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New Mexico police arrested a failed legislature candidate in relation to shootings

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today's opening day at the New Mexico state legislature got off to a jarring start. Well, actually, it's been a jarring few weeks after several Democratic state lawmakers and other elected officials had their homes hit by gunfire. Last night, police arrested the alleged mastermind behind these shootings. He was a failed candidate for the legislature.

Alice Fordham with member station KUNM is in the state capital, Santa Fe, and joins us now. Hey, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So we now know the person who allegedly planned these attacks also ran for office. What more do we know about him?

FORDHAM: Yeah. So 39-year-old Solomon Pena was a controversial figure even when he ran as a Republican candidate last year. The Albuquerque Journal reported his opponents sued him to stop him running because he'd served seven years in prison after a conviction for stealing large amounts of goods from retail stores. Now, that suit was unsuccessful, but he did lose that election in the city of Albuquerque.

Following that loss, he posted on social media that he didn't accept defeat, and the Albuquerque police say he showed up at the homes of local officials with documents claiming to prove that the election was fraudulent. Now, New Mexico does have a loud contingent of people who question election processes, but what allegedly happened was an enormous escalation.

CHANG: Wait, so what exactly are police saying that Pena did here?

FORDHAM: So he's alleged to have contacted four different men in Albuquerque, provided them with weapons and paid them to shoot at the homes of two Democratic county commissioners and two state legislators - also Democrats - on at least one occasion riding along and firing or trying to fire a weapon himself. The police say they have evidence linking bullet casings to weapons found in at least one vehicle belonging to Pena and evidence from cell phones and electronic records and surveillance video and multiple witnesses, including at least one who was part of the conspiracy. They say that Pena communicated the addresses he wanted targeted over the phone, and they have records of that.

CHANG: Wow. What's been the reaction to all of this? Like, how are Democratic leaders in New Mexico responding to the arrest?

FORDHAM: Well, actually, today, I spoke with Senator Linda Lopez, whose home was targeted earlier this month. Now, she's starting her 27th year in the legislature today, and she says she's seen a lot. But on a personal level, she was shaken. She said she heard the shots at night and, at the time, told her children they must be fireworks but then in the morning woke up to see what looked like bullet holes in her bedroom.

CHANG: Oh, no.

FORDHAM: And here's what she said happened next.

LINDA LOPEZ: Then, I went over to my daughter's room, which is next to mine, and saw the holes in her room. And in all honesty, if she had been awake, playing like she normally does - as most kids are, on their tablets - there would be a very different outcome. And that, to me, is I think what hurt me and - you know, as a mom, is something that you don't want to go through.

FORDHAM: And Lopez said, on a personal level, a number of Republican colleagues had contacted her to express sympathy and horror. But she did say that if Pena was indeed behind the attacks, he's a party member. And to her, this speaks to a need for the party to have serious conversations about election denial.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what about Republicans in the state? What are they saying publicly right now?

FORDHAM: Well, the House minority leader, Ryan Lane, issued a statement condemning the violence and particularly the fact that a person with a criminal conviction was able to get and use a firearm. But Republican leaders haven't yet addressed the possible political elements of this. The Democratic mayor of Albuquerque, Tim Keller, called the alleged actions politically motivated. And so far, Republicans haven't really commented on that.

CHANG: And real quick, what's next for this person who was arrested last night?

FORDHAM: He's due to have his first court appearance tomorrow afternoon.

CHANG: That was Alice Fordham of KUNM, reporting from Santa Fe. Thank you, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.