As the 2018 campaign stretched on, House Democrats who did their part to boost the party found themselves getting chili-infused chocolates and pork rinds from Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
They were little gifts from the campaign arm chairman’s home state of New Mexico for hosting fundraisers or paying their dues — the type of gestures that have made him beloved by colleagues and vaulted him into Democratic leadership.
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Luján now ranks fourth in a sprawling hierarchy helmed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and is seen as a future contender for one of the caucus’ top jobs — maybe even speaker.
But whether a lawmaker known for his congenial, easy-going personality can ascend even higher — at a moment when Democrats are burning with anger at President Donald Trump — is unclear.
And the competition would be fierce. Luján would square off against an ever-growing roster of seasoned Democrats, some with more name recognition and sharper elbows. In a caucus brimming with egos and a raft of lawmakers eager to move up after years under the same leadership, being the nice guy might not be good enough.
“It’s easy to box a guy like that in,” said freshman Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.). “[But] he is strategic. He thinks long term. So he’s definitely not to be written off.”
As assistant speaker, Luján is tasked with managing a large, historically diverse and at times unwieldy class of more than 60 freshmen. But it’s no secret that the six-term lawmaker from Santa Fe is already eyeing his next move once there’s a chance.
Before the election, Luján reached out to colleagues to gauge their support for a run at the whip post if it opened up, according to multiple sources. When Democrats won the House and it became clear the top three planned to stay, Luján aimed for the next highest job in the ranks, and won.
Pelosi could serve another four years as caucus leader under self-imposed term-limits. But with the top Democrats — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — all near 80 years old, Luján is viewed by his peers as a potential successor to one of them in the next few years.
Other lawmakers frequently mentioned as potential party leaders include Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), currently the No. 5 Democrat, and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.). Jeffries holds a weekly press conference as caucus chairman and Bustos is likely to have an outsize spotlight as she leads Democratic efforts to hold onto the House majority as the new chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Luján brushed off questions about his future ambitions in a half hour interview in his office recently, instead returning the focus to his new role as a leadership liaison to the freshmen.
“There’s plenty of time to have conversations about whatever the future may hold,” Luján told POLITICO. “In every way that I can support our colleagues, our caucus in delivering with what I think makes a positive difference in people’s lives, that’s where my focus is.”
After helping deliver Democrats the majority and the party’s biggest freshman class since the Watergate era, Luján was easily elected assistant leader after Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) dropped out of the race. Pelosi later changed the title to “assistant speaker,” raising eyebrows from some members who privately wondered if she was trying to help position a close ally for a promotion down the road.
Although the position has a new title, Luján, 46, occupies the job held by Clyburn during the eight years House Democrats were in the minority. But he has big plans to expand his new role, which had largely been a behind-the-scenes strategy operation under Clyburn.
Luján describes his “primary focus” as working with the dozens of newly elected Democrats — helping to navigate everything from the politics of tough floor votes to the nitty gritty of setting up IT and signing leases for district offices.
Democrats say Luján’s work to help the new class is particularly crucial for the 40 freshmen who won in red districts, most of whom are already the top targets for GOP operatives in 2020.
“He knows what it took for them to win those seats,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who watched Luján crisscross the country for two years ahead of the November elections. “Wherever I went, Ben either was there, was going to be there the next day, or had just left.”
One of those freshmen, Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), said she’s repeatedly leaned on Luján since arriving in January, especially since she’s still building up her own policy team.
Ahead of the vote on the bipartisan bill to fund the government, Davids said Luján sat with her for a full 15 minutes on the floor going over details in the 1,100-page bill.
Luján is rare in the caucus in that he is close to Pelosi but has also maintained strong ties to Hoyer, Pelosi’s longtime No. 2, after serving as one of his top whips.
Pelosi handpicked Luján to run the DCCC in 2014, surprising most House Democrats who didn’t think the little-known lawmaker was even on the shortlist. Luján was unanimously picked by his peers to helm the DCCC again in 2016 after the caucus decided to make the position an elected one.
Luján’s relationships with the freshmen class could also lay the foundation for any future leadership run. The group currently represents a quarter of the entire Democratic Caucus and will likely play an outsized role in choosing the next slate of party leaders.
Luján’s current task is made more difficult, however, by how many strong-willed freshmen are eager to upend the status quo on Capitol Hill, even if it means undermining their own leadership.
Several new members, including Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), are quick to dispute the idea that they need a middleman to Democratic leadership. Underwood even suggested she would call up Pelosi directly if she had an issue — an unthinkable action for most freshmen classes in years past.
“I don’t think we need a liaison. I think that Mr. Luján can be a partner, and a source of advice,” Underwood said.
Many of the freshmen feel no need to hew to the unwritten rules of seniority that have long governed the caucus, especially those who can harness social media in a way more veteran politicians only dream of doing.
Luján acknowledged that this year’s freshmen class feels different, and said he has no plans to rein them in.
“What I have seen and what I believe is that you embrace that expertise and that passion,” Luján said. “The freshness of their perspective of what is happening across America, and you unleash it. You don’t contain it.”
Democratic leaders, led by Luján, have made an attempt to keep tabs on the new members, through regular meetings, including sit-downs with Pelosi, as well as a slew of texts, phone calls and emails. Luján said he makes time to huddle with freshmen every time he’s on the floor.
“He has that rare skill of being a very good listener,” said Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chair of the Democratic caucus, who said she’s seen Luján quickly go from troubleshooting a new member’s IT issues to pushing major legislation like Democrats’ anti-corruption bill HR 1.
“Sometimes good guys finish first,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a friend of Luján’s.
“Everyone likes Ben Ray and respects him — he brought us to the majority,” Pocan added. “That’s the bottom line.”
Luján‘s charm extends beyond the halls of Congress. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, said he once stumbled across a small “shrine“ to the New Mexico Democrat at a Star Wars novelty shop in the town of Aberdeen, Wash.
Kilmer remembers being stunned when he saw a photograph of Luján holding a toy Yoda at a place that he’d once recommended his colleague visit.
And when Kilmer asked the storekeeper why he‘d kept the picture of Luján — who is far from a household name — he was told, “Because he was the nicest guy ever!”