SANTA FE, N.M. — House Speaker Ben Lujan brought his gavel down on the end of an era Thursday as he closed out his last regular session after nearly 40 years in the chamber.
“Que viva, que viva,” House members chanted as the 76-year-old retiring leader thanked them for their love and friendship over the years – and over the past 30 days as he guided his final session while battling advanced stage lung cancer. “Que viva” is a cheer that roughly translates to “long live” Ben Lujan.
“Some doctors didn’t even want me to show up,” for the session, Lujan said in his office after adjournment. “… But I think the good Lord had a different mission for me.”
The Santa Fe Democrat, one of the most powerful men in the Legislature, shocked lawmakers and others at the beginning of the session when he announced his diagnosis and planned retirement after 37 years in the statehouse.
Despite his doctor’s advice, he presided over every House session, working late into the night.
“Thank God I felt all those days and nights like I do right now,” he said. “I had no pain. … At the end of the day, I didn’t even feel tired.”
Asked about his legacy, Lujan said one of his more memorable actions was shepherding passage of a bill in 2004 to eliminate the state sales tax on food.
“We were just one of three states in the nation to tax food,” he said, noting the feeling of providing relief to New Mexicans “was one of the great things.”
First elected in 1975, Lujan is one of the longest-serving lawmakers in Legislature. As speaker, he is also among the most influential, with authority to appoint the chairmen and members of the committees that approve and reject bills. He also largely controls the agenda and daily proceedings in the House.
Lujan has maintained tight control over the chamber and was known to punish dissenters in his own party. Republicans have complained in past sessions that he treated them unfairly at times and used the rules to squelch GOP dissent during floor debates.
On Thursday, Lujan said he always tried to follow the rules and “to be as fair as possible.”
“A lot of people who didn’t get their bills passed feel like they didn’t get a fair shake. But that’s the process,” he said.
Before leaving the Capitol on Thursday, Senate President Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, stopped in to tell Lujan what an honor it had been serving with him.
“This is one of the best leaders I’ve ever met,” he said.