I’m on leave from work, but I’m thinking of the late House Speaker Ben Lujan this afternoon as his son, the congressman from New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, addresses a joint session of the Legislature.
I am remembering that Lujan kept his lung cancer diagnosis and treatment secret for years, even while he and his wife, Carmen, were driving almost daily to Albuquerque for treatment, keeping up with his job as speaker all along. Fortunately, he lived long enough to see his son, Ben Ray Lujan, elected and begin serving in Congress.
And what now is rising in my recollections is the breadth of the speaker’s smile when he sat in the first row on the Democratic side of the House to watch his son take the podium and deliver his first address to the Legislature as a congressman. The speaker always had a big grin. This time I thought it might bust.
I first reported on Ben Lujan when he was a Santa Fe County commissioner, before he moved on to a nearly 40-year-long career in the Legislature, where I covered him too. We never were close. He had the traditional wariness of Northern New Mexico natives for outsiders, and I was always part of what seemed to him as an unreliable and hostile media.
The Nambé lawmaker was usually seen as intensely partisan or parochial, but maybe that was what was great about him. I was convinced from way back that he was not a politician in it for himself., that he really just wanted to help the people. And the people of his Santa Fe-based district came first.
He was on the county commission, as I recall, when Santa Fe County began thinking about buying additional water for the future from the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project.
Many think his state legislation to prevent what we now call property tax lightning was unconstitutional as hell, but I’m sure it helped many. The classic victims of property tax lightning were older generation New Mexico natives, maybe especially in Santa Fe, whose families had owned and lived in a home for generations, only to have their taxes soar when a newcomer with money decided the neighborhood was cute and built a mansion next door.
Lujan also did a lot to help veterans in serious ways. And I can’t forget that the appreciation and traditions of vets in New Mexico is great enough in old New Mexico that vets got a museum when the arts-community moved in on their longtime armory grounds on Old Santa Fe Trail.
I’ve never been a big fan of legislative memorials, but Ben Lujan sponsored my favorite of all time, the state’s now-famous official question, “Red or green?” It revealed to me after many years that he also had a fine sense of humor.
I am deeply sorry for the suffering Lujan endured in his last years, but I’m sure he’s shining that big grin down on his family, friends and constituents today.
Here’s a column I wrote for the Journal in 2012: “‘One tough guy”
And Kevin Robinson-Avila reports now that Rep. Ben Ray Lujan’s remarks to the Legislature today were pretty darn interesting. A lab management consortium? Could this be a real opportunity for New Mexico universities, for instance?