By Robin Brown
— Andy Nuñez, a farmer and New Mexico’s only Independent legislator, left his office in the House of Representatives on Jan. 15, ending a colorful tenure of more than a decade. He lost in a three-way race to Democrat Phillip Archuleta in the November 2012 election. Nuñez was a Democrat until he made headlines in January 2011 by switching party affiliation.
He defected from the Democratic Party following his vote against former Speaker of the House Ben Luján, who responded by removing Nuñez from his role as chairman of the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee. Despite having taken flak from both sides, Nuñez says he doesn’t regret going his own way.
“I’m going to stay an Independent,” he says.
Nuñez lost popularity among Democrats in 2010 when he wrote up a bill to repeal a 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. He told the Alamogordo Daily News in January 2012 that he supported the bill because the state licensing system is flawed—not to create anti-immigrant sentiment or to please Gov. Susana Martinez, who also supports the repeal. They worked together on the license issue, but during his 2012 reelection campaign, the Reform New Mexico Now PAC affiliated with Martinez sent negative mailers about Nuñez to voters in his district.
“It didn’t do me any good,” he says of his cooperation with the governor. “Why she came against me I have no idea. She told some people that it was because I would not change to Republican.”
Nuñez says his autonomy allowed him to depart from political business-as-usual.
“I’m a different type of guy. I support what I think is the best thing for the State of New Mexico: If it’s a Democrat bill I’ll support it, or if it’s a Republican bill, I’ll support it.”
He adds with a chuckle, “If it’s an Independent bill, I’ll support every one of them, because I’m the only Independent.”
Though a supporter of the governor’s pro-business stance, Nuñez says Martinez should take more advice from legislators in the House and Senate and less advice from political advisors. Lawmakers come to the table with expertise in different areas that the executive branch can benefit from, he says. He adds that when he was a committee chair, he made sure both Republican and Democrat analyses of each bill were read, whereas normally lawmakers only read one analysis written by a member of their own party.
Nuñez says he hopes New Mexico will open primary elections to political independents.
“I think eventually it’s going to have to happen,” he says. “In my district, there were 28 percent independent voters. They talk about people being disenfranchised when they don’t have voter ID—we can’t even vote in the primary.”