Candidate's criminal record may spark controversy over legal issues - Albuquerque Journal

Candidate’s criminal record may spark controversy over legal issues

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Republican legislative candidate from Albuquerque could be blocked from taking office – if he’s elected in November – due to past felony burglary and larceny convictions.

But the issue could end up playing out in court as a recent federal ruling found the New Mexico law that, in most cases, bars individuals with felony convictions from holding elected office might violate the state Constitution.

Solomon Pena, who is the GOP nominee for the House District 14 seat in the South Valley, served nearly seven years in prison after being convicted in 2008 of stealing large amounts of goods from several big box retail stores in a reported “smash and grab” scheme.

He declined to answer Journal questions about his criminal record this week, saying he was too busy knocking on district residents’ doors to talk.

“I stand with Donald J. Trump,” Pena said in a subsequent text message. “I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, a longtime legislator who is the incumbent in House District 14, said some elderly residents have expressed concern to him about Pena’s campaign style, including repeatedly urging voters to change their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

Garcia also said he’s hired another legislator, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque independent and attorney, to represent him in a court challenge aimed at having Pena disqualified from the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

In a Friday interview, Candelaria said that, while state law is not clear on whether convicted felons can run for office, he believes Pena committed perjury by filing a declaration of candidacy stating he was eligible to hold the legislative seat.

“We’re going to bring a case and let the court figure it out,” Candelaria said. “He continues to believe the law doesn’t apply to him.”

Candelaria also said he supports former convicts being fully reintegrated into society, but said there is a clear legal process for such individuals to run for elected office that Pena does not appear to have followed.

However, a House GOP spokesman accused Candelaria, a former Democrat who changed his party affiliation to independent last year, of hypocrisy for trying to derail Pena’s candidacy.

“As someone who was raised in the South Valley, I am disappointed to see so-called civil rights activists attempt to use the example of this young Hispanic man, who turned his life around, for their political movida,” said Matt Garcia-Sierra, communications director for the House GOP leadership.

No pardon, no job

Under New Mexico law, individuals with felony convictions are not eligible to hold elected office unless they have completed all the terms of their sentence and have received a pardon from the governor, said Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

“A person with a felony conviction can qualify to run for office and be placed on the ballot, but they would not be able to hold that office, if elected, unless they received a pardon from the governor,” Curtas added.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said this week Pena had not applied for, nor received, a pardon since the Democratic governor took office in 2019.

Despite that, Pena’s candidacy could be bolstered by the U.S. District Court ruling in January that found the prohibition on convicted felons holding office once they’ve completed the terms of their sentence would likely be rejected by the state Supreme Court.

That ruling, which involved a different plaintiff, pointed out the Constitution allows all legal residents who are qualified electors to hold public office, if not otherwise limited by the Constitution.

But the New Mexico Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the issue since a 2010 constitutional amendment changed the definition of eligible voter and it is unclear if the state’s highest court would concur with the federal court’s interpretation.

Legislators seek clarity

Pena, 39, was incarcerated from May 2009 until March 2016 at different prisons in New Mexico, a state Corrections Department spokeswoman said Friday. He completed his five years of probation in March 2021 and subsequently had his voting rights restored, according to court records.

Several photos of Pena at Trump campaign rallies appear on his campaign website, along with a list of political stances that include “support for our local police” and claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

The website does not mention Pena’s criminal record; he was convicted by a jury of felony larceny and burglary for stealing from at least four different Albuquerque retailers. He was reportedly part of a burglary crew that used stolen vehicles to smash into stores and take high-end electronics.

All 70 New Mexico state House seats are up for election this year, with Republicans hoping to pick up several seats in the chamber.

Currently, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House by a 44-25 margin – there’s also one independent member – but Republicans have recruited candidates to run in 50 districts around the state.

Meanwhile, Candelaria also said he plans to refer the case to Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office for possible review.

He also said legislators might, in the future, need to make it clear that residents with felony convictions who have not received a pardon cannot legally run for an elected office they cannot occupy.

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