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Ballot the Main Fight in Senate District 26

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There’s bad blood in a high-stakes Democratic primary race for an open Senate seat on Albuquerque’s West Side.

Longtime party worker Carlos Villanueva and political newcomer Jacob Candelaria are vying for the nomination in District 26, where there’s no Republican on the November ballot.

The West Side district, which dips into the South Valley, has been held since 2001 by Democrat Bernadette Sanchez, who filed for re-election and then changed her mind.

Candelaria has the backing of unions and environmental groups — key Democratic supporters — and he had raised $10,500 to Villanueva’s zero as of the beginning of April.

But Villanueva, a precinct chairman who managed former Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera’s unsuccessful re-election campaign for secretary of state in 2010, has complained relentlessly about Candelaria’s candidacy. He has gone to the secretary of state, the State Police, state courts, and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.

He claimed that Candelaria is not legally on the ballot because he didn’t meet residency requirements, and that some of the signatures on Candelaria’s nominating petitions were forged.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think my opponent has spent much time talking about his ideas for moving the state forward,” Candelaria said.

Villanueva says that because he has worked for decades to keep his community safe, when “somebody tries to go in and do this criminal activity, I cannot sit back and allow it.”

State Police are still investigating Villanueva’s allegation of fraudulent signatures on Candelaria’s petitions and say one suspect — not Candelaria— has been identified and interviewed. Candelaria’s campaign acknowledges there was a problem with signatures collected by a paid vendor.

Villanueva’s other complaints about his opponent’s residency and signatures were rejected by a state District Court and then the Supreme Court.

Villanueva has tried to tie his 25-year-old opponent to former state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, who is in federal prison after an Albuquerque courthouse construction skimming scandal. Candelaria’s late grandparents, prominent activists Gloria and Jack Candelaria, knew Aragon from their extensive community work, and Villanueva, in an online fundraising pitch, raises the prospect of someday “Manny and Jacob running the Governor’s Office.”

Villanueva also brings up the federal voter fraud charge to which Gloria Candelaria pleaded guilty 20 years ago — and for which she later got a presidential pardon — as well as her guilty plea to a state embezzlement charge involving a dental clinic she ran.

Candelaria calls targeting his grandparents “a pretty low thing to do.”

“I’m in this race to be judged by my own merits,” said Candelaria, a 2009 graduate of Princeton University who has worked for the Legislature and the Center on Law and Poverty and now heads Equality New Mexico, a gay rights organization.

He’s the first openly gay man to run for the Legislature, but says that milestone is not a big deal for him or the voters he talks to.

Villanueva is a former gubernatorial appointee to the Juvenile Public Safety Advisory Board, which advises the Children, Youth and Families Department, and says he has spent decades as a volunteer advocate for community members with employment, civil rights and other problems.

Villanueva is no stranger to courts. He sued Walgreens — where he worked for 19 years as a pharmacy technician and store manager — for discrimination and retaliation, after the company fired him in 2008 for alleged misconduct that included using a racially derogatory comment, which Villanueva denied. A federal judge recently ruled for the company, dismissing the lawsuit.

He also sued Bernalillo County after he was fired from the Metropolitan Detention Center in April 2010 after 17 months. Villanueva said it was in retaliation for his whistle-blowing:

He had reported millions of dollars in overpayments to MDC contractors.

Bernalillo County acknowledged nearly $400,000 in overpayments for food and laundry services, but said an independent audit did not confirm another $2.9 million in overpayments to a medical services contractor.

That lawsuit is pending.
— This article appeared on page 12 of the Albuquerque Journal