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UPDATED: House Speaker Lujan Dies at 77

SANTA FE  — House Speaker Ben Lujan, one of the most powerful and longest serving state legislators in New Mexico history and the father of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, died late Tuesday at age 77 after a long battle with lung cancer, a spokesman for his son said.

He died at about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday after a brief stay at CHRISTUS St. Vincent’s hospital in Santa Fe, Andrew Stoddard, a spokesman for Congressman Lujan, said early today.

The speaker’s wife, Carmen, children and grandchildren were at his bedside when he died, Stoddard said.

Ben Lujan, a Democrat from Nambe, announced his battle with the illness and his planned retirement at the opening of the 2012 legislative session. He spent half of his life as a state lawmaker, winning his first election to the House in 1974. Only one other House member, Democrat Nick Salazar, served longer than Lujan, according to the Legislative Council Service.

Lujan said he was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer in late 2009 and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

“I was hoping to tell you the cancer is gone, but, as you can see, it is not,” he told lawmakers in January.

As speaker from 2001 to 2012, Lujan was one of the most influential men in the Legislature and known for his keen knowledge of legislative rules and procedures in steering bills through the House or keeping measures bottled up in committees.

“This guy was one of the smartest legislators I ever met,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat who previously served in the House. He said Lujan once advised him to “always stick to your guns” on an issue.

As speaker, he appointed committee chairmen and members — a source of considerable power in controlling legislation — and he dictated the daily agenda in the House. Republicans, at times, complained that Lujan used the rules to squelch GOP dissent during floor debates. At one point during a fractious debate in 2004 over a tax-cutting bill, House Republicans trooped to the front of the chamber and dumped their rule books on the rostrum in front of Lujan, as a protest.

Lujan defended his leadership, saying, “I always tried to do the very best.”

Lawmakers from both parties remembered Lujan as a tenacious but humble lawmaker.

“You’re a battler. You’re a fighter. You can get knocked down and you pick yourself back up,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat, told Lujan during a tribute during the legislative session.

Lujan pointed to removal of the tax on food in 2004 as one of his proudest accomplishments. He sponsored the bill that was signed into law by then Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, and it was Lujan who helped broker a final compromise version that passed despite strong resistance in the Senate. Lujan also championed legislation to cap property tax increases, finance highway projects and a worker training subsidy program that was one of the state’s main economic development incentives.

Lujan was also known for his tireless leadership. Lawmakers often recalled that Lujan would finish all-night floor sessions with his silver hair perfectly in place, as if he were just starting the day.

Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he was amazed the speaker was able to run the House last year — through a very contentious 60-day session and a special session on redistricting — while getting cancer treatment.

“It’s an unbelievable statement to his strength and character,” Egolf said.

Congressman Lujan said his father loved New Mexico and its people.

“That’s his conviction, that’s his passion, to be able to keep fighting for people here and doing what’s right,” the younger Lujan said in January.

Ben Lujan was the House’s majority whip and majority floor leader before being elected speaker. He succeeded longtime Speaker Raymond Sanchez, who lost his legislative seat in 2000.

Sanchez said few people serve as House speaker but “even fewer of us have the honor and privilege of meeting someone who becomes your instant friend, your companion, the person you trust with your life and the man who will cover your back no matter where you are.”

Lujan blamed his cancer on exposure to asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s when he was an ironworker at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lujan said his work involved mixing dry asbestos powder into a wet solution. There was no requirement to wear a face mask or respirator, he said.

At the end of his final legislative session, which coincided with New Mexico’s statehood centennial, Lujan told his colleagues: “I leave you as you begin your journey to the next 100 years. I trust you to be great stewards of this Land of Enchantment. It’s truly a remarkable participatory process.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Lujan is survived by his wife, Carmen, four children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild.



8:50am UPDATE: Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson today called former House Speaker Ben Lujan, who died late Tuesday at the age of 77, “a giant in New Mexico politics and government” and one who would go down in history as the state House of Representatives’ “greatest speaker,” in a statement released this morning.

“His legislative contributions were far-reaching, as he authored major legislation on health care, education, roads and taxes,” Richardson said of Lujan. “He single-handedly ushered the end of the onerous food tax and lowered taxes for every New Mexican.”

Attorney General Gary King also issued a statement of condolences upon learning of Lujan’s death.

“I had the honor of serving in the Legislature with Speaker Lujan and learned a great deal about service and caring for the people of New Mexico from his example,” King wrote. “All of us in the Attorney General’s Office send our thoughts and condolences to his family.”

Ben Lujan, the speaker of New Mexico’s House of Representative and the father of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, died late Tuesday, a spokesman for his son said. The longtime state lawmaker was 77.

The Santa Fe Democrat spent nearly 40 years in the chamber before he announced on the opening day of the 2012 session that he would not seek re-election. He shocked fellow lawmakers and others then as he disclosed his stage four lung cancer diagnosis, but he did not miss a House session this year as he went against doctors’ advice and presided over every one.

“Some doctors didn’t even want me to show up,” for the session, Lujan said in February. “… But I think the good Lord had a different mission for me.”

He died at about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday after a brief stay at Christus St. Vincent’s hospital in Santa Fe, Andrew Stoddard, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lujan, said early today.

The speaker’s wife, Carmen, children and grandchildren were at his bedside when he died, Stoddard said.

Lujan first won election in 1975. He was one of the longest serving lawmakers in the Legislature and also one of the most influential. He had been House speaker since 2001.

He maintained tight control in presiding over the House and was known to punish some dissenters within 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.

Lujan said he always tried to follow rules and be fair.

When Lujan brought down the gavel to close his final regular session this year, House members cheered “Que viva, que viva.” The cheer roughly translates to “long live” Ben Lujan.

After being 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.

He was diagnosed with cancer in late 2009.

Funeral arrangements are pending.