By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
The shocking arrest this week of Solomon Pena, an unsuccessful Republican state House candidate accused of orchestrating drive-by shootings at politicians’ homes, clouded the first day of the legislative session Tuesday and prompted some lawmakers to question whether the violence will deter people from running for office.
“That’s a possibility,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat whose home was targeted in one of the attacks. Three bullets passed through a bedroom where her 10-year-old daughter was sleeping early Jan. 3.
She was relieved when she learned police had arrested Pena and at least one other suspect.
Lopez said she wants to run again in two years, but the recent gunshots so close to her daughter has led her to ponder the price of public service.
If the shooter had aimed just two inches farther to one side, the bullets would have gone into her son’s bedroom, she said, and “that would have been a different story.”
“Is it worth me putting my family at risk because I vote a certain way — I espouse certain ideals?” Lopez asked in an interview Tuesday in her office at the state Capitol. Her daughter could be heard singing in an adjoining room.
She will have a conversation with her young daughter and adult son about whether she should run before the next Senate election cycle in 2024, Lopez said: “It’s still a family decision.”
Pena, who lost his bid in November for the House District 14 seat against Democratic state Rep. Miguel Garcia, is suspected of paying three other men to help him carry out drive-by shootings at the Albuquerque homes of two Bernalillo County commissioners and two state lawmakers, including Lopez, between Dec. 4 and Jan. 3. Shootings near the offices of two other politicians have not been tied to Pena’s alleged conspiracy, Albuquerque police have said.
Pena was booked Monday night into the Metropolitan Detention Center and is scheduled for an initial court appearance Wednesday on 15 charges.
No one was injured in the shootings, but a criminal complaint alleges Pena’s behavior became more aggressive as the incidents continued, and he is suspected of intending to cause harm.
Concerns about what police have described as a politically motivated conspiracy emerged on both sides of the aisle at the Roundhouse.
“Who wouldn’t be deterred” from running for office? said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.
When he first heard of the shootings, Brandt said in a Tuesday afternoon news conference, “I made sure my own firearm was close at hand.”
Democratic state Rep. Tara Lujan of Santa Fe, standing with to her 9-year-old daughter, Olive, appeared close to tears as she considered not just the Albuquerque shootings but also the threats of violence in schools.
The allegations against Pena have strengthened her resolve to remain in the Legislature, Lujan said.
“Hell, yes, I’m going to put myself in this place of service,” she said.
Gabriel R. Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said threats of violence against public officials, including kidnapping plots, have increased in recent years.
He wrote in an email “violence directed at elected officials definitely can impact the desire for New Mexicans to want to run for office. New Mexico is not unique unfortunately to this rise of violence, with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Michigan’s governor [Gretchen Whitmer] also being targets of violence.
“All of these examples may make New Mexicans considering public office think twice about doing so, especially if they feel this puts their families in harm’s way,” Sanchez wrote.
Sen. Bobby Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, said potential candidates might have to “think of what is best for their families” when it comes time to decide whether to run.
“It’s a new era of how we have to work,” he said. “We have to be aware of our setting and environment at all times.”
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, recalled someone shooting a window of his home about 15 years ago, when he was a county commissioner. He said the incident was “unsettling.”
But, he added, “You can’t live your life in fear.”
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said she intends to keep serving as a public official.
The violent incidents might prevent some people from seeking an elected office, she said, but “if you are dedicated and trying to make a difference, you will step up and make a difference.”
Lopez, who has served more than 25 years in the Legislature, said she has fielded threats before, but none that ever resulted in the violence that struck her home earlier this month.
She noted many Republicans in the House and Senate reached out to her after the shooting to offer support, but also said divisions fueled by GOP members like Pena — a Trump supporter who attended the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C. — are “something the Republican Party needs to figure out how to get under control.”
She believes such hate-fueled political divisions could pose a real threat to democracy.
“The rhetoric is so vile,” she said.
The shooting has “opened new doors … new eyes for me,” Lopez said when asked if she would stay in public office in the longer term.
She added, “I haven’t figured it out yet.”