HATCH, N.M. (AP) — On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Andy Nuñez, the 85-year-old mayor of Hatch, made no bones about not wearing a mask in the village offices, despite New Mexico’s indoor masking mandate for public spaces.
“I never wore the damn thing — unless I had to,” he laughed, with a mischievous smile that crinkles his entire face and turns up the ends of his distinctive mustache.
For more than 20 years in New Mexico politics, Nuñez has gone his own way.
Since winning his first elected office in 2000 — representing New Mexico’s 36th district in the state House of Representatives — he has served as a Democrat, an independent and finally as a Republican. In Santa Fe, he tussled with House leadership and his own party. During his first term in the Legislature, he won a seat on Hatch’s board of trustees and simultaneously held local and state office.
He summed up his decision to enter politics at age 64 in simple terms: “I didn’t like what my representative was doing, so I ran and beat him.” He defeated Republican E.G. Smokey Blanton by 34 votes and held the seat for 14 years.
Looking back over 21 years in multiple offices, the highlights Nuñez cited for the Las Cruces Sun-News included his six-year drive to repeal a state law allowing applicants to obtain driver’s licenses without documenting U.S. citizenship, arguing that the privilege was being exploited by criminals. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez signed a compromise bill he cosponsored in 2016.
He also sought funds to repair damage in his community from the disastrous Placitas Arroyo flood of 2006, and 15 years later, as mayor, he is still working on replacing a bridge that once stood on Canal Street. The bridge, which collected debris and contributed to flood damage in town, was later removed.
He expressed satisfaction over the village’s pact with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District to maintain the arroyo, but he acknowledged flood trauma lingers in Hatch: “Some people are scared to death every time it rains,” he said.
Nuñez expressed no regrets about another conflict that rocked his political career: In 2011, he supported a leadership challenge against House Speaker Ben Luján, a Democrat from Nambé, backing fellow Doña Ana County Democrat Joe Cervantes (now a state Senator) instead.
After voting “present” in the leadership election, Nuñez was removed as chairman of the House agriculture committee, and he later dropped his Democratic affiliation.
He ran for re-election as an independent in 2012, but came in at a distant third place behind Democrat Phillip Archuleta, who won the seat, and Republican Mike Tellez. Nuñez returned in 2014 and handily defeated Archuleta — this time, as a Republican.
He then joined a new Republican majority in the House, which earned him the unusual distinction of serving among majorities even after switching parties.
‘The people here got tired of me’
During that final term in the Legislature, after Hatch Mayor Judd Nordyke died in 2013, Nuñez was appointed to succeed him. He won the office in his own right the following year with 61 percent of the vote.
In 2016, Nuñez lost the House seat to Democrat Nathan Small as he defended himself against allegations that he had mishandled campaign funds during his years as a legislator. He denied the claims and no charges were filed.
“I didn’t enjoy those last few years,” Nuñez admitted.
Since then, Nuñez has concentrated on being mayor, winning re-election against three challengers in 2018. While the office carries a four-year term, he faced an election this year because of reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2018 enabling consolidated county elections.
In the Nov. 2 election, Nuñez narrowly lost to Trustee James “Slim” Whitlock by seven votes, according to unofficial results. His term ends Dec. 31, and while Nuñez indicated he would work all the way through then, he told the Las Cruces Sun-News his 21-year run in politics was over.
“I guess the people here got tired of me,” he said following the election.
The Roswell native, who has lived in Hatch since 1986, said he was looking forward to spending time with his 18 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
He said the political center had shifted and he felt his former Democratic Party had grown “too liberal.”
“I’m a conservative, and I believe in doing things in the proper way but not getting over in debt and so on,” he said, “and we’ve got some very liberal people.”
Among his final agenda items as mayor, he said, was meeting with county and federal authorities to bring more law enforcement resources into Hatch. Specifically, he is advocating one of the Hatch police force’s eight officers be trained as a narcotics investigator. He said he is also mulling an offer for a drug-sniffing dog from the U.S. Border Patrol.
“Right now, right here, we’ve got a big problem with drugs,” Nuñez said. “We’re not taking care of the border the way we should.”
Asked what gave him hope about state politics, he paused for several seconds before that large smile erupted again. Redistricting, he suggested, would lead to a better balance between Republicans and Democrats, the latter of whom hold majorities at the state Capitol as well as the governor’s office.
During a roving discussion of state politics, he indicated a need for conservative politicians to protect the oil and gas industry and address labor shortages that have hit home in Hatch, especially on the farms for which the village is known as the “chile capital of the world.”
Among a newer generation of leaders, he expressed confidence in state Sen. Crystal Diamond, the Elephant Butte Republican who was elected to a seat formerly held by fellow conservative Democrat John Arthur Smith.
Smith was unseated in a Democratic primary in 2020 by Lordsburg progressive Neomi Martinez-Parra. Diamond defeated her in the general election.
‘As iconic as green chile’
Diamond said Nuñez “is as iconic as green chile throughout the Hatch valley — a true servant of New Mexico. He is a longtime champion of agriculture and an advocate for rural communities.”
“Andy Nuñez is a great guy and a wonderful public servant,” former New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican, said.
Carruthers recalled meeting Nuñez in 1957, long before either was involved in politics, at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University).
There, the young men worked in the dairy department as livestock judges, where Carruthers remembered him talking about his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Nuñez majored in animal sciences after serving in the Korean War.
Nuñez joined the Legislature a decade after Carruthers served as governor, but learned the ropes in Santa Fe over 10 years as a lobbyist, with NMSU among his clients. Carruthers said that during his time as the university’s chancellor from 2013 to 2018, his old friend was an “absolutely fantastic guy to work with” at the Capitol on NMSU’s needs.
“There was no smoke and mirrors when you dealt with Andy,” Carruthers said. “He was straightforward: He could help you or he couldn’t help you.”
Carruthers acknowledged that leaving politics is hard. “Once you’ve been in the arena, you pay attention,” he said.
But Nuñez professed himself ready to be more of a spectator and a full-time family man once he finishes his work next month. He said he had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and wasn’t too worried about rising cases in the county.
“None of my family is getting sick. We eat lots of chile,” he joked, and flashed that smile once more.