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House Speaker Lujan Dies

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – House Speaker Ben Lujan was praised as a political giant and a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged who bettered the lives of New Mexicans in his four decades of public service.

The longtime Democratic lawmaker, the father of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., died late Tuesday at a Santa Fe hospital, according to a spokesman for his son. He was 77.

Services are pending.

Lujan had been battling lung cancer since November 2009, although with his customary toughness he didn’t disclose it until January of this year, when he announced he would not run for re-election.

The son of a sheepherder and laborer, he lived north of Santa Fe in the village of Nambé with his wife of 53 years, Carmen.

Lujan’s chief of staff, Regis Pecos, said Lujan had been hospitalized Sunday with breathing problems. He remained alert and died soon after the arrival of a grandson who is serving in the U.S. Army, Pecos said.

“He went to sleep, peacefully, with Carmen there and all his children,” Pecos said.

The former ironworker and staunch defender of unions and public employees spent three decades in the leadership of the House, a dozen of those years as speaker. He was wrapping up a 19th term representing his Santa Fe County district.

“He was a tenacious fighter for education, for workers, for Native Americans, and for health care,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “His principles illuminated his life, and brightened the lives of all who knew him.”

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said Lujan “fought for causes near and dear to New Mexicans from all walks of life and guided the House of Representatives through some of the most important debates in our state’s history.”

“Speaker Lujan’s story was one that embodied the New Mexican dream and the American dream,” she said.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson, for whom the speaker was a crucial legislative ally, called Lujan “a giant in New Mexico politics and government.”

“He made lives better for every New Mexican, and we will miss him,” the two-term Democratic governor said.

Lujan stunned colleagues when he announced in a highly personal speech on the Legislature’s opening day in January that he had been given a cancer diagnosis more than two years earlier and had been waging a “quiet fight” against it.

He had undergone chemotherapy during the 2010 legislative session and daily radiation treatments for six weeks surrounding the June 2010 primary election, he told lawmakers.

Lujan attributed his disease to exposure to asbestos when he worked as a laborer at Los Alamos National Laboratory decades ago.

Lujan said the cancer was “a fight I will not shy away from,” and he presided over the House as usual during the 2012 session, although looking thinner and paler and using oxygen. After the session’s end, he attended interim meetings of legislative committees by telephone.

House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants – who is expected to succeed Lujan as speaker in January – said Lujan “left a tremendous legacy of fighting for New Mexico’s working families and was a tireless advocate for the most vulnerable in our communities.”

“One of his proudest accomplishments was removing the regressive tax on food, which benefited countless New Mexicans,” Martinez said.

House members during this year’s session passed a measure that also praised his work on issues including a higher minimum wage and job training programs and tax incentives to attract businesses.

Richardson ally

Lujan was known to push Richardson’s legislation through the Democratic-dominated House during sometimes fractious, late-night sessions, and the memorial passed by the Legislature cited his “unmatched stamina during marathon floor sessions.”

Lujan was the force behind a 2001 law meant to protect longtime homeowners from soaring property taxes – a problem Santa Fe and Taos residents, for example, encountered when their old neighborhoods suddenly became desirable to wealthy outsiders.

Critics say the law, with its 3 percent annual cap on the increase in assessed valuation until a house is sold, has had the unintended consequence of causing “tax lightning” – new owners paying higher taxes than their neighbors for similar properties. Legislators have been grappling with how to change the law.

The House speaker has broad powers, and Lujan presided over the House with a firm hand. His critics – especially minority Republicans – said it was more of an iron fist, and occasionally complained he ran roughshod over them.

But Lujan’s grip seemed to be loosening somewhat in recent years.

He barely kept his seat in the 2010 Democratic primary election, coming in just 84 votes ahead of newcomer Carl Trujillo, who will succeed him in the House next year.

And the Democratic caucus in the House had become restive. Martinez – the son of the late House Speaker Walter K. Martinez – unsuccessfully challenged Lujan for the speaker’s post in December 2006, when some Democrats were complaining that Lujan was too reluctant to buck Richardson. There was another, abortive bid to depose Lujan in 2011, by Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.

Lujan in his final term presided over the most deeply divided House of his tenure, with 36 Democrats, 33 Republicans, and one independent – who left the Democratic fold after a falling-out with Lujan.

Lujan was an intensely partisan Democrat, but he came from a family of Republicans in Nambé. He was the youngest of nine children.

When he was struggling to get enough money to stay in college, he couldn’t get an interview for a state job under a Republican administration. He had to drop out and vowed to register as a Democrat once he was old enough to vote.

He won election to the Santa Fe County Commission in 1970 and to the state House in 1974, making him its second-longest serving member, after Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh.

The House Democratic caucus elected him majority whip in 1983 and majority floor leader for the 1999 session. He became speaker in 2001, after then-Speaker Raymond Sanchez, D-Albuquerque – to whom Lujan had been a loyal lieutenant – lost his House seat.

The gymnasium at Pojoaque Valley High School bears his name, and there is a Ben Lujan Leadership and Public Policy Institute, funded through New Mexico Highlands University.

In addition to his wife and congressman son, Lujan is also survived by son Jerome Lujan and daughters Shirley Lujan and Jacqueline Lujan Valdez; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
See HOUSE on PAGE A2Longtime State Lawmaker Praised For Commitment, Service to New Mexicans

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal