No incumbent lawmaker that is registered as an independent, having “declined to state” his or her political party, has ever won election in New Mexico, according to the Legislative Council Service.
Nuñez, a Hatch resident, knows it will not be easy to become the first.
“It’s one of those things that you’re kind of walking a tightrope because you can’t alienate either the Democrats or the Republicans,” said Nuñez, who represented House District 36 as a Democrat for 10 years before changing his party affiliation to independent in 2011.
“I need votes from both of them.”
However, Nuñez’s opponents, Republican Mike Tellez and Democrat Phillip Archuleta, are trying their best to knock the incumbent off his tightrope.
Tellez, who ran unsuccessfully against Nuñez in 2008, said Nuñez has shifted to the right of the political spectrum during this year’s general election campaign.
“Last time I ran against him, he ran as a Democrat. This time, he’s running as a Republican,” said Tellez, a restaurateur who founded a Las Cruces youth center. “He’s changed who he is.”
As an independent, Nuñez has been at the center of a political slugfest, introducing bills during the past two legislative sessions to repeal the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses. Those repeal attempts were thwarted, despite support from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
With Tellez also backing repeal of the license law, and pointing out Nuñez voted in favor of it in 2003, Nuñez recently sent mailers to GOP voters in the district to remind them of his prominent role in the recent debate.
Meanwhile, Archuleta said some area Democrats feel betrayed by Nuñez’s decision to leave the party after a falling-out with House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Nambé.
“Democrats, the answer they’re giving me is they’re staying with the party,” said Archuleta, a retired state government employee. “A lot of people are hurt because he abandoned the party.”
Archuleta said his vote on a driver’s license bill would depend on the language of any proposal that comes before him, but said more pressing state issues exist.
“I’m not going to go to Santa Fe and introduce a bill that would repeal the driver’s license law for immigrants,” he said.
Archuleta said he would fight for environmental issues and work to strengthen the in-state preference law for contractors.
The economy is also a focus for Tellez, who said he would try to attract new businesses to the district. He said Nuñez should have pushed harder for a Hatch visitor center that could cater to nearby Spaceport America, the world’s first commercial endeavor for space tourism.
As for Nuñez, the former chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee said water rights and related economic issues are a key part of his pitch to voters.
He told the Journal his independent status has made him a key swing vote in legislative committees and on the floor of the tightly divided House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 36-33.
“During the last session, I had more power than I’d ever had in the Legislature,” he said.
House District 36 stretches for roughly 50 miles along Interstate 25, from just north of the green chile hub of Hatch into Las Cruces. The district is politically mixed, with Democratic candidates receiving about 52 percent of the vote in most statewide races during the past decade.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal