Ben Ray Luján Takes on the State

Now a candidate for US Senate, Luján also has self-quarantined due to COVID-19

US Rep. Ben Ray Luján was wearing his signature turquoise bolo tie at the March 7 New Mexico Democratic Party's pre-primary convention. He hadn't seen the Wall Street Journal story the week before mentioning his particular bolo in a story on the Western neckwear's "comeback."

"They never went away," said Luján, who often wears a bolo tie on the House floor. "That's what I say to the Wall Street Journal."

This particular tie belonged to his father, the late Ben Luján, Sr., former Speaker of the House in the New Mexico Legislature, to which he was elected in 1974 and served until his death in 2012. "This one I wear for significant events," Luján told SFR. "You'll see this one a lot. It's just a reminder when I need my dad with me."

The pre-primary convention's significance: It codified Luján's candidacy for the US Senate seat currently held by Tom Udall, who is not seeking re-election. As of now, Luján faces no opponents in the Democrat primary. The contest for the 3rd Congressional District he represents, on the other hand, remains crowded with seven candidates (by the convention's end, only Santa Fe lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez and Sandoval County Clerk Laura Montoya earned enough votes from delegates to appear on the ballot in the first and second spots, respectively; none of the other candidates, however, have left the race and can earn spots on the ballot with additional signatures).

Luján hasn't and won't be endorsing in the primary election to replace him in the US House. "I think we have some incredible candidates," he told SFR, noting that Udall didn't endorse in the race Luján first ran in 2008 to replace him, although Udall's late father—former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall—did. "It's always up to the electorate," Lujan said. "That's what we're going to see. It will play itself out."

Having taken over Udall's congressional district more than a decade ago, Luján may have seemed like a natural successor for his US Senate seat. Nonetheless, Luján said he did not receive an early heads up from the outgoing senator. "I found out with everybody else," he said, recalling his first conversation with Udall after he learned the news. "My first question was, 'Are you sure, Senator? Will you change your mind? We really need your service.' And he said, 'No, the reason I made that announcement is I didn't want anyone else to change my mind.'"

Lujan will face at least a Republican challenger. That party's primary convention had two candidates emerge with enough votes for the primary ballot: Anti-abortion advocate Elisa Martinez and former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.

As for winning over the rest of the state, Luján describes the 3rd Congressional District as "a microcosm" of the whole state, as well as the entire US. "You reflect on the diversity where the Plains hit the Rockies," he said. "Seventeen of New Mexico's 23 sovereign nations…Canon Air Force base down in Clovis, the special operations unit for the West Coast for the Air Force, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Intel, the City of Rio Rancho. We have progressive communities throughout the 3rd District, but especially in Taos and in Santa Fe, but you also find that in San Juan County or down in Curry or Roosevelt, where you have some or the more conservative counties."

When he first ran in 2008, he noted, he wasn't as strong in those areas. "I didn't win Los Alamos," he said. "Sandoval was not as blue as it is now, but through reaching out year after year…Los Alamos is now a blue county, we're doing better in San Juan. If you're willing to show up and talk to folks and you get to know each other, you can earn support."

That's been his approach, he said, since entering Congress, where his toughest race was his first six-way primary in 2008, when he emerged with 42% of the vote. Since then, he's steadily risen to maintain low 60% percentiles in each contested race.

He attributes his face-to-face approach to his background, a theme he also emphasized earlier that morning to delegates as he spoke of his family and upbringing in Nambé.

"My voting record is very clear," he told SFR. "I stand on the values and principles I was raised with and that's what guides me with policy decisions. Mom and Dad always told me when I was first elected that every vote you cast impacts people and you have to make sure you're coming home to explain that vote. Some people are going to agree with it, some people are going to disagree with it, some people may be OK with it, but they're not completely enthused. You represent them too and you have to explain that vote to them."

Currently serving as Assistant Speaker in the 116th Congress and the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congress, Luján has a 96% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He tells SFR some of his priorities should he be elected to the US Senate will include legislation to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that created corporate personhood; lowering prescription drug costs; addressing gun violence; and helping return the US to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Just the day before the pre-primary convention, Luján had kicked off US Census activities in New Mexico through his congressional office, which he has made a priority.

The short interview with Lujan took place just before New Mexico enacted a state of emergency for the COVID-19 outbreak, although the congressman was already greeting people with his elbow. "I think the president and the vice president in their remarks when they're speaking to the American people should not conflict with policy experts from the National Institutes of Health and public health policy experts," he said, "because they're confusing people who need the experts providing the guidance and the rest of us need to be sharing that guidance with the American people."

On March 16, Luján announced plans to self-quarantine after a brief interaction with an individual who at the time was asymptomatic but later tested positive for COVID-19. A news release said Luján is exhibiting no symptoms, and has been advised by health professionals that he is at a low probability for infection.

On Tuesday, Luján is scheduled to hold a "teletownhall" with New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel at 7 pm to provide information and updates. The call-in number is 877-229-8493 and the code is 112437.

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