SANTA FE — Ben Luján, an ironworker who discovered that he had a talent for politics and rose to speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, died Tuesday night. He was 77.
The cause was lung cancer, with which Lujan was diagnosed in February 2009.
He kept his illness a secret from most until he announced from the speaker’s lectern in January that he was ill and would not seek re-election.
A Democrat from Nambé in Santa Fe County, Luján first was elected to the House in 1974.
Fellow Democrats elected him as the party’s whip in 1983, a job he held until 1998. They chose him as their floor leader in 1999.
Luján ascended to speaker in 2001, after his friend, Raymond Sanchez, was upset in the general election.
As speaker, Luján spent the past 12 years running floor sessions, making committee assignments and shaping the business of the day.
State Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, summed up Luján in a sentence: “Small in stature, big gavel.”
Baldonado was born in 1974, the year of Luján’s first victorious campaign for the House. Despite their differences in age and party, they got along well.
“He always treated me fair. He always treated me well,” Baldonado said.
Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Aña, also could describe Luján in just a few words.
“Ben,” she said, “was an institution.”
Luján took seriously the idea that he was a representative of the people, Garcia said, paying attention to the underdog when it came to housing, education and tax policy.
“Such a kind and compassionate man he was,” Garcia said.
Luján and Gov. Susana Martinez clashed over the governor’s desire to keep undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.
But on hearing of Luján’s death, Martinez praised the veteran legislator.
“He 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,” she said.