NM legislator loses appeal, fails to get on ballot

SANTA FE (AP) – Maverick Democratic Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint said Tuesday that she will run as a write-in candidate in the November general election after losing a court fight to appear on the June 3 primary ballot.

Her announcement came hours after the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld a decision by a Gallup judge to disqualify the three-term incumbent as a candidate.

District Judge Louis DePauli ruled last week that Jeff didn’t have enough valid signatures on her nominating petitions.

The court’s ruling leaves two Democratic candidates – both Navajo – in the primary race in House District 5, which covers portions of San Juan and McKinley County. There’s no Republican seeking the seat.

Jeff said the five justices should have let voters decide whether to elect her.

“I am coming back with a vengeance,” Jeff told reporters at a news conference at the Capitol.

Write-in candidates rarely have won in New Mexico, although the late U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen first was elected to Congress in 1980 via write-in.

With Democrats clinging to a narrow majority in the House, Jeff has become a swing vote who has supported Republicans and Gov. Susana Martinez on key votes. Jeff has backed the GOP governor’s push to stop New Mexico from issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants illegally in the country. She sided with Republicans in blocking a $6 billion budget bill in the House earlier this year but later voted for a compromise spending plan developed by the Senate.

Jeff, a member of the Navajo Nation, is among five Native Americans serving in the 70-member House.

She submitted 91 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, but District Judge Louis DePauli determined that only 68 were valid. That left Jeff 10 signatures short of what was needed to appear on the primary ballot.

Larry King of Church Rock brought the lawsuit challenging Jeff’s candidacy, but Conservation Voters New Mexico helped pay the lawsuit. The group contends Jeff has a poor environmental voting record, including siding with the uranium mining industry.

Abandoned uranium mines in the region have caused soil and water conservation. Some members of the Navajo Nation and environmentalists have opposed industry efforts to restart uranium mining near the communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint.

“This goes to show that no matter who you are, you have to play by the same rules, and the court saw that,” said King’s lawyer, Sara Berger.

Jeff defended her voting record and criticized the environmental group’s involvement in the race, saying it “has no clue what it’s like to live in my area because it’s very rural.”

King said he had helped another candidate, Doreen Johnson of Church Rock, obtain enough signatures to qualify as a candidate.

“I believe Sandra Jeff, being a veteran lawmaker, should know the process,” he said after the court hearing.

The other Democratic candidate in the race is Charles Long of Crownpoint, who lost to Jeff in the 2012 Democratic primary.

In arguments to the court, Jeff’s lawyer, Germaine Chappelle, said keeping Jeff off the ballot would deprive voters in the district of the right to pick the candidate of their choice.

She said the nominating petition process was difficult in the largely rural district, in which Navajos account for more than 70 percent of the population. The petitions are printed only in English and Spanish, but she said many elderly Navajos don’t speak or write those languages.

The justices repeatedly questioned Chappelle about what legal grounds existed to restore Jeff to the ballot.

“Give us something to work with,” Justice Charles Daniels said.

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