Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
For more than a decade, he’s been representing northern New Mexicans in Congress and fighting off any challengers.
But U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is giving up that seat and making a bid for the U.S. Senate.
A victory in the race would continue a trend of the seat being held by someone with a last name synonymous with New Mexico and Western politics. The seat is open because Sen. Tom Udall isn’t seeking reelection after two terms. And before Udall, Sen. Pete Domenici held the seat for six terms.
Luján, 48, is the son of former New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan, who died in 2012 after more 35 years in the state House of Representatives.
He was born and raised in Nambé on a small farm that’s been in his family for four generations. And when Luján is back in New Mexico, he still lives on that farm and his mother is his next-door neighbor.
“When we’re at home, if I’m not on the road with constituents … I’m working on something outside,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “I love to be out in the barn, in the field, in the acequia.”
After a hard day’s work, Luján said, he’ll unwind with a bike ride – either riding paved or gravel trails in the nation’s capital or, preferably, on his full-suspension, 27.5-inch mountain bike on the more rugged trails of New Mexico.
“It promises to help me climb better, but I haven’t seen it,” he said of his bike.
Luján is trying to follow Udall in Congress for the second time. Luján was elected to represent New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers most of northern New Mexico, in 2008 when Udall gave up the seat to run for Senate.
And while the seat is open, Michael Rocca, a UNM political science professor who researches Congress, noted that Luján has a significant advantage in raising money and more than a decade of experience as an elected official.
Luján is taking on Republican nominee Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist, and Libertarian Bob Walsh,
“While we don’t have an incumbent, Ben Ray Luján, his candidacy looks a lot like an incumbent candidacy,” Rocca said. “He was basically the third-most powerful member in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party at the national level has an interest in him running and winning here in New Mexico, if for no other reason to have another prominent Latino that they could put to the forefront in the United States Senate.”
Restoring the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic and working to make health care more affordable are among Luján’s priorities.
“Helping New Mexico recover from COVID-19 is and must be a top priority, not just for the remainder of this Congress, but also in the next Congress as well,” Luján said.
He said he believes small businesses, local governments and school systems will still need assistance next year.
“COVID-19 has hit the life of New Mexicans hard,” he said, pledging to help get the state additional resources that state officials have requested.
He said he’s come through for the state before, citing his work on previous coronavirus relief packages passed by Congress, including the CARES Act. Luján said he pushed for emergency sick leave and family medical leave, and legislation to provide support for small businesses and tribal communities.
“It’s clear that we’re going to continue to have to provide support for everyone,” the congressman said.
Luján was among the first members of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation to endorse “Medicare for All.” He sponsored several pieces of health care legislation that have passed the House but were not brought to the floor for a vote in the Senate.
That included legislation that sought to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
“That must be a priority for the next Congress as well,” Luján said.
Luján came into the campaign with years of experience. His first election came when he was in his early 30s and won a seat on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. He touted his experience with both the PRC and the U.S. House of Representatives in making his case for the Senate seat.
He said he worked to expand New Mexico’s renewable energy portfolio standard, enact strong energy-efficiency provisions, community solar programs and home weatherization initiatives during his tenure with the PRC.
“While I was at the Public Regulation Commission, I also proudly worked to hold home insurance companies accountable when they were not treating constituents fairly,” he said. “In some cases, the businesses were all about denying people’s claims before even reviewing them.”
Luján’s first state job was as deputy state treasurer in 2002 and 2003. He later worked as director of administrative services and chief financial officer of the state Cultural Affairs Department. He served four years on the PRC, the last three as chairman, before being elected in 2008 to Congress.
Early in his political career, he faced questions about whether his father’s political connections helped give him an advantage over his opponents. In one of his first elections, he faced an attack ad saying that he was just a blackjack dealer before the elder Lujan got him a job in state government. Luján did work as a casino dealer at Pojoaque Pueblo and in the Lake Tahoe area when he was in his 20s.
“I was born and raised in New Mexico,” he said. “I was proud to attend Head Start here in the community that I grew up, just down the road from the church I grew up attending. I went to Pojoaque Valley Schools from kindergarten to all the way to 12th grade and graduated from New Mexico Highlands University.”
The six-term congressman has easily rebuffed challengers since he was first elected to Congress, and has emerged as a formidable fundraiser.
As of June, Luján had reported raising $6.3 million for his Senate campaign, compared with almost $1.4 million for Ronchetti and $3,268 for Walsh, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Rising in D.C.
Luján is now the highest-ranking Hispanic and one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the U.S. House, with the title of assistant speaker of the House. He was named to the position after helping the Democrats win back the House in 2018.
Among his top accomplishments in Congress, he said, was sponsoring legislation supporting Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
He said he authored legislation to support the budgets at the national labs, workforce training and research at the labs.
The legislation included a program that allowed the labs to work with state colleges to develop the workforce.
Luján said he wrote bills addressing opioid addiction that were included in a package signed into law by President Donald Trump before Democrats won a majority in the U.S. House.
“That opioid package specifically included everything from protecting moms and infants to comprehensive recovery centers, peer support specialists and morphine prescribing treatment,” Luján said. He said the package included $1 billion in funding to be distributed among all 50 states.
Luján said he was also proud of pushing the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Reauthorization Act, which Trump also signed.
“It’s an important piece of legislation that protects Native American languages with education programs to preserve disappearing Native languages in Indian Country,” he said.