In an interview earlier this year, Lujan blamed the disease on his exposure to asbestos during his work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lujan worked at the lab from the 1960s to the 80s and his job as an ironworker involved mixing dry asbestos powder into a wet solution. There was no requirement to wear a face mask or respirator, he told The New Mexican.
A lab spokesman called the link "speculation," but Lujan insisted the exposure had to be the cause, saying he never smoked and pointing to the similar fate of a fellow coworker who also died of lung cancer as evidence. Ironically, Lujan in 2007 was instrumental in setting up the state's Office of Nuclear Workers' Advocacy, which assists current or former employees of a U.S. Department of Energy site.
Lujan's announcement of his illness was a shock to many involved in New Mexico politics, in part because he had kept it secret for about two years. Doctors diagnosed him with the cancer shortly after his 50th wedding anniversary in 2009. He quietly underwent cancer treatment during the final weeks of the June 2010 primary election that he narrowly won. During a 2011 special session of the Legislature, Lujan was getting treatments at night.
It is unclear how those treatments worked against the advanced stages of the cancer. Lujan had told friends this fall that doctors at The University of New Mexico were trying new treatments.
Lobbyists, Roundhouse staffers and other politicians said their professional goodbyes during the session, and numerous current and former lawmakers honored Lujan with accolades on the closing day. At the time, he described his work as "a humbling experience, to say the least, and a deeply rewarding experience that we could contribute in some small way to make New Mexico and hopefully the U.S. and the world a better place."
Lujan was one of the most influential men in the Legislature and known for his keen knowledge of legislative rules and procedures in steering bills through the House or keeping measures bottled up in committees.
"This guy was one of the smartest legislators I ever met," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat who previously served in the House. He said Lujan once advised him to "always stick to your guns" on an issue.
As speaker, he appointed committee chairmen and members -- a source of considerable power in controlling legislation -- and he dictated the daily agenda in the House. Republicans, at times, complained that Lujan used the rules to squelch GOP dissent during floor debates. At one point during a fractious debate in 2004 over a tax-cutting bill, House Republicans trooped to the front of the chamber and dumped their rule books on the rostrum in front of Lujan as a protest.
Lujan defended his leadership, saying, "I always tried to do the very best."
Lawmakers from both parties remembered Lujan as a tenacious but humble lawmaker.
"You're a battler. You're a fighter. You can get knocked down and you pick yourself back up," Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat, told Lujan during the legislative session.
Lujan pointed to removal of the tax on food in 2004 as one of his proudest accomplishments. He sponsored the bill that was signed into law by then Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, and it was Lujan who helped broker a final compromise version that passed despite strong resistance in the Senate. Lujan also championed legislation to cap property tax increases, finance highway projects and a worker training subsidy program that was one of the state's main economic development incentives.
Lujan was also known for his tireless leadership. Lawmakers often recalled that Lujan would finish all-night floor sessions with his silver hair perfectly in place, as if he were just starting the day.
Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he was amazed the speaker was able to run the House earlier this year -- through a very contentious 60-day session and a special session on redistricting -- while getting cancer treatment.
"It's an unbelievable statement to his strength and character," Egolf said.
Congressman Lujan said his father loved New Mexico and its people. "That's his conviction, that's his passion, to be able to keep fighting for people here and doing what's right," the younger Lujan said in January.
Ben Lujan was the House's majority whip and majority floor leader before being elected speaker. He succeeded longtime Speaker Raymond Sanchez, who lost his legislative seat in 2000.
Sanchez said few people serve as House speaker but "even fewer of us have the honor and privilege of meeting someone who becomes your instant friend, your companion, the person you trust with your life and the man who will cover your back no matter where you are."
At the end of his final legislative session, which coincided with New Mexico's statehood centennial, Lujan told his colleagues: "I leave you as you begin your journey to the next 100 years. I trust you to be great stewards of this Land of Enchantment. It's truly a remarkable participatory process."
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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