The first day of New Mexico’s special legislative session blasted off to a dramatic start Monday.

Saying he’s done playing partisan games, state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, announced he is changing his party affiliation from Democrat to declined to state.

His surprise announcement came just moments after the Legislature convened for a special session that was supposed to focus on redistricting, or redrawing political boundaries, but now also includes the allocation of more than $1 billion in federal pandemic aid — an issue Candelaria and a Republican senator took Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to court over and won.

Earlier this year, Candelaria and Sen. Greg Baca filed a lawsuit against the governor to settle which branch of government had the authority to allocate federal funds. The two lawmakers argued the governor had violated the state constitution by appropriating federal funds without legislative approval.

The state Supreme Court ruled against the governor, who said last week the spending of remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds would be added to the Legislature’s agenda during the special session.

But that didn’t end the dispute.

Candelaria filed a motion on Thursday to require Lujan Grisham and one of her Cabinet secretaries to explain to the state’s high court why they shouldn’t be held in contempt after it was discovered the administration had tapped into the federal funds after the judges’ ruling to make two payments totaling about $283,000.

The Governor’s Office said the two payments had been “obligated” before the court’s decision but that the funds had been redeposited.

Candelaria, who has butted heads with Democrats in the past, kicked off his announcement by asserting the nation’s “partisan structure” of two major political parties demands “absolute loyalty with no room for debate, no room for discussion and, more importantly, no room for adherence to the law.

“I don’t think anyone can look at the events of Jan. 6 or many of the unconstitutional acts of this governor and not conclude that this partisan virus is starting to affect who we are as a country,” he said, referring to the insurrection in the nation’s Capitol, as well as clashes with Lujan Grisham.

Candelaria said he announced the change in party affiliation for one specific reason: redistricting, a politically thorny issue that involves establishing voting districts that will be in place for the next 10 years.

“I don’t think that the decisions we make should be based on partisan ambitions, and it broke my heart to see already that the Senate maps deliberately dilute and gerrymander the west side of Albuquerque to preserve perceived partisan advantage for some members of the Democratic Party,” he said. “You would strip representation from people that I represent, many of whom are Hispanic, simply because it benefits you at the ballot box.”

Candelaria, who has already announced he is not seeking reelection, said he was “done playing this game” and announced he had submitted paperwork to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office to change his registration.

Democratic leaders in the Senate, including President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, declined to comment.

Republicans at the state and national level exploited the breakup to criticize Lujan Grisham, who is running for a second term in 2022.

“Senator Candelaria saw the same thing New Mexicans are beginning to recognize — that Michelle Lujan Grisham always thinks she is above the law,” Will Reinert, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement. “Senator Candelaria’s wise decision is just the beginning of what is going to be a long campaign season for Governor Lujan Grisham as voters begin to examine her failed record.”

Steve Pearce, a former congressman who is now chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a statement Candelaria’s decision to change his party affiliation is “understandable” considering the recent actions of the Legislature. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers.

“It’s obvious Sen. Candelaria has become disillusioned by the Democratic Party and believes that it doesn’t represent his core values,” Pearce said.

A spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party did not return messages seeking comment.

A sudden party affiliation change is not new at the Legislature this year.

During a legislative session at the beginning of the year, state Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell changed his voter registration from Republican to declined to state after he broke ranks with his party and voted for the repeal of an unenforceable 1969 bill that criminalized abortion.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(16) comments

Khal Spencer

"...The great strength of democracy and of the free market is also its potential fatal weakness—it’s pretty darn efficient at delivering to its participants exactly what they want.

The key word is “participants.” In a highly sorted, gerrymandered nation, the small minority of voting-eligible Americans who vote in primaries effectively select the overwhelming majority of our public officials. Thus minorities can control our politics even as majorities are increasingly disgusted or exhausted by the choices the parties present.

How does corruption win? When Republicans read Gateway Pundit even if its lies are proven in court. Or when voters choose men like David Perdue over men like Brian Kemp—or when they reject conservative dissenters like Liz Cheney or Peter Meijer for the sole sin of rejecting a president who tried to overthrow our republic.

In the race between consequences and corruption, the courts will have their say, but voters and viewers will decide who prevails. "

--David French, in The Dispatch

Lyndell Vallner

Very smart man. The Dems have become the party of mandates and censorship. Instead of smart multi lateral discussions...debate is derided, censored and unreported.

Greg Mello

As of 7:07 am, all great comments IMO. I too praise Candelaria for this choice.

Chris Mechels

It has become quite clear that we can have the Rule of Law, or the Rule by the Democrats; we can't have both. Their current implementation of the Cannabis Act is an example; the public is shut out, and all their Rule Making to date is illegal. They simply don't care for the law, even laws they have passed. Linda Trujillo, the current RLD Superintendent, sponsored the 2017 Rules Act, now she breaks it constantly. Our "government" is descending into chaos and corruption, esp under MLG.

David Romero

I agree on MLG but the cannabis act is one of the few pieces of legislation I agree with her on.

John Cook

I congratulate Senator Candalaria for getting his press agent to put this rather modest story in the paper. he had already quit caucusing with the Democrats. He had already announced he wasn’t running for reelection. I don’t see how this story moves the needle.

Comment deleted.
John Cook

I'm not sure how your 'reply' to my comment relates. What I will do is vote to keep the Governor in office, next year. As will a majority of my fellow citizens, I expect. We like the job she has done in passing legislation that actually helps people.

Mike Johnson

It moves the needle the same way as all the gushing stories about Phelps doing the same things.

Kirk Holmes

Too bad Senator Candelaria has decided not to run for office again. Intelligent Moderates (as we once were) are hard to come by as of recent. “Make New Mexico Moderate Again”…… I can only hope.

jarratt applewhite

Senator Candelaria now joins the fastest growing segment of NM's electorate. His "ya basta" rejection of our tired two party scheme takes courage and, some would say, lunacy. NM is one of only eight states in the country with fully closed primaries -- the only elections that count anymore. His tax dollars will continue to pay for these private elections in which he can no longer participate. Younger voters disproportionately have no use for either party. Same here.

Khal Spencer

Good for Jacob. But increasingly, more and more of us are iced out of the levers of government. We only get to choose the Salmonella borne chicken or the parasitic-infested fish offered to us by the two party system come the general elections.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup]Worth it for him to poke Mimi in the eye......maybe the D party leadership will get the message about her, Wirth, and the Santa Fe Ring.

Maria Bautista

Exactly, I will not vote for any of them.

John Cook

No one should have to make such a Hobson's choice, Khal. Stay home. Don't vote. Have Dr. Johnson over. Spend the voting hours complaining about democracy.

Khal Spencer

Are you trying to suppress my vote, Mr. Cook? What are you, some sort of Blue MAGA Man?

Maria Bautista

Same here...

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