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Take Five: Ben Ray Luján

Flying over the handlebars, tailgaiting at the opera, and what Democrats need to do in 2022

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is seen in his Washington office on Thursday.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is seen in his Washington office on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Politics can be rough-and-tumble, but it’s got nothing on mountain biking, as Sen. Ben Ray Luján can attest. Never mind his protestations otherwise, Luján is an avid mountain biker — anyone who’s had “several good crashes” is an above-average fan of the sport, even if they’re a below-average participant. 

The New Mexico Democrat traded trail stories and rustic recipes with Heard on the Hill earlier this month, explaining why he left the House for the Senate instead of one day running for speaker and what his party needs to do in 2022.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: I hear that you’re an avid mountain biker. What was your gnarliest crash?

A: I don’t know about avid, but I’ve had several good crashes. All of them involved me going over the handlebars, thinking I was younger than I am. 

I had one crash, oddly enough, before we had a legislative hearing in the House on Energy and Commerce where they were talking about fake goods that were being sold. One of the items brought in was a fake bike helmet. They had me stand on it, give a little pressure, and it just crushed. So I shared an account of my crash the week before, on some trails out in the Galisteo area of New Mexico. I was leaning a little too far forward, and the front tire hit a large boulder. I came down on my head. Had I been wearing a fake helmet, I don’t know that I would have been in that hearing.

For the two most recent ones, I was going down a chute where you can get up to like 21 miles an hour and just lost traction. I used my shoulder to stop me, which probably wasn’t a good idea. And the second time I did it, I hit the same shoulder, and I thought, “Well, maybe I fixed whatever I did the first time by getting the impact.” But I didn’t. It still hurts. 

Q: What’s the biggest difference between the House and the Senate for you personally?

A: Well, I guess the biggest difference is the Senate doesn’t have a Rules Committee [that sets parameters for floor debates], so you can keep fighting for your amendments up until the very end. You can resolve a lot of issues by picking up the phone, or meeting with someone for a meal, a walk, or even on the floor.

What I think would help the Senate is getting rid of the filibuster. I’ve been clear about that. 

Q: You held the No. 4 leadership spot in the House, with speculation you could end up as speaker one day. Now you’re a freshman again. What’s that like?

A: With the tools that exist for a senator, there’s so much more you can do for your constituents. Ultimately, that’s what drove my decision to run. A lot of folks said, “Oh, it’s a position of leadership and influence and power” — that’s not why I’m here. You’re here to make a difference for people back home, and you need to be willing to put everything on the line.

What I’ve seen over 10 months is pieces of legislation that evaded me over the last many years, we’ve been able to get done with a Democratic majority in both chambers. The stars have aligned. I’m not “in the room” as much as I was when I was in the House, so that’s another big difference. But you still work with your colleagues one on one.

Q: You’re known as a pretty big foodie. What dishes do you make? 

A: There’s a big tradition at the Santa Fe Opera where families will tailgate, and I had a fun twist on it. We took a butane hot plate, put a little skillet on top of it, and made fried bologna sandwiches with tortillas, green chile, and mustard. All of our friends around us were eating sushi and fillet and had exquisite wine, but they came over and asked if I could make them one. Sometimes it helps the soul. 

I also make a good pad thai and incredible green chile chicken enchiladas. I’ve been known to make paella outside on the grill. At home, we make cooking utensils out of old tractor discs. We call them discos — you weld the middle of it shut, so it’s almost creating a wok. I have one that’s round on a dual burner, and another that’s been pounded out flat, and I’ll fire up the paella. All you need is a hot surface so you can crisp up the rice, and then you add the fun stuff, chicken or chorizo, or if you can get your hands on some good fresh shellfish, which is a little harder to do in New Mexico. Once your friends find out you’re making it, they’ll all come over, so it’s not hard to get rid of.

Q: You chaired the DCCC through the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. What do you think went wrong in 2020, and what do Democrats need to do well in 2022?

A: While we didn’t win back the majority in the House in ’16, we did pick up seats. It was not talked about much, because we didn’t win the White House or the Senate either, but I was very proud of the seats that we flipped. 

We built on that in 2018. I really believe that voters want to hear from candidates who are asking to earn their vote or their trust, and it was clearly a map where we could play offense. But you can’t add by subtracting, so we did not lose one of those seats that we picked up in ’16. You hold what you have, and then you add to it.

In 2020, there could have been more emphasis on protecting what we had — seats like Xochitl Torres Small, Gil Cisneros, Donna Shalala, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. A little more supporter investment there would have gone a long way, but you know, we have to learn from that.

On the Senate side, we have some pickup opportunities in 2022. Look at how well Val Demings is doing down in Florida, and who knows what happens in Ohio. Tim Ryan’s doing a pretty good job out that way, and he fits the mold like Sherrod Brown, a blue collar guy, a union guy, cares about people. And then we’ll see what happens in Wisconsin.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Embraced by the Light,” about a woman who flatlined, and then came back to life. My mom recently had an unfortunate accident — not that she flatlined, but it’s just one of those books of reflections about appreciating life. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes. 

Least popular opinion? The rest of the country spells chili with an “i,” but real chile is spelled with an “e.” And so I’m unpopular with my friends back in Texas. 

If you could do anything else for work, what would it be? Growing up, we were self-sustenance farmers. I still live on a small farm back home, and if I wasn’t here, I see myself having some large hoop houses and getting really involved in the organic side. Maybe I’d even have my own food truck.

Closest friend across the aisle? I’d point back to Chuck Fleischmann in the House out of Tennessee. We did a lot of work co-founding the National Labs Caucus and the Cleanup Caucus, and some work with tech transfer. He’s always someone I could give a call, count on for some advice or just lean on.

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