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Residence discrepancy ends House election bid

Former Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena, D-Albuquerque

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Former state Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena was booted off the ballot by a judge on Wednesday after she acknowledged she’s been living outside the House district she wants to represent.

Lechuga-Tena, a Democrat, testified that she is renting out the home she owns in House District 21 to another family.

But she said the International District house is still her permanent residence because she’s registered to vote there, lived there before agreeing to rent out the house for a year and intends to move back once the renters leave in about 10 days.

Furthermore, there’s no “physical residency” requirement for House members under state law, Lechuga-Tena and her attorney, Marco Gonzales, argued.

But Judge Nancy Franchini didn’t see it that way. After a three-hour hearing, she ruled that Lechuga-Tena’s own testimony showed she didn’t live in the district on Jan. 29 – the key date because that’s when the election proclamation for the June 5 primary was issued.

An intent to return to her home in the district wasn’t enough, the judge ruled.

Lechuga-Tena, however, said she plans to appeal the decision. Her attorney, Gonzales, is also her husband.

“I’m confident this decision will be reversed and the voters of (House District 21) will have the choice at the ballot box that my opponent wants to deny them,” Lechuga-Tena said.

If the ruling stands, it will leave state Rep. Debbie Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, the only candidate on the ballot.

Sariñana narrowly defeated Lechuga-Tena in 2016 to claim the seat.

Rep. Debbie Sariñana, D-Albuquerque

Sariñana’s attorneys, David and Katy Duhigg, contend Lechuga-Tena created a “sham residence” to circumvent eligibility requirements. They called neighbors – and even the tenant of the house – to testify Wednesday.

All said Lechuga-Tena hadn’t lived in the house this year. Through tears, in fact, the tenant described getting a termination notice last month directing her to leave the home by early April.

In a court filing, Lechuga-Tena acknowledged that she has lived temporarily at “a nearby out-of-district location” – a fact that doesn’t mean she’s actually changed her legal, permanent residence, she said, because she intends to resume living at the house she owns when the renters move out.

Lechuga-Tena once represented the district. Bernalillo County commissioners appointed her to the state House in 2015 to fill the vacancy created by then-Rep. Mimi Stewart’s move to the state Senate.

Lechuga-Tena rented an apartment in the district about a week before the appointment.

She lost a bid to keep the seat during the Democratic primary election in 2016 to Sariñana.

For the record

Articles in the Wednesday and Thursday editions of the Journal incorrectly stated that Idalia Lechuga-Tena was appointed to the state House to fill a vacancy created by then-Rep. Mimi Stewart’s move to the Senate.

Lechuga-Tena actually succeeded Stephanie Maez, who served about nine months as Stewart’s replacement before resigning and reopening the vacancy.