New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján died late Tuesday after a long struggle with lung cancer.
Luján’s chief of staff, Regis Pecos, said Luján had been hospitalized since Sunday for respiratory problems. He died about 10:45 p.m., Pecos said.
“He was with [his wife] Carmen and the congressman,” Pecos said, referring to Luján’s son, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.
Pecos said Luján died after his grandson, Dominic Valdez, a soldier stationed in Kentucky, arrived.
Luján, 77, a Democrat from Nambé, announced early this year that he wouldn’t seek re-election for another term because of his medical condition. He has been New Mexico House speaker since 2001.
After first serving on the Santa Fe County Commission, Luján was elected to the Legislature in 1974 and held Democratic leadership positions for nearly 30 years. His rise to become one of the state’s best known politicians came after months of hitchhiking to high school, years of laborious ironwork at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and untold time on the campaign trail.
Along the way, Luján became ingrained in the state’s power structure. His face was one that many in Northern New Mexico would come to recognize, even without following politics. His time in elected office put him up with other big names in the state, such as Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman — people who served 30 years or more in the public eye.
Luján was born in Nambé, where he lived with his family until his death. He was the son of a sheepherder and the youngest of nine children.
In a 2000 interview with The New Mexican, Luján recalled having to hitch a ride to Santa Fe for high school classes when his dad needed the family truck. He later switched to Pojoaque High School and made the varsity basketball team — a sport Luján continued to support, even playing in recent years at the annual House-Senate charity basketball game.
It was basketball that first brought together Luján and state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe.
Trujillo said in a recent interview that he recalled watching Luján, who was ahead of him in high school, play on the court. “He was really quite an athlete,” Trujillo said.
The two remained friends over the years, and Trujillo said he was buoyed emotionally by the fact that Luján until recently was still visiting the speaker’s office at the Capitol and participated in a late-August caucus by phone.
Trujillo said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen Luján since this summer because the family wanted to maintain their privacy. “I think we are going to miss him,” Trujillo said. “He was a heck of a legislator, and an era has ended with him.”
After his stardom as a basketball player, Luján and Carmen, high school sweethearts, were married in 1959. They had four children.
In the years that followed, Luján became known for his work with unions.
Previous to his election to the House, Luján in 1970 was elected to the Santa Fe County Commission. He was elected to the House in 1974, and in 1983, he began serving as the Democratic whip. Later, in 1999, he started as the House majority leader. Lawmakers chose him as speaker in 2001.
Throughout those years, Luján dealt with a variety of governors and other political leaders, sometime butting heads and drawing challenges to his leadership, but often working to form coalitions and forge compromises.
In an interview earlier this year, Luján blamed his lung cancer on his exposure to asbestos during his work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Luján worked at the lab from the 1960s to the ’80s, and his job as an ironworker involved mixing dry asbestos powder into a wet solution. There was no requirement to wear a face mask or respirator, he told The New Mexican.
A lab spokesman called the link “speculation,” but Luján insisted the exposure had to be the cause. He said he had never smoked and pointed to the similar fate of a co-worker who also died of lung cancer.
In 2007, well before his diagnosis, Luján was instrumental in setting up the state’s Office of Nuclear Workers’ Advocacy, which assists current or former employees of a U.S. Department of Energy site who are battling illnesses.
Luján’s announcement of his illness was a shock to many involved in New Mexico politics, in part because he had kept it secret for about two years. Doctors diagnosed him with the cancer shortly after his 50th wedding anniversary in 2009. He quietly underwent cancer treatment during the final weeks of the June 2010 primary election that he narrowly won. During a 2011 special session of the Legislature, Luján was getting treatments at night.
It is unclear how those treatments worked against the advanced stages of the cancer. Luján had told friends this fall that doctors at The University of New Mexico were trying new treatments.
Lobbyists, Roundhouse staffers and other politicians said their professional goodbyes during the session, and numerous current and former lawmakers honored Luján with accolades on the closing day. At the time, he described his work as “a humbling experience, to say the least, and a deeply rewarding experience that we could contribute in some small way to make New Mexico and hopefully the U.S. and the world a better place.”
Luján 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 state Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat who previously served in the House. He said Luján once advised him to “always stick to your guns” on an issue.
As speaker, Luján 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 Luján 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 Luján as a protest.
Luján defended his leadership, saying, “I always tried to do the very best.”
Lawmakers from both parties remembered Luján 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 Luján during the legislative session.
Luján 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 Luján who helped broker a final compromise version that passed despite strong resistance in the Senate. Luján also championed legislation to cap property-tax increases, and finance highway projects and a worker training subsidy program that was one of the state’s main economic development incentives.
Luján also was known for his tireless leadership. Lawmakers often recalled that Luján 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 earlier this year — through a very contentious 30-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 Luján 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 Luján said in January.
Ben Luján succeeded longtime Speaker Raymond Sanchez after Sanchez 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.”
At the end of his final legislative session, which coincided with New Mexico’s statehood centennial, Luján 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.”
Lujan is survived by his wife, Carmen, four children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Following Luján’s rise
1935: Luján is the youngest of nine siblings in his Nambé family.
1970: Elected to Santa Fe County Commission while employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory as an ironworker.
1974: Elected as state representative.
1983: Begins serving as the Democratic whip.
1999: Becomes House majority leader.
2001: Elected speaker of the House.
2004: Campaigns to help his son, Ben Ray Luján, win a seat on state Public Regulation Commission; sponsors a food-tax repeal that is eventually signed into law.
2007: Helps establish state’s Office of Nuclear Workers’ Advocacy to assist current or former employees of a U.S. Department of Energy site.
2009: Diagnosed with cancer.
2012: In January, after serving 19 terms in Legislature, announces he won’t seek re-election due to illness. In December, dies in Santa Fe with his wife, Carmen, and others at his side.