The day after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi surprised everyone on Capitol Hill by naming Rep. Ben Ray Luján as the next chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the obviously – and understandably – elated northern New Mexico congressman made the rounds at the U.S. Capitol.
As his phone blew up with congratulations from excited friends, family members and constituents, Luján appeared at a press conference with Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership team, then he headed to the House floor to vote. A member of the DCCC’s press office shadowed him.
After the vote, I caught up with the suddenly in-demand congressman in the House Speaker’s Lobby, an ornate room that glitters with bronze sculpture, rich oil paintings, Tennessee marble and antique floor tiles. Luján, a 42-year-old former blackjack dealer, suddenly seemed a long way from his family’s homestead in the hills north of Santa Fe.
After congratulating him, I asked Luján how he planned to fulfill his duties as the House Democrats’ top election strategist while keeping an eye on the people and issues back home in his remote congressional district. How would he avoid “going Washington?”
“If anyone is concerned about that, they can join me this weekend (at his home in New Mexico) and help me clean out the sheep barns,” the congressman said with a broad smile. “If they have a free hand and want to help me shovel some of what the sheep produced, come on by!”
Obviously, Luján was playfully saying that he won’t forget where he came from. A lot of ambitious politicians who come to Washington say that – right before they turn into insufferable, pompous blowhards. To his credit, that sort of puffery isn’t Luján’s style. He knows it wouldn’t play well in Rio Arriba County, Taos or Farmington.
Say what you will about the fourth-term congressman, but he is very much a product of his humble home state, from the big bolo ties he wears on the House floor to his lilting New Mexico accent, to the cadre of New Mexicans in Washington who staff his Capitol Hill office and occasionally hang out in D.C. bars watching Lobos games with him.
Luján will no doubt return home to northern New Mexico regularly to check on his elderly mother, shovel the sheep barns and tend to his constituents.
But he’ll also be in heavy national demand as DCCC chairman.
Two nights after Pelosi tapped him to head the House Democrats’ election strategy, MSNBC asked him to talk about the president’s immigration plan on Rachel Maddow’s show. Luján did fine on Maddow, although his tendency to rely heavily on predictable Democratic Party talking points was on display.
Pelosi gave Luján the job because he is relatively young and energetic. The fact that he is Hispanic clearly factored into the decision, as well.
After the shellacking Democrats took in the mid-term elections this month, Luján has a lot – and I mean a lot – of work to do.
If Democrats do better in 2016, his performance as DCCC chair could vault him to an even bigger position on the national stage. If they underperform, it will tarnish his rising political star.
Lujan is one of the more liberal members of the House and he’s not bashful about his positions. More than one Republican told me last week they look forward to moderate Democratic House candidates trying to downplay their affiliation with him and his voting record. We’ll see if that actually becomes an issue.
Meanwhile, Luján said he’s studying the national political terrain and ready to jump enthusiastically into the new job. But he promises he’ll always keep his feet in New Mexico.
“My dad (the late New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan) taught me the importance of taking care of the farm and home,” Luján said. “That is my home. My mom is home. I have responsibility to her and I’m never going to abandon that. New Mexico is where I was born and raised, and I will never, ever abandon New Mexico.
“I’m always grounded,” he added.
The next day, the White House called. They wanted Luján to join Obama on Air Force One for his trip to Nevada, where he would speak about immigration.
Flying out west on the president’s fabled airplane high above the clouds on Friday, it’s unclear if Luján could see New Mexico in the distance.