Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D)
New Mexico 3rd District
“The dancing ground of the sun,” is what the Pueblo Indians called the land of northern New Mexico, where the long vistas, dotted with low-lying scrub, are painted in pastel hues in the cold light and clear air. For 100 years, artists have been coming here, attracted by the scenery and by a unique civilization that is part Indian, part Anglo, part Spanish, and a little Mexican (northern New Mexico was under Mexican control only from 1821-46). The region’s long-surviving traditions, however, mask the instabilities of this blended civilization. The Indians were here first and built adobe pueblos, including some of the world’s earliest apartment buildings. The Spanish conquistadors and priests brought the Catholic religion, the baroque architectural accents and the Spanish language. Successive waves of American settlement have changed New Mexico in multiple ways. The Indian crafts that thrive today nearly died out in the 1880s. The Palace of the Governors, built in Santa Fe in 1610, was shorn of a Victorian balustrade and returned to its original appearance in 1913. Along the back roads in Rio Arriba or Taos counties, one can find a religion that mixes Catholicism with adaptations of Indian festivals, buildings not that much different from the old pueblos and a standard of living reminiscent of the Indian past, although sometimes punctuated by high rates of drug abuse. It’s quite a contrast with the chichi ski lodges in the Taos Valley, the high-security research facilities of Los Alamos and the affluent, bohemian lifestyles of modern-day Santa Fe, where zoning laws decree that the color of all buildings must be adobe brown.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 3rd Congressional District of New Mexico contains most of the state’s historic Spanish-speaking and Indian parts. In 2007, Rio Rancho, with 76,000 residents, became the district’s most populous city, but trendy Santa Fe, where painter Georgia O’Keeffe was a major cultural force and local spas have encouraged the tourism boom, remains its most dominant. The 3rd runs from the High Plains along the Texas border, past the haunting Sangre de Cristo Mountains, through the vast ridges and isolated buttes in the center, to the windy and dusty desertlike plains. Its Hispanic population is 38%, the lowest of the state’s three districts. Another 17% of the district population is Indian, the most of the state’s three districts. Concentrated in and around the Navajo Reservation in the west, the district’s Indians live in abject poverty.
The politics of northern New Mexico are unique. For years, debate was conducted and votes bartered in Spanish, not by separatists, but by Republicans and Democrats, often cynically, sometimes corruptly. Loyalties ran to families and communities more than to principles or parties. In the backcountry, you can still find more than just vestiges of the old communities and old politics—though no one is going to let you in on them, even if you speak good Spanish. Republican territory includes the Little Texas counties, the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, the mining and ranching country around Farmington, and the nuclear scientists of Los Alamos, but on the whole, this is a Democratic district. Both Hispanics and Indians are solidly Democratic, and in Santa Fe and Taos, the affluent and hippie migrants have produced a strong leftist tilt. Politically, this is a sharply divided district. Santa Fe, Taos and San Miguel counties voted more than 70% for John Kerry in 2004 and more than 75% for Barack Obama in 2008. President George W. Bush in 2004 won 65% to 77% in the counties on the Texas border and 66% in Farmington’s San Juan County. Republican nominee John McCain’s 2008 winning percentages in those counties ranged from 59% to 70%. Overall, the district voted 54%-45% for Kerry in 2004 and 61%-38% for Barack Obama in 2008.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: June 7, 1972, Santa Fe .
Education: NM Highlands U., B.B.A., 2007..
The new congressman from the 3rd District is Democrat Ben Ray Luján, who was elected in 2008 to the seat vacated when Democrat Tom Udall ran for the Senate. A seventh-generation New Mexican, Luján (LOO-han) is the son of state House Speaker Ben Luján. Luján was born in Santa Fe and grew up on his family’s farm, where he and his three siblings helped raise cattle, sheep and chickens. Luján’s father was a union ironworker who was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1975. Luján’s mother worked as a secretary for the Pojoaque Valley School District. After graduating from Pojoaque High School, Luján worked as a card dealer in a casino while attending classes at New Mexico Highlands University. In 2002, he became a deputy state treasurer, and a year later, he went to the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs as its chief financial officer and director of administrative services.
|Ben Ray Luján (D)||161,292||(57%)||($1,520,908)|
|Daniel East (R)||86,618||(30%)||($190,884)|
|Carol Miller (I)||36,348||(13%)||($42,154)|
|Ben Ray Luján (D)||26,775||(42%)|
|Donald Wiviott (D)||16,497||(26%)|
|Benny Shendo (D)||10,148||(16%)|
|Harry Montoya (D)||7,234||(11%)|
Luján’s first experience with electoral politics was 2004, when he was elected to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, which regulates utilities, telecommunications, insurance and transportation in the state. Despite his somewhat sparse credentials, his fellow commissioners elected him chairman. The most pressing issue was the failure of Qwest Communications to invest a promised $788 million in its New Mexico communications network. Under Luján’s leadership, the PRC ordered Qwest to invest in infrastructure or refund the money to customers. Qwest refused, and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson advocated for a settlement. But Luján and the PRC steadfastly rejected Qwest’s settlement offer, opting instead to take the company to the New Mexico Supreme Court. In 2006, the court sided with the commission, and Qwest ultimately agreed to spend $270 million in the state over three years.
When Udall gave up his House seat to run for the Senate, there was speculation that Luján’s connections to the state’s Democratic establishment might help him seal the party’s nomination without competition from other interested candidates. A year earlier, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law stipulating that candidates had to receive 20% of the delegate vote at their respective party’s pre-primary nominating convention in order to get their names on the primary ballot. The district’s Democratic delegation consisted largely of elected officials, which worked in Luján’s favor. New Mexico developer Donald Wiviott filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law. The state Legislature then changed the law to allow candidates who fell short of 20% to get on the ballot by gathering additional signatures from registered voters. At the Democratic nominating convention, Luján got 40% of the vote and Wiviott 30%; both were on the primary ballot. Also on the ballot was Benny Shendo, former head of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department.
The primary race quickly turned negative. Wiviott ran ads claiming Luján’s father had helped him secure his job as deputy state treasurer and criticizing Luján’s attendance record on a governor-appointed Telehealth Commission. He also called for Luján to release his college transcripts. Luján responded with ads claiming that Wiviott’s Texas trailer-parts company had been charged by the Federal Trade Commission with price-fixing and called for Wiviott to release his tax returns. But Shendo caused the race’s biggest controversy when he implied that Luján was gay at a candidate forum. In a later email, he said Luján’s parents had hired a woman to pretend that she was Luján’s girlfriend. Shendo, who had been gaining traction among the district’s liberal voters, drew criticism from local gay-rights groups.
Luján picked up endorsements from Richardson, local labor unions and the Sierra Club environmental group. Wiviott was endorsed by Joe Wilson, husband of ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson, a former covert agent whose outing by officials in the Bush administration caused a major controversy in 2003-07; the couple had recently moved to Santa Fe. Wiviott invested almost $1.6 million of his own money in the campaign. Luján spent less than $800,000. Luján won with 42% of the vote to Wiviott’s 26%. Shendo got 16%.
In the general election, Luján faced Republican Daniel East, a building contractor, and independent Carol Miller. The district’s strong Democratic leanings and Luján’s aggressive fundraising made the race a foregone conclusion. He won with 57% of the vote. East received 30%, Miller 13%.
Luján sits on the Committee on Homeland Security and the Science and Technology Committee.