Monday, December 31, 2012

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP" Remembering the Speaker

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Dec. 30, 2012

R.I.P. Speaker Ben LujanIt was early one cold morning during the Legislative session. I forget the year, but it was sometime before they built the parking garage across Don Gaspar Avenue from the Roundhouse, back when you had to search for parking places several blocks away. I was getting close to Paseo de Peralta when my cellphone buzzed. When I answered, there was a familiar voice.

“Steve? This is Speaker Luján.”

Uh oh. I’ve long forgotten what the story was that I’d written that prompted this call. But I remember it was one I knew Ben Luján wouldn’t like. “Uh … hi, Mr. Speaker.”

“I liked your story in the paper this morning …”

I almost blurted out, “You did?” but instead sputtered some form of “thank you.”

“Only trouble is, everything in it was wrong.”

In my own defense, everything in the story wasn’t wrong. There were just some points about whatever issue it was that Luján wanted to make. And I let him make those points in a follow-up article the next day.

I thought about that call last Thursday at Luján’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. The 77-year-old legislator died Dec. 18 following a lengthy struggle with lung cancer.

That’s not the only time Ben Luján took issue with some story I’d written. He never was shy about calling personally and discussing a story with a reporter. He always was calm, never accusatory. And the next time he saw you, he always was friendly and cordial.

And — most important from a reporter’s point of view — Luján always was great about returning phone calls. (I hope Kenny Martinez, who is expected to succeed Luján in January, is reading this.)

That’s the kind of leader Luján was. That’s the Ben Luján I’ll remember.

Luján’s first session as speaker: I began covering the Legislature in late 2000, right after Luján’s predecessor, Raymond Sanchez, was defeated for re-election. Luján, who had served as Democratic floor leader under Sanchez, was nominated by the Democratic caucus for the speaker’s position.

I remember the first day of the 2001 session. After formally being elected by the House, Luján started heading toward the rostrum to take his oath of office. Somebody’s cellphone began ringing. (No, it wasn’t mine.) There was great laughter in the chamber when someone on the Republican side of the aisle said, “It’s Raymond.”

Of course, it wasn’t really Raymond Sanchez. But the quip illustrated a common perception that the new speaker had some big shoes to fill.

That was true. But it didn’t take long for Luján to begin making his own mark as speaker.

Hugs, not thugs: At one point during that 2001 session, the state chairman of the Republican Party in a news release referred to Luján as a “thug enforcer” for Sanchez.

This prompted a backlash on the House floor — not only from Democrats, but Republicans as well.

“I’m proud to be a member of this Legislature,” said Joe Mohorovic, a Republican lawmaker who represented an Albuquerque district. “And Mr. Speaker, let me say, I’m proud of my speaker.”

Attempted coups: Of course it wasn’t always a love fest when Luján was speaker.

Guest of the SpeakerHe survived two attempted coups against him. One came in 2005 when Martinez, the Democratic floor leader from Grants, challenged him for the job. Some Democrats at the time complained that Luján was too heavy-handed, which Luján denied.

Luján survived that caucus vote and by all accounts worked well with Martinez for the rest of his time in the Legislature.

Then in 2010, after Democrats lost eight seats in the House, then-Rep. Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces tried to forge a coalition with House Republicans to oust Luján.

Ironically, however, Luján was saved by Tea Party groups, who made it known to GOP representatives that they didn’t want any Republican to vote for Cervantes or any Democrat for speaker.

Yes, I’m going to miss Ben Luján. Even his calls when he was mad at me.