Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Manuel Lujan Jr., a New Mexico native son who rose to lofty political heights as a longtime Republican congressman and U.S. Interior secretary, died late Thursday at age 90.
Lujan Jr., who came from a prominent Santa Fe political family, held New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District seat for 20 years – from 1969 through 1988. He was the first Hispanic Republican to join the Congressional Hispanic Congress and focused largely on constituent needs during his time in Washington D.C.
Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, who was state GOP chairman while Lujan Jr. was still in office, described the former congressman on Friday as a “titan” of New Mexico politics.
Specifically, he said Lujan Jr. had a knack for giving short speeches, in both Spanish and English, and recalled his nightly ritual of personally calling back New Mexico residents who had left messages with his congressional office.
“If you want to be in this business, you have to be like Manuel Lujan Jr.,” Carruthers told the Journal. “He just seemed to be a level above the rest of us.”
Lujan Jr. was appointed interior secretary by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1989 – becoming just the second New Mexican to hold the post – and remained in the position for nearly four years, a time span that included the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.
He faced scrutiny in the high-profile Cabinet position, including criticism from some groups for challenging the Endangered Species Act, and said after leaving the office in 1993 that “no one is satisfied.”
“If you do something that’s pro-development, you get the environmental groups against you, and if you do something that’s pro-environmental, you get the industry groups after you,” Lujan Jr. told the Associated Press at the time. “What I tried to do – and I think I was successful in doing – was to bring a balance between the use of resources on public lands and environmental concerns.”
His brother, Edward Lujan, said Friday that Manuel Lujan Jr. had not been in good health in recent months and had broken his hip in a fall several months ago.
But he said Manuel Lujan Jr. had remained active and engaged in politics for years after leaving office.
“He had a very pleasant personality – everyone who met him liked him,” said Edward Lujan, who recalled discussing global issues with his brother over coffee nearly every morning in recent years.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat who is a distant cousin of Lujan Jr., described the ex-congressman as the “picture of a statesman.”
“In a lifetime of public service, over the course of ten congressional terms and four years as secretary of the interior, he fought for his constituents, striving for balance between competing interests, never forgetting that New Mexicans’ collective best interest comes first,” Lujan Grisham said.
“Over the years, it was frequently assumed Manuel was my uncle,” she added. “He wasn’t, but he always treated me like his favorite niece. He was a gentleman; he was generous; he was a thoughtful public servant. I will miss him, and I know New Mexico will long cherish his memory.”
Lujan Grisham also ordered all state flags to be flow at half-staff in honor of Lujan Jr.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce described Lujan Jr. as a “trailblazing Republican” and “one of the finest statesmen” to ever represent New Mexico in Congress.
As interior secretary, Lujan Jr.’s “expert knowledge of western land management and energy issues along with his integrity and competence made him one of the finest people to ever hold this office,” Pearce said.
A memorial service for Lujan Jr. will be held Thursday at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Albuquerque at 5 p.m., with a rosary service to follow, his daughter said. A funeral Mass will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the same location, with burial at Gate of Heaven Catholic Cemetery to follow.