OPINION: Convicted felon challenges serial talker in House race

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Aug. 5—Solomon Pena is a politician with an unusual and frightening résumé.

State records show juries convicted Pena of 19 felonies, including burglary, larceny, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and receiving stolen property. He spent almost seven years in prison.

Pena, 39, isn't keen on talking about his criminal record. "I reserve the right to remain silent," he said during a telephone interview.

A word of contrition might have been more useful for an ex-convict who's trying to win over the public.

Pena is the Republican nominee for the state legislative seat in Albuquerque's House District 14. After dropping his Fifth Amendment recitation, he told me only certain convictions would cause voters to automatically reject a candidate.

"If you're dealing with a child rapist, sure," Pena said.

As a convicted thief, how would he persuade voters to entrust him with a public office? He said he was in the midst of his morning workout and preferred to continue the interview later, by email. Pena is typical of politicians in that way. Most of today's candidates want questions in writing to prevent any follow-ups.

Pena later sent me a text message with the address of his campaign website, which does not mention his criminal record. "I hope you are rich. Be at peace," Pena wrote.

My riches are limited to a wealth of curiosity. I asked again how Pena will persuade voters he is rehabilitated and deserving of a seat in the House of Representatives. He did not respond.

Maybe all those law-and-order Republicans in the Legislature will help him form a cogent answer.

Pena, a gushing supporter of former President Donald Trump, doesn't have a message that will win over Democrats or independents. His best hope is voters ignore his record because they're exhausted by the incumbent he's challenging. Democratic Rep. Miguel Garcia has been in office for nearly 26 years.

If a bill can be debated in three minutes, Garcia will make sure to talk for a half-hour. He isn't much of an orator, and proves it each time he makes a speech.

Garcia last year exhorted House colleagues to reject a bill requiring a public listing of all state public works projects. The measure also mandated publication of the amount of money allocated by the governor and individual legislators. Sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, the bill made it easier to track public expenditures.

Garcia argued against the proposal for

16 minutes. House members yawned before approving the bill 65-1. Garcia stood alone for the old opaque system.

On occasion, Garcia immodestly calls himself a civil rights leader. This from a lawmaker who once verbally attacked two candidates in a Democratic primary election for one reason only: They were white.

Garcia apologized for his race-based rant, something he had to do to save his career.

All that baggage doesn't matter in this election. No Republican would have a chance against Garcia. His district has a history of voting for Democrats by more than 75 percent.

Garcia nonetheless will try to disqualify Pena from the general election through a legal challenge. Independent state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, attorney for Garcia, says he will file a lawsuit in state court this month arguing Pena is ineligible to serve.

New Mexico law states: "A person who has been convicted of a felony shall not be permitted to hold an office of public trust for the state, a county, a municipality or a district, unless the person has presented the governor with a certificate verifying the completion of the sentence and was granted a pardon."

Pena completed his prison term. He has not been pardoned by the governor.

Pena told me he's not convinced there will be litigation over his candidacy. "All they're doing is running their mouths," he said.

Garcia didn't respond to requests for comment. Candelaria said the lawsuit against Pena would accuse the Republican candidate of perjury.

"We're also making a written referral to the attorney general and district attorney," Candelaria said. "When he signed his declaration of candidacy, he attested he was legally qualified to hold the office. That was a lie under oath."

While omitting any mention of his criminal record and prison term, Pena's campaign website contains harsh words for others.

"Prior to Trump being President the coastal elites, welfare deadbeats, foreign nations and illegal aliens were benefiting at the expense of the American middle class," Pena stated.

Pena didn't write a word about criminals hurting every class, from destitute to affluent.

His tone-deaf campaign has done what seemed impossible: It makes Garcia look reasonable.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at

msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.