Fight for House District 21 seat has a familiar look

Left to right, Debra Sariñana, Amanda KinKaid and Idalia Lechuga-Tena

SANTA FE – Albuquerque’s heavily Democratic House District 21 repeatedly returned the same lawmaker, Mimi Stewart, to the Capitol for two decades. But, since she went to the Senate to fill a vacancy at the end of 2014, there has been upheaval.

Her appointed successor, Democrat Stephanie Maez, served only nine months before resigning after her son was charged with murder.

Maez’s successor, Democratic Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena, was then narrowly appointed to the seat – on a 3-2 vote – with the backing of two Republicans and one Democrat on the Bernalillo County Commission.

Now, as Lechuga-Tena makes her first run for election, she faces two rivals in the June 7 Democratic primary who also sought appointment to the seat last year: Debra Sariñana and Amanda KinKaid.

There is no Republican on the ballot in November in the Southeast Heights district, a narrow corridor that straddles Interstate 40 and portions of Central Avenue, and includes part of the International District.

Lechuga-Tena, 32, is a self-employed marketing and public relations consultant. She worked for the state Human Services Department, dealing with electronic health records, before taking her House seat. She was an assistant to former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez and campaign manager for mayoral candidate Pete Dinelli in 2013. Both are Democrats.

She collected about $8,000 in contributions, according to a report filed last month, and lent her campaign another $22,635.

Born in Mexico, Lechuga-Tena has acknowledged that she voted twice in elections before she became a U.S. citizen in 2007 – an “honest mistake,” she has said. She said she didn’t realize when she registered to vote while a student at the University of New Mexico that she had to be a citizen.

Lechuga-Tena said she has lived in the Southeast Heights since she was 10 and in the community she now represents since 2002. But she was outside District 21 and said she moved four blocks into the district to be considered for appointment to the House seat.

“I just don’t believe a district divides a community,” said Lechuga-Tena, who stresses that she has headed a local neighborhood association a couple of times.

Candidate KinKaid, although born and raised in Albuquerque, is also new to House District 21. She said she relocated from Rio Rancho and changed her voter registration before the County commission made its appointment last year, but she was disqualified for not living in the district.

KinKaid, 35, has worked at the Legislature in media relations for the House during the 2011 session and as analyst for a House committee in 2013.

She also ran the Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program for first-time, nonviolent felony offenders in the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Sandoval County for about a year.

Currently employed at an optical shop, she also worked for years at a Harley-Davidson dealership.

“I’ve worked really hard my whole life in a variety of very interesting jobs,” she said. The Legislature, she said, “would be a great opportunity to get out there and make some change.”

She had collected $900 for her campaign as of the April 11 report.

Candidate Sariñana, who goes by Debbie, is touted by her supporters – including Stewart – as the candidate with the deepest roots and best understanding of the district where she grew up.

A math teacher at Manzano High School, her alma mater, she was the choice of the other two Democrats on the Bernalillo County Commission when Lechuga-Tena was appointed in November.

Sariñana, 55, was born in Albuquerque and raised in the legislative district, and has taught math and science at middle schools and at Manzano for the past 15 years. Before that, she was in the Air Force Reserve and worked at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground and White Sands Missile Range as a computer programmer and teacher.

She returned to the district in about 2000 as a single mother of three.

“I didn’t move into the district to run. This is my home. … I feel like I know what the kids need and the parents need, and I’m going to fight to get it,” Sariñana said. By her count, she has taught almost 2,000 students and she is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico.

She reported contributions of $6,285 in the first round of reporting on April 11.

Stewart said in a fundraising letter that, even though she has her own primary race in June, she is putting “considerable effort” into helping Sariñana win the seat, calling her “an honest, committed and hardworking Democrat who shares my values.”

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