second time in two years, Luján, who voted against it, paused to address Nuñez.
“I would like to congratulate you on being elected to the Border Legislative Conference,” Luján told Nuñez on the floor. “I want the people to know I appointed you to this board and appreciate your work on it.”
Nuñez responded in the classic style of an old-school politician: “Thank you, Mr. Speaker.” SFR