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At the Roundhouse: One Tough Guy

Whatever else might be said about Ben Lujan’s long service in the New Mexico House, it’s now more clear than ever that this is one tough guy.

“Every morning, by 7 a.m., Carmen and I would start our routine drive to Albuquerque for radiation treatment,” the longtime Nambé Democrat told the opening session of the Legislature, disclosing for the first time Tuesday that he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in November of 2009.

With a steady voice, he referred to his wife of 52 years and the secret they managed to keep for more than two years, even as he continued to run the House. And that was only part of what we now know has been his running battle with a terrible disease.

Lujan, who has been House speaker since 2001 and a member since 1975, said he ran for re-election in 2010 and kept serving because he felt he had obligations to the “people of New Mexico” and the House of Representatives.

I believe him.

All guts, no glamour: I have reported on Lujan since the 1970s. He is no showboat, not the stereotypical, personally ambitious politician.

Yes, he is known as an intense partisan and inside fighter — too much so for many tastes. Yes, he became Gov. Bill Richardson’s most predictable legislative ally. Yes, he has done things for constituents that some think are legally overboard, most notably his protection of longtime homeowners — say second and third generations, maybe even older – from so-called property tax lightning. Yes, he is a staunch defender of public employees and unions, so doubted in these pendulum-swinging, tightened economy days. Yes, for many New Mexicans outside his Santa Fe County district, he is a poster boy for a tax-and-spend Capitol cabal.

But I think Lujan also is a man of simple, strong values who is deeply honored to serve as a leader of his native state’s Legislature. And he takes very seriously his fight for what he thinks is right for his constituents. It’s stuff that’s hard for us to understand in an era of extreme cynicism about politics.

Lujan is proud of his heritage and his family. His pride in public service extends to his son, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who won northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat in 2008. I remember the ear-to-ear grin of the proud father as the newly elected son gave his first guest address to the Legislature in 2009.

Lujan often has been underestimated, including by me.

In his speech Tuesday, Lujan mentioned “attacks on my leadership, my integrity and my commitment” while he was secretly undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for his lung cancer — the awful affliction he thinks resulted from exposure to asbestos while working in Los Alamos decades ago.

As he said those words, I recalled Lujan’s clenched jaw and the wary, sideways looks I got when I confronted him a couple of times over the past several years. I know now some of what he was holding back.

Bottom line: The saga of Lujan’s illness and House leadership is still unfolding at the Roundhouse.

Two things stood out in Capitol conversations after his dramatic disclosure Tuesday.

First was that he managed to keep his illness and treatment so secret, for two years, in a place as gossip-wired as the Roundhouse.

Second, everyone was still scratching their heads over legislative rules on a House speaker — the most powerful member of the Legislature — designating a stand-in.

Lujan said he plans to continue running the House during the just-started 30-day session, but obviously there are questions in the Roundhouse about whether he will continue to feel well enough to be there every day. The questions involve presiding over the House as well as serving as a member on key committees, particularly the politically volatile Taxation and Revenue Committee.

The key rule appears to be House Rule 4.5. It reads: “The speaker may call any member to the chair to act as speaker, but no such designation shall exceed one day without the consent of the House.”

The betting around the Roundhouse on Tuesday was that Republicans in the narrowly divided House will lay off any questions about the rule and leadership, for at least a few days, if not for the entire session, out of deference and sympathy to the struggling speaker.

At least one person suggested that if there is any challenge to Lujan’s leadership plan, it would come from his own side of the aisle.

The bottom line, though, is that no one knows how it’s going to play out.

In the meantime, one very tough guy is still in the saddle.