After announcing to a tear-filled room in January that he wouldn’t seek reelection because he was fighting stage-4 lung cancer, New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján’s battle with the disease has come to an end. He walked on Tuesday, December 18 with his wife Carmen, his children, including his son, Congressman Ben Ray Luján, and grandchildren at his side at Christus-St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Luján, 77, had served in the New Mexico House of Representatives since 1975 and as speaker since 2001. As speaker he was responsible for appointing committee chairmen and members as well as setting the daily agenda.
But his road to success wasn’t an easy one. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican he was born in Nambe, New Mexico, the son of a sheepherder, the youngest of nine children, he hitchhiked to high school and worked as an ironworker at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Luján actually blames his lung cancer on being exposed to asbestos while working at Los Alamos in the 1970s and 1980s and not being required to wear a mask.
“Ben came of age in the Great Depression. He knew poverty and hard times first hand. He never forgot where he came from, and he was always a champion for the less fortunate among us. He was a tenacious fighter for education, for workers, for Native Americans, and for health care. His principles illuminated his life, and brightened the lives of all who knew him,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in a statement. “Ben once said, ‘Let us make our time on Earth… worthwhile, and do what’s right, and make a difference for the children, our working families, and our elderly.’ He lived up to that challenge throughout his life, and he leaves behind a remarkable legacy of service to New Mexico.”
Luján was also an athlete—his sport of choice was basketball. He was on the varsity team at Pojoaque High School in Santa Fe, reported the New Mexican.
Before passing Luján told the Associated Press his proudest accomplishment was the removal of the tax on food in 2004, a bill he sponsored.
His fellow lawmakers were impressed he was able to continue working through cancer treatments.
“It’s an unbelievable statement to his strength and character,” Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told the AP.
But it’s no surprise to his son, who has followed in his father’s political footsteps.
“That’s his conviction, that’s his passion, to be able to keep fighting for people here and doing what’s right,” Ben Ray Luján told the AP in January.
Luján’s passing hasn’t gone unnoticed by those he helped in Indian country either.
“I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Speaker Luján. I lost a friend and a colleague. We knew each other for many years and through the years, my respect and admiration for Speaker Luján strengthened as I witnessed his courageous leadership,” said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in a statement. “The Navajo Nation lost an advocate in the state of New Mexico. Speaker Luján was always gracious and lent an ear to hear about the issues facing the Navajo people, which many times turned to support of key legislative items in the Statehouse. Speaker Luján helped and in some cases was solely responsible for pushing important legislation through the New Mexico Statehouse that helped improve the lives of many Navajo people in New Mexico.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.