Pena case highlights threats of violence in the world of politics - Albuquerque Journal

Pena case highlights threats of violence in the world of politics

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When Solomon Pena lost his election for House District 14 in November, he insisted the election was rigged and he should have been declared the winner. He also believed Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, again claiming the election was rigged.

Police say that appears to be the reason Pena – a 39-year-old failed Republican candidate who had shared photographs implying he was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 – allegedly orchestrated shootings at four Democratic lawmakers’ homes.

University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said there has been a rise in threats of violence toward elected officials over the past couple of years, and that false claims of the 2020 election being stolen is “a big part of the escalation.”

“The attack on the U.S. Capitol building, for me, that was an indicator that we were going to see more violence,” he said. “That’s the easiest connection point because a lot of these folks believe that the 2020 election was stolen from them and that, I think, is fueling their hatred, their anger, and, unfortunately, what we’re seeing.”

No one was hurt in the incidents involving the local lawmakers’ homes, but in one case bullets pierced the bedroom of a 10-year-old girl while she was sleeping.

Pena was arrested Monday.

Local Republican Party and elected officials have condemned Pena’s alleged acts, saying they do not represent the beliefs of the GOP.

Pena was unopposed in the primary for New Mexico House District 14, which leans heavily Democratic. He lost in a landslide, coming in 48 percentage points behind Garcia.

However, Pena’s behavior during the campaign had already raised eyebrows.

A picture Solomon Pena posted on Twitter that appears to imply he was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, during the protest and march on the Capitol. (Source: Twitter screenshot)

Some of those whose doors Pena knocked on while campaigning told his opponent – longtime incumbent Democratic state Rep. Miguel Garcia – that Pena was aggressive and hostile and insisted that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and “we need to ship (those responsible) off to Guantanamo for the rest of their lives, and let them rot in those jails.”

Sanchez taught Pena, a political science major who graduated from UNM in 2021, but said he was instructed by the university not to talk about him.

Threats, actions

While Sanchez said it’s clear that there has been an increase in threats of violence toward elected officials over the past couple of years, instances of those threats being carried out are rare.

He said he thinks that’s why Pena’s case has gained so much national attention.

“We actually have somebody that carried out the threats and actually fired on elected officials,” Sanchez said. “Many places have not actually seen the threats of violence actualized.”

In California, Paul Pelosi – the husband of Nancy Pelosi – was attacked and seriously injured in his home in October, allegedly by a man looking for the then-U.S. House Speaker, saying he was tired of the lies coming out of Washington, D.C. The 82-year-old Paul was seriously injured and had to undergo surgery.

Here in New Mexico a number of elected officials or candidates – Democrats and Republicans – have faced threats over the past three years.

A man caught the attention of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s security detail in March 2020, prior to the 2020 presidential election, when he posted on Facebook: “Time to pick up your rifles and kill this governor so we can re-establish the constitution as law of New Mexico. I’m done with corrupt government. They will serve the people or die.”

Daniel Mock pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transmission of threatening communication and was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison in August 2020.

And following the 2020 election, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver received so many threats she left her home for almost six weeks. Toulouse Oliver said she was one of about 40 people whose photo, home address and other personal information were published on a website called “Enemies of the People.”

On the other side of the aisle, Mark Ronchetti and his wife received several threatening emails following his campaign for U.S. Senate. The messages threatened physical violence and included the use of ethnic slurs.

Stephen Yochim was arrested in January 2021, after the election was over and Ronchetti had lost. He pleaded guilty to stalking and was sentenced to 18 months in federal custody in March 2022.

Last September, during Ronchetti’s gubernatorial race against Lujan Grisham, someone sprayed his home’s garage door with pellets, breaking a window.

High-profile figures aren’t the only ones to have faced hostility – the Doña Ana County clerk said during the lead-up to the 2020 election she received racist mail and one of her employees was followed at night as she took absentee ballots back to the office.

Pena as a candidate

State Rep. Garcia has represented the heavily Democratic areas of the South Valley and Barelas in the New Mexico Legislature for a quarter century. In recent years he had been unopposed in the general election.

This year was different.

After seeing he had a Republican challenger Garcia looked Pena up and saw that he had only just recently registered to vote. Pena’s right to vote had been restored in April 2021 after he was discharged from probation.

Then, Garcia said, he began getting anonymous tips from his constituents asking if he knew about his opponent’s criminal record. He saw on social media that Pena was “boasting about being at the insurrection.”

And, Garcia said, people started relaying troubling stories about Pena’s approach while door knocking. He said some reported feeling threatened since he was “spewing kind of a real aggressive, assertive, fascist-style type demagoguery, hostile rhetoric.”

“In about five of these instances, two of them being women, after being told four or five times to leave – that they don’t want to hear any more of what he’s saying and that they don’t want him on their property – he basically takes two steps back … and waves with his hands, you know, ‘come on out. Tell me to my face,'” Garcia said. “He’s actually calling them out to duke it out. To slug it out.”

Around the same time, Garcia filed a suit seeking to bar Pena from being on the ballot due to his past felony burglary and larceny convictions. A judge ruled in favor of Pena remaining on the ballot.

When Garcia heard about the shootings, he reached out to the Albuquerque Police Department to tell them everything he had gathered about Pena. An APD spokesman said Garcia’s information is now part of the case.

Visits to homes

Two of the four lawmakers whose homes were targeted – Bernalillo County Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Debbie O’Malley – were tasked with certifying the election. O’Malley’s term has since ended.

It’s unclear why the other two – state Sen. Linda Lopez and state Rep. Javier Martínez – were targeted.

Both Barboa and O’Malley told the Journal that Pena visited their homes, uninvited, before the shootings to insist that the election results were fraudulent. They said the documents he showed them mirrored those they had received from other election deniers.

Police have said that Pena visited Lopez’s home as well. A spokeswoman for the House Democrats said they don’t have any indication he visited Martínez’s home before the shooting.

Although his house was not shot, Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said Pena did pay him a visit the day after the election. Pena spoke briefly to Quezada’s wife and left papers for the commissioner, who wasn’t home at the time.

Quezada, a Democrat, said he called Pena the next day out of duty to a constituent and also to express displeasure that he had visited his home, something the second-term commissioner said he has never experienced as an elected official.

In an email following last June’s primary, a writer identifying himself as Solomon Pena demanded that then-Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty not certify the primary election results until there had been a forensic audit, hand recount and Pena personally had received a “cast vote record.”

“I am warning you. You will not certify the 07 June 2022 N.M. Primary election that was held in Bernalillo County until these three listed acts have been carried out,” begins the June 14 email that Pyskoty provided to the Journal.

Deputy Bernalillo County Clerk Jaime Diaz said the message is not unusual and that he’s seen many more like it from others in his role as an elections administrator.

Diaz, who has spent 30 years working in elections, said there has been a “small group” of people questioning electronic voting machines going back to the mid-1990s but conspiracy theories have grown after former President Trump began insisting that he actually won the 2020 election.

As for the only Republican member of the county commission, Bernalillo County Commissioner Walt Benson, he said he had no interactions with Pena.

“Honestly, I didn’t even recognize the name when I first read it,” Benson said. “He has not ever reached out to me.”

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