Manuel Luján Jr.: A New Mexico statesman

May 1, 2019

Manuel Lujan Jr. might have made Albuquerque home for much of his adult life, but he was a proud son of Northern New Mexico. The 90-year-old former interior secretary and member of Congress died last week.

Born on a farm near San Ildefonso Pueblo, the family moved when the pueblo’s boundaries were enlarged and again from Los Alamos because of the Manhattan Project, according to a New York Times obituary. His father and namesake, Manuel Sr., was the mayor of Santa Fe and founder of an insurance agency; his mother, Lorenzita, was a teacher and former county clerk. A member of the class of 1946 at St. Michael’s High School, Lujan graduated from St. Michael’s College in 1950. He worked in the family business, eventually moving to Albuquerque to help run the office before entering politics. When approached to run for Congress, he remembered, “I wasn’t very sure I could win but I thought at the time, ‘Well, if I win, fine; but if I lose, I’m just starting my business here in Albuquerque, so it will be plenty of exposure.’ ” As an insurance man, he told historian Ana Pacheco back in 2010, he even sold policies to artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Will Shuster.

For a Republican, winning elections was no easy task in New Mexico, but Lujan bucked the odds. In 1968, he became the first Republican elected to Congress from New Mexico since the Great Depression. He served the 1st Congressional District, which in those days stretched from Albuquerque up to the border, for 20 years, beating an incumbent Democrat in an upset to win his first term. Appointed secretary of the interior by President George H.W. Bush, Lujan was only the second Hispanic in history to be named to the U.S. Cabinet. While he wasn’t a secretary environmentalists could love, Lujan did believe in protecting resources while also supporting development, a contrast to the drill-it-all philosophy of today.

Despite such high honors and a long record of public service, Lujan never forgot his roots or the people who elected him.

While campaigning across Northern New Mexico, he greeted constituents as old friends and was famous for his service to the people of his district, known for returning calls personally. In endorsing Lujan’s re-election bid in 1970, The New Mexican stated, “the incumbent congressman from the first (northern) New Mexico district, merits re-election to Congress in our opinion, on the basis of devoted and effective service to the people of his district, and to the state and nation.”

As a member of Congress, Lujan successfully co-sponsored legislation in 1980 that added 609,000 acres of land to the New Mexico wilderness system, doubling it. He favored the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, an accomplishment he touted in a re-election brochure. He was proud of winning the “Watchdog of the Treasury” award for his votes for economy in government, a balanced budget and a strong national defense. He pushed for the development of the Petroglyphs National Monument, protecting the prehistory of the Southwest.

Most of all, he spent his time in Congress focusing on what the people of his district needed and less on what would win him big headlines. In 1972, when Taos County offices were closed during his scheduled time to meet voters, Lujan took up the local sheriff’s offer to use the jail for his gathering. He seldom let anything get in the way of his interactions with voters.

In Congress, he was known to be fair and willing to talk to those with whom he had a disagreement. He and the liberal stalwart, Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, were close friends. Such relationships, across the aisle and across political philosophy, helped avoid the partisan gridlock that has frozen today’s Washington, D.C. Today, the nation could use more politicians like Manuel Lujan Jr. We mourn his passing.