The New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed a district court judge’s ruling Tuesday to let the Democratic primary candidate for Valencia County sheriff remain on the ballot.
In March, Michael Candelaria, a Valencia County voter and the chairman of the Republican Party of Valencia County, challenged the candidacy of Democrat Rodney Jones, the only candidate on the primary ballot for his party, saying Jones was not a resident of Valencia County.
Later that same month, 13th Judicial District Court Judge James Lawrence Sanchez ruled Jones could remain on the ballot, which prompted Candelaria’s attorney to file an appeal with the New Mexico Supreme Court.
The two-page order doesn’t offer an explanation of the high court’s ruling.
On the Republican ticket, incumbent Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil is also unchallenged. The two will face off for the position in the November General Election.
“I am grateful that the Supreme Court affirmed my right to run for sheriff, and the voters right to determine who will be best for Valencia County,” Jones told the News-Bulletin Tuesday. “I have decades of service in law enforcement in Valencia County, and I am eager to work to safeguard the people in our county.”
When asked for comment on the court’s order, Vigil declined. The sheriff wasn’t a named party in the challenge by Candelaria.
Candelaria spoke to the News-Bulletin about the court’s decision after the print deadline on Wednesday.
“Justice is dead. It’s time to vote red,” he said. “We must remove self-serving justices and lawmakers that are light on crime. The good people of Valencia County will show Rodney Jones in November they want an honest sheriff with integrity when they elect Denise Vigil.”
At the hearing before Sanchez, Candelaria’s attorney, Carter B. Harrison IV, acknowledged that Jones was registered to vote in Valencia County but argued it was only sufficient to settle a question of residency if the registered voter resided on the property, which he and Candelaria said Jones does not.
Jones has been registered to vote at an address in Valencia County on Tribal Road 28 for more than 20 years, but has lived at a house on Quail Court in the southern part of Bernalillo County since 2004, court documents indicate. Both properties are on the Pueblo of Isleta, of which both Jones and Candelaria are members.
More than once during the hearing, Sanchez indicated if Jones was trying to make the argument that he currently lives in Valencia County, he wouldn’t be able to make his case.
“Statute doesn’t say you have to be a resident to be a candidate. There have been a number of people who have said they don’t live where they’re registered and, if they win, they’ll move,” Sanchez said in March. “It seems to me, ultimately, if he wins, he has to live here, show intent.
“Clearly he doesn’t live there (at Tribal Road 28) today. The constitution says if he is elected to the office, he is required to live here. As a candidate, there’s a little grayness.”
In Article 5, Section 13 of the state constitution, only county commissioners are specifically mentioned as having to live within the political subdivision or district they serve. County-wide positions, such as the sheriff, aren’t listed in the section.
After the district court hearing, Jones said he would “absolutely” physically reside in Valencia County if he were to win in November.
In her response to the appeal, Jones’ attorney, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, argued there was no basis to remove Jones from the ballot, since he has been registered to vote at his “ancestral home” since 1996 and has voted in the county regularly since then.
Jones and his family lived in a trailer on the property for 14 years, she explained in her response, and he has continually maintained the site, which has utilities, a rural mailbox on site where he receives mail and a recreational vehicle, where he stays sometimes.
“He began clearing the property, removed the trailer and prepared the property to build his home in 2018, but the process was slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic … he continues his work toward his goal of building his dream home and has a contractor,” the response read.
Sedillo Lopez also noted Jones spent his entire law enforcement career in Valencia County, working for the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office and Los Lunas Police Department, as well as having family and friends living in the county as well as his children attending school in the county.
Election code requires a candidate’s voter registration record show party affiliation and residence within the district as of the date of the issuance of the election proclamation, Lopez Sedillo writes.
“Mr. Jones has been registered in Valencia County for 26 years … in order to vote, an individual must register and submit proof of residency and identification … Running for office is governed by registration, which in turn, is based on residence,” the attorney wrote in her response.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.