New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan died late Tuesday after a long struggle with lung cancer.
Lujan's chief of staff, Regis Pecos, said Lujan had been hospitalized since Sunday for respiratory problems. He died about 10:45 p.m., Pecos said.
"He was with [his wife] Carmen and the congressman," Pecos said, referring to Lujan's son, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.
Pecos said Lujan died after his grandson, Dominic Valdez, a soldier stationed in Kentucky, arrived.
Lujan, 77, a Democrat from Nambe, announced early this year that he wouldn't seek re-election for another term because of his medical condition. He has been New Mexico House speaker since 2001.
After first serving on the Santa Fe County Commission, Lujan was elected to the Legislature in 1975, and held Democratic leadership positions for nearly 30 years. His rise to become one of the state's best known politicians came after months of hitchhiking to high school, years of laborious iron work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and untold time on the campaign trail.
Along the way, Lujan became ingrained in the state's power structure, a face that many in Northern New Mexico could recognize, even without having followed politics. His time in elected office put him up with other big names in the state -- the Pete Domenicis, Jeff Bingamans and others who served 30 years or more in the public eye.
Lujan was born in Nambe, where he lived with his family until his death. He was the son of a sheepherder and the youngest of nine children.
In a 2000 interview with The New Mexican, Lujan recalled having to hitch a ride to Santa Fe for high school classes when his dad needed the family truck. He later switched to Pojoaque High School and made the varsity basketball team -- a sport Lujan continued to support, even playing in recent years at the annual House-Senate charity basketball game.
It was basketball that first brought Lujan and Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, together.
Trujillo said in a recent interview he recalled watching Lujan, who was ahead of him in high school, play on the court. "He was really quite an athlete," Trujillo said.
The two remained friends over the years, and Trujillo said he was buoyed emotionally by the fact that Lujan until recently still was visiting the Speaker's Office at the Capitol and participated in a late-August caucus by phone.
Trujillo said Wednesday that he hadn't seen Lujan since this summer because the family wanted to maintain their privacy. "I think we are going to miss him," he said. "He was a heck of a legislator and an era has ended with him."
After his stardom as a basketball player, Lujan and Carmen, high school sweethearts, were married in 1959. They had four children.
In the years that followed, Lujan became known for his work with unions.
Previous to his election to the House, Lujan in 1970 was elected to the Santa Fe County Commission. After his election to the House in 1974, he in 1983 began serving as the Democratic whip, and later, in 1999, started as the House majority leader. Lawmakers chose him as speaker in 2001.
Throughout those years, Lujan dealt with a variety of governors and other political leaders, sometime butting heads and drawing challenges to his leadership but often working to form coalitions and forge compromises.
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