At a fundraiser for his son, US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, in the College of Santa Fe’s spacious alumni building, Luján the father is dressed smartly in a charcoal suit and bolo tie. With the finesse of a career politico, he locks eyes with each admirer in turn. They will feel special—blessed, even—without Luján losing more than a few precious seconds. His petite, effective wife Carmen follows a half step behind, systematically applying little red-and-yellow “Re-Elect Ben Luján” stickers.
“Mr. Speaker, how are you, sir?” a man in a cowboy getup says deferentially.
“Nice seeing you folks!” Luján grins toothily.
“So who’s running against you?” the cowboy says.
“This young man, Carl Trujillo,” Luján says.
“Well, you’ll beat him,” the cowboy says matter-of-factly. Luján smiles without revealing what he really thinks: that this young upstart—who lives just a half-mile from Luján’s home and is the nephew of his childhood friend and fellow state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe—doesn’t stand a chance.
Ben Luján Sr. has represented District 46, the northern part of Santa Fe County, in the New Mexico House since 1975. His last challenge came in 2000—one year before his election as speaker—from Santa Fe climate change activist Robb Hirsch. This election year, Carl Trujillo has made headlines for his bold, if unlikely, bid for Luján’s seat, basing his campaign on the need for a leadership change.
The challenge hardly seems to ruffle Luján’s preternatural self-assurance.
“I have confidence that the people in my district will return me back,” Luján says.
Change, he adds, is “probably the only leg [Trujillo] can stand on. It’d be nice to see what accomplishments he has had in the community, if he’s ever been even the mayordomo of an acequia.”
When it comes to touting his own qualifications, Luján isn’t shy: He’s a member of four acequias and various local boards and clubs. (As if to prove that point, he left an evening message for SFR detailing the outcome of a Pojoaque High School baseball game: “We lost 7-6, but it was a great game!”)
According to Jim Trujillo, community involvement is a major factor in Luján’s political success.
“We’ve gotten a lot of funding because of his efforts,” Trujillo, who also represents northern Santa Fe County, tells SFR. “He’s been so important for the Pojoaque Valley—and I know, because I’m from there. Being around the same voters, I hear it all the time: a lot of respect for the speaker, and a lot of support.”
That’s partly why Trujillo says he’s supporting Luján over his own nephew. (He is, however, supporting another nephew, Daniel “Danny” Mayfield, who is running for Santa Fe county commissioner.)
Trujillo says he’s supporting Luján “based on what he has done and [because] he’s such a good leader.” In addition, Trujillo characterizes his nephew’s bid for the District 46 seat as “new kids on the block trying to see if they can take over, and they don’t have the slightest idea what it’s all about.”
But there’s another force at work. As far as clout goes, Trujillo is candid about the difference between a freshman representative and a seasoned speaker.
I don’t think, in my lifetime, we’ll ever have [another] speaker in the House for Santa Fe County,” Trujillo tells SFR. “The speaker is right up there with the governor as far as power, so why would we want to replace him with somebody that’s inexperienced?”
Trujillo describes Luján as “bright, articulate [and] fair.” But with all things Luján, the lines are blurry. Trujillo tells SFR that after only eight years in the Legislature, Luján named him as vice chairman of the Taxation and Revenue Committee. Not that that’s a favor per se—but even Luján agrees that naming committees is where the perception of his power comes from. Though he laughingly demurs when asked whether he’s among New Mexico’s most powerful people, he’s obviously heard it before.
“They [say] that just because of the position—just like they do with [US House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi,” Luján says. “It’s because I name the committees.”
But Luján’s unassuming exterior masks a steely ferocity that undoubtedly has also contributed to his political endurance. In a March 2009 outburst on the Senate floor, Luján called Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Hidalgo, a “racist SOB” and “full of shit” for accusing Luján of surreptitiously pushing through an amendment designed to benefit a private developer.
Despite Smith’s accusations, and others in 2006 that Luján knew about the Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos Civic Housing Authority scandal, the speaker has managed to keep his nose clean even during a notoriously scandal-ridden administration. Any allegations of corruption or sub-ethical behavior, Luján maintains, are just that: allegations.
“I try to be very low-key,” Luján says. “I don’t try to use my power in [a] manner that might be detrimental to anyone.”
He also says he’s never written a letter or made a call to solicit a campaign contribution—but with the kind of name recognition he has, one could argue he doesn’t have to.
“Probably,” he admits, “but I take pride in that.”
For a fleeting moment, Luján and his wife are alone with their matching political smiles, the aroma of brisket and the earnest chords of a soft-rock cover band. Then the wave hits—judges, legislators, little old ladies, union flunkies, party hacks and all manner of well-wishers descend upon the couple.
“When I started campaigning, my mom and dad [said], ‘You have a primo here, you have a primo there’—and that’s how we would gain support,” Luján says.
Thirty-five years later, with a son in Congress and a name synonymous with dynasty, Luján hardly needs his primos to get elected. He estimates he knows 90 percent of this 150-plus crowd.
Luján also seems utterly mystified by the question of what he’ll do if he isn’t re-elected. After a long pause, he says it’s unlikely.
“I’m not going to be here forever,” Luján concedes. “But I hope that when I decide not to run, we have an individual that is very knowledgeable.” (He says he has “quite a few” potential successors in mind, but won’t name any.)
He proffers a campaign brochure with a three-word slogan: “Still just Ben.”
“You always have to be the same person,” Luján tells SFR. “I might have the position of speaker, but to my people in my area, I’m just one of your neighbors or one of your relatives. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned.”