Albuquerque Republican Nate Gentry fashions himself a pragmatist. Once one of the driving forces behind a 2014 electoral wave that swept his party into a majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years, he now sees a different way forward.
"I have no problem supporting pro-business Democrats as well," Gentry tells SFR bluntly.
"I think it's very unlikely that there's ever going to be a Republican majority in the Senate. And I think it's going to be a real challenge, given the national climate, to get a majority in the House of Representatives," he continues. "So, if the alternative is a fringe progressive, I think it makes sense to support the moderate Democrat."
They may not know it yet, but House Republicans are going to miss Nate Gentry.
The House Minority Leader announced last week that he's decided to step down from his seat in the Legislature. Gentry has been taking care of his mother and step-father and, in a year where the political tea leaves seem to reveal that many Republicans will be lucky to keep their jobs, another campaign for his hard-won seat was too much.
Gentry tells SFR he knocked on 6,000 doors in the last election, which he won by just over 4 percentage points. But it's not just his own campaign that presents a challenge. Gentry gained his leadership post in part because he's a tenacious fundraiser for other Republicans. He says he has $250,000 in his campaign account right now and won't stop trying to raise money.
"Obviously, it becomes a lot more difficult when you're a lame duck," he concedes in a phone call. "I'm going to continue to try to help the caucus in any way I can."
Telling a newspaper that he plans to endorse a Democrat if the right one comes along may seem an odd way of showing it.
An acolyte of New Mexico's late US Sen. Pete Domenici, Gentry can be surprisingly practical about governing, when it suits him. It's won him praise from Democrats and scorn from Republicans at times—and at other points, it's earned him just the opposite.
"There are always those who will say 'You're giving them too many wins. You're working too closely with them,'" Gentry explained last month as the legislative session drew to a close. Then he harkened back to lessons learned from Domenici: "You identify that one thing you can work on with the most radical person from the other party."
As sensible as that sounds, though, Gentry can be a fierce campaigner whose hard-nosed style undoubtedly irks Democrats, some of whom haven't forgotten how things worked when he was in power.
From 2015-'16, Gentry commanded Republicans with authority. Albuquerque Democratic Rep. Moe Maestas calls him "the strongest majority leader in a generation" and says Gentry had his thumb on committee heads in a way that controlled the House agenda. Gentry lost that majority, though, after one election cycle.
JD Bullington has been a lobbyist for more than two decades and says that Gentry's political acumen and willingness to shift his stance can make him tricky to read.
"He's unpredictable," Bullington tells SFR. "I've seen people swoon and fall at his feet and I've also seen people break the stem off a wine glass when they're talking to him at dinner."
If Gentry's politics have seemed unpredictable, Bullington offers, they could have roots in the seat he held for eight years.
House District 30 might be called a mid-Heights neighborhood, but that implies a wealthy aspect that isn't quite there. There are a ton of apartments alongside a lot of older, still-nice neighborhoods. It's Republican-leaning, but not by much. When the Legislature redrew boundaries in 2011, it pegged the political performance (generally, how the district votes in presidential election years) of the district at 52.6 percent Republican and 47.4 percent Democrat.
Gentry says Donald Trump got crushed in his district, though. It's majority Anglo, but again, not by much. There are healthy Hispanic and Native populations, as well as more African Americans than you'll find in most places in New Mexico.
While he's held his leadership role in part due to his campaign spending largesse with Republicans across the state, he's tangled with his party on policy stances that have kept his district happy. In 2017, he successfully co-sponsored a bill that would have added opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it. The governor also took offense to provisions in a crime package Gentry worked on this year that would have eliminated jail time for lesser offenses.
“My caucus got furious with me in 2013 when I worked with [Democratic] Rep. Miguel Garcia on a gun show background bill,” Gentry recalls. “A lot of them weren’t thrilled with my medical cannabis bill, either.”
Neither of those bills passed, but there may be such a thing as a good loss.
Bullington likens Gentry to a surfer who always has one eye on the next wave. And one House colleague who asked not to be named for fear of losing a potential ally says that's the Gentry lawmakers saw this year. "Gentry was about Gentry," the representative says.
Is Gentry done with politics? He certainly hasn't said so. That surfer's eye may simply have caught a glimpse of a monster wave that he can't get towed into. Gentry, the representative thinks, saw it coming: "I don't give a damn if you've got $200,000. If the wave hits, he's gone."