One of the key races that will decide the political control of the state House of Representatives pits an upstart against a Roundhouse veteran in southern New Mexico.
The incumbent, Republican Andy Nuñez, has represented the district for most of the past decade and a half. He faces former Nathan Small, a Democrat who recently served two terms on the Las Cruces city council.
NM Political Report will profile some key legislative races from now until election day.
Nuñez, 80, is perhaps best known for switching his political affiliation multiple times over in the past few years, from Democrat to independent to Republican.
“I’m still the same guy, I never have changed,” Nuñez said. “I’ve always been a conservative.”
Nuñez listed regulations on businesses as one of his top issues and argued that they need to be cut back, though he didn’t offer specifics.
“The [state] Environment Department and Department of Finance and Administration, they put roadblocks in whenever you want to get something done,” he said.
Small, 34, is a wilderness protection advisor at New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. He emphasized spending more on education and workforce development as a way to attract businesses and development to House District 36, which encompasses parts of Las Cruces and Hatch.
Nuñez, a longtime rancher, also serves as the mayor of Hatch. He began his role in politics as a lobbyist for the agriculture industry and formerly chaired the House Agricultural Committee when he was a Democrat.
Aside from supporting the agricultural industry, Nuñez is also an ally with oil and gas industry, without whom, he said, “New Mexico probably wouldn’t be here.”
Small, for his part, served on an economic development committee while serving on the Las Cruces city council. He mentioned his support “value-added” agriculture—which is commonly defined as adding quality to the production process of farm products.
Small also cited his work as a city councilor on redeveloping Las Cruces’ Amador Proximo neighborhood as an example of his experience with economic development, one of his key issues in the campaign.
As a city councilor, Small said he sometimes negotiated with companies looking for public incentives to help their business. Their biggest concern, Small argued, is quality of workforce, not tax breaks.
“If we’re cutting budgets and short-shrifting our kids and their true opportunities, we’re telling companies we’re not going to invest in our future,” Small said.
Small criticized Nuñez and the House Republican leadership for not considering freezing incoming corporate income tax cuts to deal with the state’s budget deficit, estimated at over a half-billion dollars.
“These are cuts for special interests that end up cutting public services ,” Small said.
Nuñez, however, argued that the tax breaks are necessary.
“He doesn’t know the business end of things,” Nuñez said of his opponent.
Nuñez added that the budget deficit means “there are going to be a lot of agencies that are going to be cut back.”
Another area of disagreement between both candidates is early childhood education. Both voice strong support, noting that education best starts early in a child’s life. But Small supports increasing state funding of early childhood education through tapping the Land Grant Permanent Fund, while Nuñez doesn’t.
“We’ve increased funding for early childhood education for the last couple of years,” Nuñez said.
Instead, he said the state must “prioritize the way we’re spending money,” though again Nuñez didn’t delve into specifics.
Throughout his legislative career, Nuñez sometimes sponsored bills on contentious issues. In 2011 and 2012, he carried the bill to repeal the law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
Now, Nuñez pledged to carry a controversial bill to reinstate the death penalty for the upcoming special legislative session. As of press time, Gov. Susana Martinez hasn’t yet called special session to deal with the New Mexico’s glaring budget problems, but she is expected to before the end of the month.
Nuñez, who was first elected to House District 36 in 2000 as a Democrat, actually voted to end the death penalty in 2009, which then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law that year.
“I should have never voted for the repeal of it in the very beginning,” Nuñez said. “When we were voting for the bill, they convinced me there would be life without parole.”
New Mexico currently allows some charges against first degree murder with aggravating circumstances sentences of life in prison without parole, though some first-degree murder charges allow parole after 30 years of a prison sentence.