Despite red flags, GOP-backed candidate now faces charges in shootings

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The former Republican candidate accused of targeting the homes of Democrats in shootings had routinely called for 2020 election officials to be locked up in Guantánamo Bay. He promoted conspiracy theories about solar energy, feminism and “the demonic theories of the globalist elites.” He had been demoted twice from the US Navy and served nearly seven years in prison for burglary.

Still, powerful party leaders in New Mexico not only gave first-time candidate Solomon Peña, 39, full-throated endorsements, but also opened their checkbooks to finance his race for a legislative seat in central Albuquerque long held by Democrats. Some knew of his prison history but said they felt he had turned his life around. Local and state authorities now say they are investigating whether drug money helped fund his campaign.

“He came across to me as a very respectful, thoughtful young man,” said Harvey Yates, an oilman and former chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, who donated $5,000 to Peña’s campaign. Now Yates admits he may have made a mistake. He said he felt “very bad, very sad” for Peña, “who I think really had potential.”

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

Police say Peña, after losing his race in a landslide in November – he won 26% of the vote – and refusing to concede, staged shootings at the homes of prominent Democrats, including two that confirmed the election results. The attacks came at a time of growing fears across the country of a trend in political violence, mostly from the right, including the attack on then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Jan. 6 mob attack on the US Capitol 2021.

In New Mexico, the case also highlights the infighting among Republicans, as suffragettes like Peña — who was in the crowd for President Donald Trump’s speech in Washington on Jan. 6, according to videos collected by online mirrorers — fill the ranks of candidates. seeking an elected office. Other Republicans like Audrey Trujillo, who ran for secretary of state, embraced conspiracy theories about elections, school shootings and COVID-19 vaccines.

Many suffragettes lost in New Mexico, mirroring similar Republican setbacks in other parts of the country. The results helped state Democrats solidify their control of both houses of the state Legislature, the governor’s office and the entire congressional delegation, sparking accusations of Republicans losing power.

Michael Candelaria, a prominent state Republican who until recently was the party chairman in Valencia County, near Albuquerque, said the Peña case exposed a dilemma in a state where Democrats have steadily expanded their influence in recent years: how to appeal to some of Trump’s most ardent supporters who refused to accept his 2020 re-election defeat without alienating other voters who reject the lies and conspiracy theories.

“You don’t take a group of people whose support you want and tell them, ‘You’re a bunch of crazy people,'” Candelaria said. “You’re going to have some extremists that you have to figure out how to keep their support.”

But Candelaria, who has pushed for leadership changes in the state party, said Peña’s arrest showed the risks of promoting such figures. “Had we done some good research, we could have picked this guy apart, but no, we don’t do a good job of picking candidates,” he said.

It was unclear how much Republican leaders had investigated Peña’s background. Steve Pearce, a former member of Congress who is now chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some Republicans are bracing for more revelations about Peña, who was arrested Monday and charged with criminal solicitation, attempted aggravated assault, shooting into an occupied dwelling, shooting from a moving vehicle and conspiracy. Police called him the “mastermind” of a conspiracy in which four other men were paid to shoot at the homes of two county commissioners and two state lawmakers, and said he personally participated in at least one of the shootings.

As part of their investigation, Albuquerque police detectives said they were also looking into whether Peña used proceeds from drug trafficking to fund his campaign and whether campaign laws were violated. The New Mexico attorney general’s office will lead the investigation into Peña’s campaign finances, a spokesman for the office said Friday.

The twist in the investigation came after detectives learned through witness interviews that Peña had identified people to funnel contributions from an unknown source into his campaign, according to Gilbert Gallegos, a department spokesman. Investigators said they are focusing on José Trujillo, who is also charged in the shootings, and Trujillo’s mother, Melanie Griego, who is listed as donating a total of $9,150 to Peña’s campaign.

Police arrested Trujillo on Jan. 3, shortly after the shooting at the Albuquerque home of Linda Lopez, a state senator. In the car Trujillo was driving, which police say is owned by Peña, investigators say they found 893 fentanyl pills and $3,036 in cash, as well as a firearm matching shell casings found at Lopez’s home.

Peña made his first court appearance Wednesday and did not enter a plea. Roberta Yurcic, an attorney representing him, said she could not comment on specific aspects of her client’s background, including his military demotions and work history. “The investigation into the allegations against my client is ongoing,” she added. “Mr. Peña is entitled to a fair trial.”

Javier Martinez, a Democrat whose home was targeted in the attacks after the November election, said he had “never experienced anything like this before.” Martinez, who took over as New Mexico’s speaker of the House this month, tied Peña’s extremism to the election lies Trump had told.

“The former president, I think, really tapped into some of those feelings,” Martinez said. “And we’ve seen it play out in various ways, including the uprising in Washington, DC, including this set of events right here in our own backyard.”

Peña presented himself as in recovery, led groups in prayer at political meetings and told neighbors he did not drink or take drugs. But he did little to hide his extreme views. His campaign website denounced “the demonic theories of the globalist elites and their foreign counterparts,” called feminism “demonism” and said the 2020 election had been rigged against Trump by “enemy combatants” who “must be placed in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the rest of their natural lives.”

During his campaign, Peña highlighted his time as a Navy hospital corpsman assigned to a Marine division in Okinawa, Japan. But promotional data provided by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Public Affairs shows that Peña hardly served with distinction. He was demoted twice during his four years in the service and left the military in 2004 at the lowest possible rank. The Navy was unable to provide reasons for Peña’s demotion.

Peña ran on a platform to crack down on crime despite his own criminal history. He served nearly seven years in prison in New Mexico on charges including burglary and theft after being part of a “smash-and-grab” squad that slammed vehicles into retail stores, including a Kmart in Albuquerque, and then stole items, according to court records.

After being released from prison in 2016, Peña tried to sell cars at an Albuquerque dealership, but it lasted less than a month before he was fired for showing up late, court records from a lawsuit filed by Peña in 2017 show. (The case was dismissed.) Peña also enrolled at the University of New Mexico, earning a political science degree in 2021, the same year his voting rights were restored after his prison term.

Peña appears to have run for the Republican nomination for the state legislative seat unopposed. In October, he received an endorsement from the New Mexico chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Ronnie Lucero, president of both the group’s national organization and state chapter, said he had spoken with Peña at events during the campaign and that the candidate had filled out a questionnaire asking about his professional, financial and criminal history before the group endorsed him.

The group did not see Peña’s criminal record as disqualifying, Lucero said, adding: “At the time we gave the approval, there was the impression that he had got his life together, and he’s one of those second-chance stories that would turn out to be something good and positive for the community.

“It was a bad decision that we made and regrettable,” he said. “But we can’t read the future.”

When asked about some of the extremist rhetoric on Peña’s campaign website, Lucero said he had not seen the statements — though they were published before the endorsement, according to the Internet Archive — and that they would have given him pause if he had.

Some Republican officials defended the apparent lack of oversight before the party establishment threw its support behind Peña, which included defending him when his opponent sought to disqualify him from the race because of his criminal record, which could have potentially barred him from taking office.

“The Republican Party did not recruit him,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, a Republican lawmaker from Albuquerque, adding that he didn’t think the party establishment should vet candidates. “He, like everyone else, can sign up to run for any office.”

© 2023 The New York Times Company

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button