State Rep. Andy Nunez says he cannot forget the day he watched a dusty pickuptruck, its bed jammed with a dozen men, roll into the motor vehicle office in Hatch.
“All of them were doing the same thing, trying to get a driver’s license. That just doesn’t happen,” said Nunez (right).
In that moment, he said, he realized that New Mexico was a mark for illegal immigrants trying to cheat the system.
New Mexico issues driver’s licenses to people without proof of immigration status, though identification and residency requirements are strict.
Even so, Nunez said he became convinced that New Mexico’s licensing system was broken, and that he should try to fix it.
He was a Democrat then. Breaking from his party’s stand, he drafted his first bill in 2010 to repeal the law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
Republican Susana Martinez of Las Cruces was running for governor at the time, and one of her campaign promises was to overturn the licensing law.
Martinez won, and she and Nunez have since worked together on the repeal. But Nunez becomes annoyed whenever anyone suggests that he introduced his bill on Martinez’s behalf.
Nunez says the agenda on driver’s licenses is his own and always has been.
“I had my bill before she was ever elected,” he said one recent day. “I’m not doing this for the governor.”
He says his relationship with Martinez can be difficult, and is not one of executive and subordinate.
“She’s hard to work with,” Nunez said. “She gets madder than hell when I don’t do what she wants.”
And Nunez, at age 76, says he does what he wants in conjunction with the wishes of the Dona Ana County district he represents. He has his pulse on the public because he is the mayor pro tem of Hatch, as well as a state lawmaker.
Raised on a ranch near Roswell, Nunez has a master’s degree in agriculture but a Ph.D on life in the trenches.
He been a farmer, growing alfalfa, chile and pecans. He served in the administrations of five presidents at New Mexico State University. He also has been a farm bureau agent and lobbyist.
In 1985 and ‘86, Nunez helped 6,000 people in New Mexico become U.S. citizens during President Reagan’s amnesty and immigration reform programs.
“A lot of what the other side says about me is not true. I’m Hispanic. I have a record of helping immigrants,” Nunez said.
His stand against the driver’s license law boils down to a fundamental point. Most people in New Mexico, he said, do not approve of licensing those who are in the country unlawfully.
Nunez is the only one of the state’s 112 legislators who is an independent. He bolted from the Democratic Party in January 2011 after feuding openly with House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe.
Nunez likes his autonomy. Both major parties have recruited him since he quit the Democrats, he said, but as a one-man caucus he has unusual power.
“I’m happy where I’m at. I’m the swing vote on the two committees I serve on, and I can be the swing vote on the floor (of the full House of Representatives).”
His profile rocketed last year, after he refused to accept a House committee’s decision to block his bill on the driver’s license repeal.
Nunez defied the traditional process of quitting based on a committee vote. Instead, he brought his bill to the full House of Representatives.
He argued for 14 hours across two days, and prevailed on a 42-28 vote. But then his bill died in the state Senate, putting him right back at the beginning.
Democrats on another House committee pulled together last week to again vote down his bill. But Nunez said he hoped to revive the proposal this week and get it to votes of the full House and Senate.
Nunez, a legislator since 2001, says he is optimistic that he can overturn the driver’s license law, if not this session than sometime soon. He is preparing to file for re-election to another two-year term.
He admits that legislative work of late has been stressful compared to earlier times.
“There’s been lots of confrontation,” Nunez said. “The last year was probably one of the least pleasant.”
Nunez says one colleague, Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, no longer speaks to him because of their disagreement over driver’s licenses.
Other Democrats say Nunez is as nice a man as they know, but they regard him as stubborn and unwilling to solve problems with compromise.
Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, sits next to Nunez on the House floor. Egolf said his wife and two little girls always are treated with extraordinary kindness by Nunez. But on the driver’s license bill, Egolf said, Nunez is myopic.
A compromise crafted last year by the Senate would have mandated fingerprinting of foreign nationals seeking driver’s licenses. It also would have limited their licenses to two years. New Mexico driver’s licenses typically are good for four or eight years.
“On this one he’s off base,” Egolf said. “If he really cared about ending fraud in the licensing system, he had the perfect opportunity with the Senate compromise.”
Back in 2003, Nunez voted for the law to issue driver’s licenses to people who lacked proof of immigration status. He said he knew he was wrong the day he saw that pickup truck ferrying people to New Mexico for no reason except to obtain a driver’s license.
The repeal, Nunez says, is the right thing to do — a bill of redemption.