Hearing on candidate’s challenge adjourns until Monday

Rep. Sandra D. Jeff

State Rep. Sandra Jeff, one of New Mexico’s most controversial legislators, was removed from the ballot Monday by a judge who found that she did not file enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the June primary election.

Jeff, a Democrat who lists her address as Crownpoint, needed 78 signatures and submitted 91 to the secretary of state. But state District Judge Louis DePauli rejected 23 of Jeff’s signatures after a lengthy hearing in Gallup, leaving her shy of the threshold.

The lawsuit challenging her nominating petitions was financed by Conservation Voters New Mexico, a critic of Jeff’s record in the Legislature.

“Holding elected officials accountable for their actions is a cornerstone of our work,” said Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters. “We believe that, for our air, land and water, who we elect matters.”

Jeff, 46, has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2009. She did not respond to a message seeking comment.

But her attorney, Germaine Chappelle of Santa Fe, said in court that Jeff would appeal the ruling to the five-member New Mexico Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court last week overturned DePauli’s original decision dismissing the challenge to Jeff’s candidacy on grounds that she had not been served with the lawsuit in timely fashion. Next time, the Supreme Court would review the merits of the case against Jeff.

DePauli ruled that her nominating petitions fell short because some who signed were not residents of Jeff’s district or were not registered Democrats. Others signed the nominating petition of more than one candidate.

Jeff was to face two challengers in the June Democratic primary in House District 5, which includes parts of McKinley and San Juan counties.

With Jeff disqualified, those left on the ballot are Doreen W. Johnson of Church Rock and Charles Long of Crownpoint. No Republican entered the race.

Jeff has been in various high-profile battles with members of her own party. She sided with House Republicans on the state budget this year, creating a tie vote. With the House deadlocked, the state Senate took the lead in crafting New Mexico’s $6.2 billion budget.

Jeff also made news this year for a vote she intentionally skipped. She declined to vote on a Democratic initiative to raise the state minimum wage, even after Vice President Joe Biden lobbied her in a phone call.

The bill for a higher minimum wage failed, but even if Jeff had supported the proposal it did not have the votes to clear the House of Representatives.

Larry J. King, a McKinley County resident who is supporting Johnson in the legislative race, was the plaintiff in the suit to oust Jeff from the ballot.

“The judge did the right thing today,” King said. “His decision confirms that everyone has to follow the rules.”

State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said courts in New Mexico are cautious about removing candidates from the ballot.

“For a judge to rule this way tells me there were serious problems with her nominating petitions,” said Egolf, an attorney. “This doesn’t happen often, especially to an incumbent.”

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

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