Albuquerque mayoral hopeful Stella Padilla has lost her ballot access battle in the New Mexico Supreme Court.
On Monday, Padilla’s lawyer, A. Blair Dunn, turned to the state’s highest court, asking the justices for an expedited review a lawsuit Padilla filed against Albuquerque City Clerk Natalie Howard seeking to be placed on the Oct. 3 ballot — a lawsuit a district judge rejected last week.
But on Tuesday, three of the five New Mexico Supreme Court justices — Edward L. Chavez, Charles W. Daniels and Barbara J. Vigil — rejected Padilla’s request for an immediate hearing. Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura provided witness. In their order, the justices provided no reasons for the denial.
The lawsuit was rejected at the district court level on the argument that only people whose signatures were disqualified — not Padilla, the potential candidate whose forms they signed — had standing to sue.
The legal battle arose from a determination by Howard’s office in May that Padilla fell 181 signatures short of the 3,000 valid nominating signatures required for qualification as a mayoral candidate in the Oct. 3 election.
Strongly disagreeing with Howard’s assertions, and claiming she had more than enough signatures, Padilla sued the Albuquerque election chief in Second Judicial District Court, where District Judge Nancy Franchini dismissed the suit last Friday.
In her case against Howard, Padilla included an affidavit from a private investigator, Carlos Villanueva, who contended that “no consistency” was observed in a vetting of the city clerk office’s signature processing, and that 186 signatures — enough to make the difference in achieving the ballot requirement — were improperly excluded.
Franchini, however, concurred with Howard’s argument that municipal election rules, based on a state law, only give the people whose signatures were deemed invalid the legal standing to challenge the clerk’s ruling.
“(Franchini) erred as a matter of law,” Dunn told this reporter prior to Tuesday’s Supreme Court action. He criticized the rejection of a potential candidate’s right to challenge an adverse and irreparable decision by an election official as “absurd.”
And because Howard tossed out a disproportionate number of signatures for Padilla, the ballot disqualification was “political” in nature, Padilla’s attorney charged.
Upholding Howard’s legal argument, he said, essentially meant that a rejected political hopeful would have to round up a couple of hundred people, force them to take time out of their daily routines, and “haul them down” to the city clerk’s office to dispute signatures.
In his Supreme Court filing, Dunn referred to an Albuquerque Journal report on last Friday’s hearing that quoted Judge Franchini expressing some sympathy for Padilla.
“It breaks my heart, Ms. Padilla,” Franchini was quoted as saying. “I would like to rule in your favor, but I can’t.”
This reporter was unable to reach City of Albuquerque lawyers this week for comment on the Padilla case, but Assistant City Attorney Nick Bullock was quoted in the Journal as arguing at last week’s hearing before Franchini that Padilla lacked standing, and that the plaintiff made an error by pursuing her case under the Declaratory Judgment Act.
The reason for the dismissal of Padilla’s case means neither Franchini nor the Supreme Court actually examined the validity of the disputed nominating signatures.
“Wow, I think we have more problems with our electoral system than we realize,” Dinah Vargas, Padilla’s campaign manager, said of Franchini’s decision. “We don’t even have a right to challenge Natalie [the clerk], and that baffles me.”
As for the Supreme Court’s action, Vargas later added, “They don’t even want to hear us… [The law] disempowers the people.”
Fighting to get a spot on the ballot proved a costly endeavor for Padilla’s campaign, the Albuquerque political activist said. “We spent more money on the lawsuit than we spent on the entire campaign, and for Natalie to disregard the signatures and the will of the people [means] we’re not free people anymore,” she said.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rejection of Padilla’s case, the Albuquerque Old Town resident’s political campaign plans on meeting with Dunn while studying other options, including following up on the possible interest of “several attorneys” in taking the case to federal court, finding sympathetic state legislators willing to change the law related to nominating petition signatures, and possibly even mounting a write-in campaign, Vargas said.
What was at stake in the Padilla campaign extended beyond the fortunes of an individual candidate. Government accountability to taxpayers, effective enfranchisement of voters who can make their own choices — and, ultimately, getting money out of politics in a race where big bucks hover behind the scenes were at stake, Vargas said.
Now, Padilla and her supporters consider changes in the nominating signature law as an issue of vital importance, she said.
“It’s no longer about being on the ballot,” she said. “It’s about getting change in the spirit of the process. What needs to be weighed is where our time and energy will be.”
In May, Albuquerque City Clerk Howard qualified Ricardo Chaves, Brian Colón, Michelle Garcia Holmes, Wayne Johnson, Tim Keller, Dan Lewis, Susan Wheeler-Deichsel and Gus Pedrotty for the mayoral ballot. A ninth candidate, former Bernalillo County Commissioner and Obama administration Interior Department official Deanna Archuleta, also qualified but dropped out of the contest in late May, stating family health issues as the reason.
Regarding a possible endorsement of one of the eight candidates by Padilla, Vargas said, “There’s absolutely no decision on that.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.