Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ben Luján 1935 – 2012

New Mexico Speaker of the House Ben Luján died Tuesday night December 18, 2012 after a long struggle against lung cancer.

He was 77.

Luján was a life long resident of Nambé, served the House District 46, for Santa Fe County 37 years, and was Majority Whip and Majority Floor Leader before becoming the Speaker.

Though he did not seek reelection, he officially died in office, leaving the Speaker's chair vacant.

Governor Susana Martinez issued a statement:
Speaker Ben Lujan's service to New Mexico spanned four decades and his legacy will live for years to come. He fought for causes near and dear to New Mexicans from all walks of life and guided the House of Representatives through some of the most important debates in our state’s history. Speaker Lujan’s story was one that embodied the New Mexican dream and the American dream.  The son of a sheepherder, he made his living as an ironworker at Los Alamos before running for office and rising to one of the most prominent and powerful positions in the state.

Chuck and I join all New Mexicans in offering our thoughts and prayers to Speaker Lujan's wife, Carmen, his children, and his entire family during this trying time.

His standing as a senior elected office holder gave him great influence, especially within the Democratic Party.
He was only eclipsed in elective seniority by Representative Nick L. Salazar, above right, D– Mora, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Santa Fe, and Taos Counties of House District 40, who has been a Representative since 1973; Luján served since 1975.

Salazar of Ohkay Owingeh was literally a neighbor, friend, their families socialized together, their children were friends. Salazar worked at Los Alamos doing thermonuclear research and knew Luján through Salazar’s brother who was the shop forman over Luján. Salazar, is the longest serving elected official in the state having served a four-year term as County Commissioner.

Salazar said of Luján’s passing:
I’m saddened in fact by his passing.

In my 40 years of the legislature, I have served under four speakers, but Speaker Luján was my speaker.

He died in office. When he came to the last session, he announced he was dying, but he served. That was Ben; he served to his dying days.

We worked on many projects together; I supported him, and he supported me.

He always gave me good advice.

He’s going to be missed by many people.

Luján was an ironworker at Los Alamos National Laboratories and a shop steward before leaving to begin he political career in the mid 1970s.

“He was a good man, good man for labor, a fair man, honest man; did well, not just for labor, but for the people,” said Marty Padilla, organizer for the Iron Workers Local Union No. 495, based in Albuquerque. Contrary to wikipedia, he was not a contractor, but a common worker.

He didn’t leave his ironworker mentality, as he was a strong and often unbending political force. He had perfected the art of being a “union goon” (in the best sense of the word and that’s from one union goon to another), his ability to articulate at the level of the common man, his persuasive manner, his use of coercive tactics, and horse-trading.

He wielded the power of the Speaker’s gavel with an iron fist and members of the minority party often bristled at his ability to shut them out by his use of what committees he would assign legislation.
Luján, above right, partnered with then Governor Bill Richardson, above left, in standing behind, supporting, and sheepherding Richardson’s agenda through the House.
Luján’s wife of 53- years, Carmen, above left, was a constant presence at political events and helped soften his strong personality. His son, Ben Ray Luján, above right, often referred to as junior, was elected to the U.S. Congress for CD-3 Northern New Mexico in 2008. They were among family and friends as Luján passed away at Christus St. Vincent’s hospital in Santa Fe, after being admitted with respiratory problems earlier in the week.

I will leave it to Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell to provide other tributes.

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