March 7, 2018

Liberating New Mexico

Andy Lyman

Blair Dunn's bow tie and Libertarian pin

Blair Dunn always knew he was a Libertarian, but instead registered as a Republican. Like Hermey the Elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Blair has found solace on his own island of misfits. Blair’s island is the Libertarian Party of New Mexico.

At almost seven feet tall with his signature cowboy boots and bow tie, Dunn will never be mistaken for an elf. He’s easy to spot, even in the most crowded room. And almost as easy to spot in the state’s legal community.

“I’m litigious even amongst lawyers,” Dunn said.

Not one to miss an opportunity for party exposure, Dunn positioned himself as a ringleader of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico over the last several weeks, helping to organize meet and greets for the party’s candidates as the Libertarians planned their wider step into the spotlight.

In the 2018 race so far, the Libertarian Party pulled candidates from both major political parties. Blair’s father, Aubrey Dunn, was a Republican until about six weeks ago, and former  state Rep. Sandra Jeff was a longtime Democrat.

Last Saturday in the lounge of a downtown Albuquerque hotel, Blair Dunn, who is also running for New Mexico Attorney General, was shaking hands and brokering introductions between party members and candidates hours before the Libertarian Party of New Mexico pre-primary convention.

Andy Lyman

Blair Dunn

Before 10:30 in the morning, Blair Dunn was coordinating plans with his dad, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate and Lloyd Princeton, the candidate for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District.

The conversation couldn’t have been more libertarian.

The Dunns wanted to take Princeton to his first gun show, and the question was whether to go that day or the next. Princeton said he was concerned a trip to the gun show on Sunday  might interfere with church and also his scheduled speaking obligation at a medical cannabis conference.

It was finally settled—the three would head to the gun show before the party’s business meeting and the official vote on the party’s candidates.

Primed for liberty?

The cast of Libertarians in the show that is the 2018 elections is relatively small compared to the Republican and Democratic troupes. It’s putting forward candidates for six of the 11 statewide positions up for election this year—but has no candidate at the top of the ticket, for governor.

The son of a former Democratic state senator, Aubrey Dunn presents himself as a no-nonsense, southern New Mexican rancher. He doesn’t always volunteer his thoughts in casual conversation—but doesn’t hold back when asked his opinion.

Andy Lyman

Aubrey Dunn

Less reserved than his father, Blair Dunn earned his reputation as an eager litigator over the past few years. Blair Dunn recently represented the bail bond industry in a federal lawsuit against the state Supreme Court over new bail rules that stem from a voter-approved constitutional amendment. He lost that case, then a federal judge deemed the lawsuit frivolous and ordered Blair Dunn to personally pay a fine. Blair Dunn is also suing the state Attorney General’s office, the office he hopes to head, alleging it has violated the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Blair Dunn, along with state and national party officials hope voters in New Mexico want an alternative from the Democratic and Republican parties—and want candidates who aim for fewer government restrictions and privatization of government functions.

“I think New Mexico is primed for it,” Blair Dunn said.

He believes young voters will favor a third party in the November general election. He’s basing that on polls like one from NBC and the University of Chicago that showed millennials are unhappy with both major parties.

“That indicates that even if millennials aren’t going to join the [Libertarian] party, they’re going to vote for third parties,” Blair Dunn said.

Becoming a major party is just the first step for third parties in New Mexico. Now the party has to focus on keeping its major party status, which will likely prove difficult without a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate.

In New Mexico, parties earn major party status when a candidate from that party “received as many as five percent of the total number of votes cast at the last preceding general election for the office of governor or president of the United States,” and retain party member numbers of at least one-third of one percent of registered voters.

According to New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s interpretation of the statute, Libertarians will not have major party status for the 2020 election.

“Secretary Toulouse Oliver interprets the statute to mean that in order for a party to qualify as a major party, they must receive at least five percent of the vote for the office of governor or president only during the last general election,” Toulouse Oliver’s spokesman Joey Keefe wrote in an email to NM Political Report. Not surprisingly, Blair Dunn is ready to defend his alternate reading of that language, which he interprets to hinge on the “or” between governor and president. In other words, he thinks the state Libertarian Party should be considered a major party through the next presidential election in 2020, not just through the 2018 election.

For now, Blair Dunn is doing his best to spread the gospel of the “party of principle.”

Gary Johnson’s impact

Many of the candidates now embracing the Libertarian Party said they feel slighted by their old parties. Aubrey Dunn hasn’t hidden his dissatisfaction with both Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and the state party as a whole. Jeff has also publicly spoken about her contentious relationship with state Democrats. Blair Dunn said he’s using the institutional knowledge from both his dad and Jeff to assemble a task force of sorts.

“As corny as this sounds, kind of what I feel like we’re doing is building a team of Libertarian superheroes,” Blair Dunn said.

More specifically, The Justice League.

“I would say I’m the Batman of the bunch,” Blair Dunn said. “I don’t really have any special skill sets but I can find other people with, what I would call, some superstar talents in certain things.”

For example, Jeff, who Blair Dunn compared to Wonder Woman, is a member of the Navajo Nation and can explain the principles of libertarianism to tribal members.

As for Aubrey Dunn, arguably the most recognizable name on the Libertarian ticket?

“He’s kind of the Superman of the group,” Blair Dunn said.

Meanwhile back at the Hall of Justice, the national Libertarian Party has New Mexico on its radar as a possible stepping stone into a larger, national movement. But party officials admit any sort of expected surge in New Mexico did not and cannot happen in a vacuum.

Former Republican New Mexico Governor-turned-Libertarian-presidential-candidate Gary Johnson received more than nine percent of the vote in New Mexico in 2016—his highest percentage in any state in the country—and checked off a significant requirement for the Libertarian Party to hit major party status.

The way Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark sees it, Johnson definitely opened a door for the party in New Mexico. But speaking in “broad strokes,” he says that western states seem to be more prone to agree with Libertarian values than eastern states.

“We’ve been looking at New Mexico as a place where there is a real opportunity for growth and so far, so good,” Sarwark said.

Andy Craig, a former Libertarian congressional candidate from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and former Johnson presidential campaign staffer, agrees western voters seem more likely to vote for candidates who push for and run on libertarian ideas of free market principles and fewer government regulations.

“There is definitely something about the West, the sort of frontier spirit of rugged individualism, that makes the region more receptive to Libertarians than the rest of the country,” Craig said.

The Libertarian Party also has major party status in Michigan and Iowa. According to the Libertarian Party website, there are about 150 elected officials, ranging from advisory board members to mayor, across the country who registered Libertarians, including one member of the Nebraska State Legislature. (Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature is officially non-partisan.)

According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office, about 23 percent of voters in New Mexico are not registered with one of the three major parties. Those are the voters Blair Dunn hopes to attract in November.

That Libertarian

The national Libertarian Party is barely 46 years old, but it was founded on principles much older. It’s not uncommon, for example, to hear the terms “big L” and “little l” in conversations amongst Libertarians, members of the political party, and libertarians, adherents to the ideology. The spectrum of beliefs is expansive.

For years, the national Libertarian Party had to address identity issues related to high-profile names or groups that may dissuade newcomers from joining. Former U.S Rep. Ron Paul once ran for president as a Libertarian, and before him, David Koch, the conservative billionaire donor, ran for vice-president on the Libertarian ticket. As with any large political party, the Libertarian Party has factions and caucuses that push policies that are partially rooted in libertarian ideology. For example, paleolibertarians who generally incorporate socially conservative views into their political beliefs, are on one end of the libertarian spectrum. On the other are those who advocate for a total dissolution of the federal government.

Libertarian Party of New Mexico Vice-Chair Helen Melinski insisted most Libertarians agree on about 90 to 95 percent of issues. She said the state party’s goal is to focus on those major points of agreement and move forward in a more pragmatic way.

“Let’s all get under the same umbrella,” Melinski said. “Lets find and focus on the 95 percent we agree on.”

Those disagreements often cause larger arguments between long standing party members and newcomers. Sarwark says that’s normal, however.

“I think there’s some need to be careful about making sure the vision we have as a political party stays focused on all of our freedoms all of the time,” Sarwark said. “But I think it’s also important to be gracious and welcoming to people who have come to a point where they’ve decided to leave a political party they may have been in for years or decades.”

In 2016, the late Dr. Marc Feldman, who was vying for the party’s presidential nomination, coined a phrase the national party still uses for marketing. Feldman, who once called on Kanye West to be his vice-presidential running mate, made his mark on the party with his “I’m that Libertarian,” catch phrase.