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SANTA FE – Just two days before he was arrested for his alleged role in a string of shootings targeting Democratic elected officials’ homes, Solomon Pena was elected to a leadership position within the Republican Party of Bernalillo County.
But a state Republican Party spokesman said Friday that efforts were underway to remove Pena as both a county party ward chairman and GOP State Central Committee member.
Such an effort could require a full vote of county party insiders, however, if Pena does not agree to step down.
“He was elected, and I wish our rules allowed us to fire him – but they don’t,” said Janice Arnold-Jones, a former state legislator and Albuquerque city councilor.
Several top county party officials this week declined to answer Journal phone calls and emails about the matter, including county party chairman John Rockwell.
But Arnold-Jones confirmed Pena was elected as a ward chair at the county party’s biennial convention that took place Jan. 14. He was one of about 25 ward chairs elected, though a full list had not yet been posted on the county party’s website as of Friday.
Ward chairs are elected for two-year terms and typically help organize party efforts within a designated area.
In Pena’s case, he was unopposed and the ward he was elected to represent covers a heavily Democratic area in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
While county party officials have been tight-lipped about the situation, the county party posted a statement on its website saying it was “deeply troubled” by the reports of Pena’s criminal charges.
“The Republican Party of Bernalillo County does not endorse or condone such acts of violence,” the statement says. “Mr. Pena’s actions do not reflect the heart or attitude of the Republican Party toward our neighbors, and we are relieved that no one was injured.”
Pena, who ran for a state House seat last year, was arrested Monday by Albuquerque police officers after a SWAT team swarmed his condominium complex.
Authorities allege he was the mastermind in a string of drive-by shootings over the course of a month that targeted the homes of Bernalillo County Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Debbie O’Malley, new House Speaker Javier Martínez and state Sen. Linda Lopez.
No one was injured in the incidents, but in one of the reported shootings bullets pierced the bedroom where Lopez’s 10-year-old daughter was sleeping.
The case has drawn national attention in recent days, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the alleged crimes a “despicable act of political violence” in her State of the State Address on Tuesday.
Asked to resign
The state Republican Party issued a statement after Pena’s arrest saying he should be held accountable if the charges against him are validated in court, but party officials had largely deferred to county party leaders until Friday about Pena’s recent election as ward chairman.
A GOP spokeswoman said Friday that Rockwell had confirmed to state party officials the process to remove Pena as both a ward chairman and GOP State Central Committee member had been “initiated,” though she did not provide details.
Republican Party spokeswoman Ash Soular also said Rockwell had affirmed that Pena “would not serve in either position.”
Arnold-Jones said Friday county party officials had asked Pena through his attorney to resign, but had not yet received an answer.
If Pena declines to resign voluntarily from his position, the Republican Party of Bernalillo County would have to call for a new meeting to remove him, Arnold-Jones said.
“Structurally, it’s an issue – there’s no doubt about it,” Arnold-Jones told the Journal.
Pena’s attorney did not immediately respond Friday to questions about whether Pena would relinquish his ward chairman position.
Pena jailed pending hearing
Pena is currently in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center, after a Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court judge ruled this week he would be held pending a detention hearing.
Prosecutors in the case are seeking to have Pena detained until trial on several counts each of shooting at a dwelling or building, shooting at or from a motor vehicle, being a felon in possession of a firearm and conspiracy, among other charges.
Albuquerque Police Department officials have also said the agency is investigating potential illegal activity regarding Pena’s campaign contributions during his bid for the state House District 14 seat last year.
Pena lost the race to incumbent Democratic Rep. Miguel P. Garcia by a landslide, but later said on social media he believed the election was “rigged.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s office also confirmed it has opened an investigation into Pena’s campaign donations and whether such contributions might be connected to criminal activity.
“The office has assigned both prosecutors and investigators to this matter who will work in collaboration with our state and federal law enforcement partners,” Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Lauren Rodriguez said.
Before running for office last year, Pena served nearly seven years in prison after being convicted in 2008 of stealing large amounts of goods from several Albuquerque retail stores. But he had completed his sentence and a five-year probation period before deciding to enter the political arena.