Ben Ray Lujan, a Democratic candidate for northern New Mexico’s congressional seat, says he’s not shy about accepting the support of his father, state House Speaker Ben Lujan.
But some question whether his father has helped him get top jobs in state government. The state Republican Party calls Lujan’s quick rise “business as usual” in New Mexico.
In Las Vegas, Lujan, 35, has much support from the local leadership, including Mayor Henry Sanchez, in his bid to become congressman.
Lujan’s career in state government began six years ago. Before that, he had jobs as an employee for a legislative reporting service company and as a casino dealer for Cities of Gold in Pojoaque. Just before joining state government, he was the human resources manager at the Downs at Albuquerque for about a year.
Lujan said he didn’t know the owners of the Downs, but state records show that the organization is a major donor to Democratic campaigns. It gave $165,000 during the 2002 election cycle, $100,000 of which went to Gov. Bill Richardson’s campaign. Most of the rest went to other Democratic candidates.
Of its $90,000 in contributions in 2006, $46,000 went to Richardson’s re-election campaign.
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Michael Montoya, a state treasurer who is now in prison for corruption, hired Lujan to become state deputy treasurer. That position put him second in command along with another deputy treasurer, Ann Marie Gallegos, now the city of Las Vegas’ finance director.
Lujan was still in his 20s, without a college degree or any experience as a government administrator.
Lujan has never been connected to any of the treasurer’s office scandals making headlines in the last few years. He said he was “shocked” at what was going on in the treasurer’s office; Montoya pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that he demanded kickbacks from investment advisers who helped arrange bids on certain investments.
“I wasn’t exposed to any of that when I was working at the treasurer’s office,” Lujan said, adding that his role in the office didn’t involve investments, where the corruption occurred.
In January 2003, Lujan became the administrative services director and chief financial officer for the state Cultural Affairs Department, a $59,000-a-year position. He was appointed by then-Cultural Affairs Officer Ruben Smith, a Richardson appointee. He held that position until late 2004, when he won election to a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission, an agency that regulates utilities, among other businesses.
During his time at Cultural Affairs, Lujan said he was proud to have been part of the effort to get a revenue stream to make sure museums were properly maintained.
The agency didn’t have a resume on file for Lujan, but had one for his successor, Emilio Martinez.
Martinez had much more experience than Lujan when he came into the position. Martinez worked in several budget and finance positions in the state Natural Resources Department from 1974 to 1993 and then served as the budget director and later the administrative division director at the state Transportation Department from 1993 to 2003.
Martinez earned his bachelor of business administration degree in management from New Mexico State University in 1974. Lujan said he received his bachelor’s degree in business from Highlands University a month ago, a fact confirmed by the school.
Martinez praised Lujan’s work.
“He did a good job. He had the budget in good order, and the finances were well-managed. Everything was done properly. I didn’t step into a problem area,” Martinez said.
Lujan said he followed normal state processes for getting his state jobs.
“I approached the governor’s administration and offered what I could for the betterment of state government,” he said, adding that he sent a resume and a letter of interest for a state job when Richardson became governor in 2003.
Lujan said the race in the 3rd Congressional District is about accomplishments, pointing in particular to his work on the Public Regulation Commission. Lujan, who was the commission’s chairman for three years, said he has taken on utilities on behalf of consumers, so people could get the lowest rates possible. And he’s also been vocal about the need for reducing title insurance rates.
While he points to his accomplishments, Lujan also doesn’t deny his father’s role in his life.
“My father has been a mentor to me. He’s given his children guidance. He’s been a good public servant,” he said.
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Scott Darnell, spokesman for the New Mexico Republican Party, said Lujan’s quick rise in state government is typical of the state’s politics.
“In our opinion, that’s business as usual in New Mexico,” he said. “That’s what we’re worried about, and that’s what voters in the 3rd district should be worried about.”
“You have a guy with little experience getting a deputy treasurer position, and what experience did he bring to the table in the Cultural Affairs Department? It doesn’t seem fair or right to the taxpayers,” Darnell said.
Darnell said he hopes Lujan doesn’t think he can just “slide in” with the benefit of his name.
“As the months go on, we’re going to make voters aware of this,” he said. “It’s a complete shame.”
However, others say they admire Lujan’s work.
“Ben Ray, like his father, had always been a champion for low- and middle-income families,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of the influential Think New Mexico group, based in Santa Fe. “I have been impressed by his willingness to put the people’s interests above his own.”