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Lawmaker Might Go Independent

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
          SANTA FE — A veteran New Mexico lawmaker who was dumped from his committee posts earlier this week following a Democratic power struggle is preparing to go rogue.
        Rep. Andy Nuñez, D-Hatch, said Friday that he won't attend House Democratic caucuses during the current 60-day legislative session and is considering ditching his party affiliation.
        "I'm looking at it, but I wouldn't be a Republican," Nuñez said. "I'm just going to avoid the Democratic Party agenda and avoid the Republican Party agenda. I'll do my own (agenda)."
        If Nuñez decides to become an independent, it would chip away at the slim Democratic advantage in the House. Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 37-33 in the chamber. Even with the current numbers, it takes only a switch of two Democrats to undermine the party's majority.
        Nuñez, 75, who has served in the Legislature since 2001, was ousted as chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee on Thursday by House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe.
        Two days earlier, Nuñez was the only Democrat in the 70-member House of Representatives who didn't cast a vote for Lujan in the race for House speaker. Lujan still won the post over House GOP leader Tom Taylor by a 36-33 vote — with Nuñez voting "present" — but later said he made the decision to shake up the committee chairmanships because he thought there needed to be more of a "team effort."
        Lujan also removed Nuñez from his seat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is expected to be a key battleground this year on numerous proposals to repeal environmental regulations.
        A conservative Democrat who's rarely seen in the Capitol without his cowboy hat, Nuñez said he believes his pro-business views prompted Lujan to remove him from the energy committee.
        "I sided with the Republicans, and that's one reason he removed me — I'm sure of it," Nuñez said. Nuñez said he expected to have his committee chairmanship stripped, but said he thought the decision to take away his membership on both committees was an "overreaction."
        The tiff between Lujan and Nuñez had been building, as Nuñez was a vocal supporter of a bid by Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, to depose Lujan. That bid fizzled on the session's opening day, and Cervantes wasn't even nominated for the powerful post.
        House Republican leader Taylor, a veteran Farmington lawmaker, said after the vote that although he favored Cervantes, many GOP legislators saw political advantage to keeping Lujan in power instead of voting to install another Democrat as speaker. In the end, Taylor was a largely symbolic candidate on a vote that, with Nuñez as the lone exception, broke down along party lines.
        "He's the status quo," Taylor said of Lujan. "In the next election, there's more negative if you're just the status quo. There was a risk with Cervantes that maybe we'd have a big lovefest and pass a lot of great legislation. ... It lessens your chances for a negative campaign in the next election."
        Nuñez wouldn't be the first New Mexico lawmaker to change party affiliation if he does defect from the Democratic Party. One such instance came in 1985, when then-Democratic Sen. Les Houston of Albuquerque switched to become a Republican.
        As for how his decision to disengage himself from the House Democratic caucus will affect his future chances at re-election, Nuñez predicted that voters in his largely rural southern New Mexico district will respect his gumption. "It probably improves it," he said of his shot at being re-elected in 2012.

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