NM legislator sues challenger over residency

Idalia Lechuga-Tena, ousted from the state House of Representatives in the 2016 Democratic Party primary election, is running again in her Albuquerque district.

Rep. Debra Sariñana, who unseated Lechuga-Tena two years ago and is seeking re-election, is suing her challenger, arguing Lechuga-Tena does not live in the residence she has listed as home.

“Lechuga-Tena’s actions in creating a sham residence are nothing less than a deliberate attempt to evade the fundamental eligibility requirements expressly provided by our constitution and statutes,” the lawsuit says.

Questions about Lechuga-Tena’s residence dogged her when she was appointed by the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners in 2015 to fill a seat in the state House.

The New Mexican reported at the time she rented an apartment in House District 21 two days before applying for the appointment.

Lechuga-Tena stirred other controversy, too. Born in Mexico, she admitted she had voted in an election before becoming a U.S. citizen.

She went on to lose the three-way primary election, finishing behind Sariñana.

Lechuga-Tena seemed to be moving on. She married Santa Fe-based lobbyist and lawyer Marco Gonzales last year. Their application for a marriage license, filed in state District Court, lists her address as a post office box.

But earlier this month, she filed to run for her old House district spanning Albuquerque’s International District, from Louisiana Boulevard along Interstate 40 to Tramway.

She listed the same address as when she first served in the House.

Sariñana’s lawsuit says Lechuga-Tena would have had to reside at that address when the governor issued a proclamation Jan. 29 setting the dates for the election this year.

Lechuga-Tena bought the property she has listed as her residence out of foreclosure in early 2016. The city of Albuquerque deemed it substandard a few weeks later, according to documents filed with Sariñana’s lawsuit.

The house is a rental property, but it did not have utilities and the ceiling was in danger of falling in, the lawsuit says.

In addition, Sariñana’s suit states, another occupant has lived in the home for at least several months. Neighbors can attest that Lechuga-Tena does not reside at the address, the suit adds.

Lechuga-Tena did not respond to a message seeking comment. In her announcement video, however, she describes herself as a homeowner in House District 21.

New Mexico law is not clear cut when it comes to determining where a candidate must live to get on the ballot.

Candidates for the state House must reside in their district. But the state Supreme Court has said this depends on a candidate’s intentions and often whether the candidate has a “significant physical presence” at a residence.

A state district judge in Albuquerque is scheduled to hear arguments in the lawsuit on Wednesday.

No Republican or Libertarian has filed to run in the district. Whoever wins the Democratic Party primary is likely to win the general election.

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