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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A familiar New Mexico name will be at the center of Capitol Hill politics as Democrats tangle with President Donald Trump over the next two years.
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján won election Wednesday as assistant Democratic leader in the House of Representatives – a post that will make him one of the top four leaders in the party that controls the House next year.
It’s the highest House leadership position ever held by a New Mexican, according to the chamber’s Office of the Historian website.
Luján, a Santa Fe Democrat, said he called his mom, Carmen, and was thinking about his late father – former New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján – as he made his way into the caucus meeting.
“He made sure that people who didn’t have a voice – that their voice would be heard,” Luján said of his father in a telephone interview.
His election Wednesday as assistant leader, he said, will help him push for job creation, access to health care and other priorities.
“I believe I’ll be able to shape and advance an agenda that benefits the people of New Mexico,” Luján said. “Many of the priorities we have in New Mexico are the same priorities we share as a Democratic caucus.”
His election comes as New Mexico is otherwise losing seniority in the House. Two members of the state’s delegation – Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, elected in 2012, and Republican Steve Pearce, who has served 14 years – gave up their seats to run for governor.
They will be replaced by Deb Haaland of Albuquerque and Xochitl Torres Small of Las Cruces, both Democrats.
Lujan Grisham won the governor’s race.
Michael Rocca, a University of New Mexico professor who studies American politics and national institutions, said Luján will be in a great position to look out for New Mexico’s interests.
“Seniority, influence and power mean everything in the House of Representatives,” Rocca told the Journal. “It’s an institution where the most influential and the most powerful are the ones who get things done behind the scenes.”
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque, said Luján’s ascension “is good news for New Mexico, especially with the Democrats regaining control of the House.”
New Mexico depends heavily on the federal government and is home to two national laboratories, three Air Force bases and more than a dozen national monuments, parks and trails.
“New Mexico’s other two members of the U.S. House will be newcomers, with no seniority,” Sanderoff said. “Thus, it’s important to have members of Congress in leadership positions to look out for New Mexico’s interests.”
No. 4 position
Luján is moving up in leadership after helping Democrats reclaim a majority in the House during this year’s midterm election. Since 2015, he has served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – a group that recruits candidates, raises money and works to elect Democrats.
As assistant Democratic leader, Luján will have the party’s No. 4 leadership slot in the House, just below the speaker, majority leader and whip.
He was chosen Wednesday by fellow members of the House Democratic caucus, which met privately in Washington, D.C, to choose a nominee for speaker and other leadership positions. Nancy Pelosi of California picked up the nomination for speaker, although there was some dissent.
The new Congress takes office Jan. 3.
Luján will succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who was elected majority whip.
At 46, Luján is much younger than the Democrats higher up in leadership.
He has represented northern New Mexico in Congress since 2009. He won re-election this month with 63 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
In a Nov. 7 letter to his colleagues announcing his leadership bid, Luján spoke about growing up on a small farm in New Mexico and learning “from my family the importance of hard work, caring for our neighbors, and looking out for one another.”
All three members of New Mexico’s delegation to the U.S. House supported Nancy Pelosi’s nomination for speaker on Wednesday.U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Rep.-elect Deb Haaland have supported Pelosi for some time, describing her as an effective strategist and legislator.
Rep.-elect Xochitl Torres Small had been noncommittal until Wednesday.
In a written statement, she said House Republican floor leader “Kevin McCarthy’s agenda would dismantle rural health care. I voted for Nancy Pelosi because she has told me she would stand up for rural health care. … And as your Congresswoman I’m going to fight to hold Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Leadership to that commitment.”
Pelosi still must win a vote on the House floor – after the new members take office – to become speaker.