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Editorial: Manuel Lujan Jr. leaves NM, U.S. a legacy of service

Manuel Lujan Jr. was a native New Mexican who represented the state in Congress for 20 years and served the nation as secretary of interior for four years. Yet despite his lofty political accomplishments, he was remarkably free of hubris and exemplified the term “servant leader.”

Manuel Lujan Jr.

Lujan, who died last week at the age of 90, was the first Republican elected to Congress by New Mexicans since the Great Depression when he upset a Democratic incumbent in 1968. He gave up that Albuquerque-based seat – somewhat reluctantly – when then-President George H.W. Bush asked him to lead the Interior Department in 1989. At the time, he was only the second Hispanic to serve in a presidential Cabinet. He told a reporter he agreed to do it only because the president had asked him to in service to his country.

Lujan’s years in Congress came at a time when moderates were still valued, rather than targeted, by both political parties. He favored a strong national defense and was a fiscal conservative, honored with a “Watchdog of the Treasury” award for targeting wasteful spending and advocating for a balanced budget.

But he was best known back home for his personal politics. He had a knack for giving short speeches in English and Spanish and was able to greet many people as friends. His devotion to constituent service was unmatched. Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers remembers Lujan’s nightly ritual of personally calling back New Mexico residents who left messages with his office in Washington.

One of his successors in Congress, Heather Wilson, recalled that even after Lujan had been out of Congress for years he would still show up at the district office, trying to help people with their veterans benefits and other matters.

As Interior Secretary, Lujan said he tried to bring a balance between the use of resources on public lands and environmental concerns – often drawing fire from both sides. “No one is satisfied,” he said after leaving office.

Born on a farm near San Ildefonso Pueblo, Lujan graduated from St. Michael’s High School and then St. Michael’s College. He worked in the family insurance business before turning to politics. On a personal level, he counted liberal Democrats in Congress among his close friends – relationships we could use more of today.

“Everyone who met him liked him,” said brother Edward Lujan, who added the two still discussed global affairs over coffee nearly every morning in recent years.

Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, a former congressman, called Lujan a “trailblazing Republican” and one of the “finest statesmen” to ever represent New Mexico.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a distant cousin and a Democrat who also served in Congress, described Lujan as a gentleman who treated her with kindness.

“He was generous; he was a thoughtful public servant. I will miss him, and I know New Mexico will long cherish his memory.”

We should. No one is more deserving.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.