Hear Maxmillian Potter discuss his story on Senator Salazar here.
Senator Ken Salazar has raised the profile of Latino political leaders across Colorado and throughout the nation. Click here to visit our Web roundup of the state’s most politically influential Latinos, including four under the age of 40.
On a Sunday morning four years ago, Tim Russert, the late host of NBC’s venerable political gabfest Meet the Press, looked into the camera and proclaimed, “All eyes on the state of Colorado.” He reminded his viewers what was at stake: With only 23 days to go before the 2004 election, the GOP was not only defending the White House, but also a one-seat majority in the U.S. Senate. By way of promoting the debate he was about to moderate, Russert did the math: “A change of just two seats could alter control.” He then introduced his two guests: Pete Coors, chairman of the Coors brewing company and Colorado’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate; and the Democrat, Colorado state Attorney General Ken Salazar.
Even if you weren’t a political junkie and happened to channel-flip onto this show you might have stayed tuned, the way a non-NASCAR fan watches a bit of the Daytona 500 sensing an imminent wreck. Coors, tall and slender, seemingly constructed of rectangles, with a rich man’s tan, thick silver hair, and a boyish mien, looked like a prep school kid who’d been summoned to the headmaster’s office. And one might have thought Salazar had taken one too many spoonfuls of Robitussin and was in the midst of an out-of-body experience.
The 53-year-old Salazar is a husky, broad-shouldered guy, with a balding head and wisps of thin gray hair above his ears. Last year, in a Time magazine story about “The Democrats’ New Western Stars,” longtime political writer Joe Klein described Salazar as being “moonfaced.” It’s fair to say on the television that morning his face appeared as wide and as flat as a frying pan. His eyes flitted about behind frameless eyeglasses, and he grinned a grin that came off goofy, like a smile-piece stuck on a Mr. Potato Head. Describing that Press appearance recently, a friend of Coors and Salazar’s nearly pushed his tongue through his check and told me, “There was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights thing happening with both of them.” The difference is that doe-eyed Coors got run over, and Salazar did more than survive.
On a political stage filled with personalities who have a gift for the sound bite and play to the camera, Salazar has distinguished himself as dry and reserved. As attorney general, Salazar had insisted that he, himself, leave the message on the Colorado Consumer Line: He sounded so robotic that his staff talked him into recording the message while a few of them made him laugh to lighten him up. During that Press debate Salazar didn’t have a team of ticklers. Fortunately, the show’s forum allowed for elaboration and nuance, Salazar’s forte.
“Knowing if the president came and said, ‘There are no weapons of mass destruction, but we still must remove Saddam Hussein,'” Russert asked, “would you vote for such a resolution?”
“I would have voted for the resolution to give him the authority to move forward,” Salazar said, awkwardly attaching an, “OK?” to the end of what otherwise would have been a declarative statement. His voice shook, but his intellect remained firm. “The most important question to me is we [are] in Iraq today and how do we move forward in Iraq…. I agree with Senator McCain and others who have been critical of what’s happening in Iraq, and we have a mess on our hands, but we need to figure out the plan on how exactly we’re going to move forward.” In other words, Salazar said, yes—but he would have done a different, better job, and he wouldn’t necessarily adhere to his party’s line, as his McCain name-drop made clear.
That response is the sort of Salazar position his supporters cheer as progressively bipartisan, and others cite as evidence of his stealth political calculation. “When we looked over Salazar’s record as attorney general,” says Sean Tonner, who ran the Coors campaign, “we couldn’t find anything to nail him on because he hadn’t really put himself out there.”
On that morning’s Press debate Salazar’s rigidly delivered rhetoric earned him the edge over Coors, who actually began at least one answer with an “umm” more fitting a dude trying to tap a keg of Banquet Beer. In the wake of the show, Salazar’s campaign funds promptly received an infusion from national donors, giving him an impressive total of $9.7 million. And 23 days later he won the U.S. Senate race with 51 percent of the vote. It was a modest margin statistically, but in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 100,000, in a state where, on the same ticket, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry, it was a triumph for Salazar and the Democratic Party. A win is a win, as they say, and this one was monumental. Salazar took a seat previously held by Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and he became one of those two victorious Democrats who would ultimately alter the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. The other Democratic winner was from Illinois, a former state senator named Barack Obama.
Senator Salazar describes himself as the “unlikely victor.” He notes the Coors family’s iconic standing in Colorado and their bottomless pockets. In contrast, he cites his party affiliation and his Hispanic heritage (which, in effect, in Colorado, made him a minority squared), along with his roots growing up on a working-poor ranch in the San Luis Valley. Salazar transported himself with a un-welcomed nudge from God, out of that Valley—a dusty, isolated crease in the universe—to one of Denver’s 17th Street law firms, to the AG’s office, to the U.S. Senate. To such a standing that pundits have recommended the Democratic presidential nominee Obama—that other unlikely 2004 Senate winner—select Salazar to be his running mate. All of this despite the fact that Salazar, as Tonner said, doesn’t put himself out there. Instead, his success has come, in part, because of his quiet, reserved personality. When the senator’s loyalists say he’s an earnest collaborator and his opponents peg him as an illusive operator, they’re both dead-on.
In one of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign advertisements, Salazar stood against the backdrop of the mountains and wore denim, a bolo tie, cowboy boots, and even a cowboy hat—a white one, of course. Western wear is to statewide Colorado politicians what Brooks Brothers is to the New England gamers. Denverites may not like the Cow Town image, but Denver ain’t the state. If you want to win this piece of the West, you’ve got to be mindful of the rural folk, and it helps to dress the part. Just as often as not, however, after the election night tallies, win or lose, the role-players hang those duds in the closet. Not Kenneth Lee Salazar.
On a recent morning the Senator arrives at his Capitol Hill office in rodeo formal—the white hat, the bolo, the boots, and a suit with a trace of Western stitching—pleased to downplay the buzz about him as a potential vice president. It’s late spring; the Democratic presidential contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remains officially undetermined, but mathematically it’s a foregone conclusion. Political observers at the likes of the New Republic and Salon have been suggesting that Obama choose Salazar as his VP ticket-mate. Pundits floating Salazar’s name argue that the Illinois city-slicker would draw swing voters—and possibly win the increasingly important electoral votes of the West—by plugging into Salazar’s cowboy ways and his Catholic-Hispanic appeal. Others cite those very same factors among reasons why Salazar shouldn’t be considered: A double minority ticket of two junior Senators wouldn’t stand a chance.
By May, Salazar, who happens to be one of those potentially critical superdelegates, has not yet endorsed either candidate, nor has he publicly acknowledged the VP buzz—though he’s well prepared when asked. “I would accept the nomination if it were presented,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “But no offer has been made.” He’s been getting “pressure” for an endorsement from both camps. Calls have come from his friend, Federico Peña, who was Denver’s first Hispanic mayor and is now national cochairman of the Obama campaign. Another friend, Elizabeth Bagley, the former ambassador to Portugal, has called on behalf of Clinton.
The candidates themselves dialed up the senator. “I’ve had conversations with both Barack and Hillary,” he says. “I know them both well.” (Obama’s U.S. Senate office is just down the hall from Salazar’s.) “I don’t think there’s a daylight of difference between them in terms of their positions. I think they’re both historical figures and both would be great presidents.”
The Senator’s neutrality was not part of an attempt to horse-trade his endorsement for a sidecar ride to the White House. Noting that Denver is hosting the Democratic National Convention, Salazar talks of his impartiality as the more strategic decision for his home state and for his party. By not taking sides now, he tells me, “Ultimately, I think I can play more of an important role for Colorado and the nine electoral votes for the Democratic nominee, and for making peace between the two camps.” Indeed, this sounds like a policy that benefits some greater good. Although Salazar leaves it unsaid, it’s entirely likely that his position also will allow the junior senator to maintain two powerful friends either way.
Before we began talking that morning in his Capitol Hill office—a simple, yet well-appointed room, with a white cowboy hat on one bookshelf and a black cowboy hat resting on another—Salazar had greeted me with a handshake while simultaneously laying his other hand on my shoulder. It’s a one-two that at once gives the impression of being genuine and also has the distinct flair of statesmanship deftly learned. It’s become a Salazar signature gesture, reminding his friend and political mentor, former Colorado state Senator Paul Sandoval, of Lyndon Baines Johnson. As a freshman Democratic U.S. senator, the late LBJ befriended colleagues across the aisle; he parlayed those relationships into the social reforms of the “Great Society” and, eventually, into the U.S. presidency. “Johnson would grab people,” Sandoval says, “and literally pull them in close: We’re friends now; here’s what I need.”
Pulled in close to Salazar, it’s easy to see why the Time magazine guy described him as “moonfaced.” A personal encounter with Salazar is something akin to a lunar eclipse. His face draws you into him exclusively, and there’s a calming glow about the man that doesn’t translate on TV. His eyes, which nervously darted about on that Meet the Press appearance, purposely scan you, breaking you down. Salazar’s grin buys him a few seconds while he sizes you up. He doesn’t hesitate to take charge of the conversation. Suddenly he claps his hands together and says, “It should be a big day today.” The senator is referring to the fate of the $300 billion Farm Bill that he has spent more than half of his time in the U.S. Senate trying to shape. He calls it “one of the most important pieces of legislation of my career and for the country.” Today, the bill is on its way to President Bush, who has vowed to veto it. “We have enough votes to override the president,” Salazar tells me, heading from his office toward the Senate floor. His pace is like a double-time march, with his bolo tie and confidence swinging.
One of the staples of Salazar’s Senate campaign was natural resources. The issue has always been a critical concern for the nation, but these days it’s also a trendy, hot-button Inconvenient Truth theme that any political opportunist knows provides the chance to score points with swing voters and the media. But environmental issues have been at the core of Salazar’s political career, which, in the beginning, flowed from water.
Water is liquid gold in Colorado. There are the Haves, such as the folks along the rivers and in the higher elevations of snowcapped peaks; and the arid Have-Nots, like those on the Plains and the Denver area. In the 1980s, as Denver was becoming one of the nation’s most rapidly growing cities, momentum built for a controversial plan that’d been kicked around for years: constructing a billion-dollar dam in Park County. It would be erected west of Denver, on the South Platte River, in order to collect and channel flow toward the metro region. Advocates of the Two Forks Dam were thirsty city and suburban folk, their elected officials, and private vested interests. The other side was a loosely united alliance of Park County (and neighboring Jefferson County) residents and environmentalists. Leaders on both sides knew the water laws and were hard to budge, and were referred to collectively as Water Buffaloes.
The Two Forks Dam proposal dominated Colorado politics. A $25 million study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the plan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagreed, finding it would upend the surrounding environment. Ultimately, the decision would be George H. W. Bush’s administration’s to make, but the Democratic governor, Roy Romer, had a considerable say, and he relied on his chief legal counsel, Ken Salazar.
With Salazar’s backstage counsel, Governor Romer stated his opinion publicly that he viewed the dam as a “last resort” in an effort to send a clear message to Washington, D.C. It was an unequivocal choice of phrase that, before Salazar’s arrival, opponents had never before heard the governor employ. Romer promised to convene a commission to investigate alternatives to Two Forks, and shortly thereafter, in 1990, he appointed Salazar the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, effectively pouring the water war into his lap.
Hydrogeologist and water expert Dan Luecke at the time was the Rocky Mountain director of the Environmental Defense Fund. One of the most outspoken critics of the dam, Luecke worked with Salazar on that commission. He was skeptical that any substantive study would occur. “Ken was the person who was the prime mover behind that study and it happened,” Luecke says. “Money was found and the study was done, and it did involve the environmental community as well as others to produce a report on meeting water needs.” Salazar set about negotiating water-exchange compacts with Colorado counties and state and federal agencies, and nudged a consensus among the stubborn Water Buffaloes, prompting the federal government to forgo the dam.
“Working on environmental issues,” Luecke says, “you always talk to decision makers, and quite often they’ll give you an audience, but they’re not really paying attention. He paid attention, because he cared and he thought it was his job, and he demonstrated that he paid attention. But he didn’t do it to demonstrate that he was paying attention. It’s natural, it’s his way.”
His father, Enrique, wanted him to be a priest. Actually, Senator Salazar’s dad had hoped that all five of his sons would be ordained Catholic ministers. He even sent the four eldest boys, including Kenneth—as he’s known within the family—off to a seminary in Ohio. “I didn’t want to go,” Senator Salazar told me as we talked in his Denver office, a few days before what would become his Farm Bill showdown with the president. “But my father was very insistent.” By way of further explanation, Salazar shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms, as if to convey: It was just the way it was.
Enrique and Emma Salazar raised eight children, five boys and three girls, on the ranch that Enrique inherited from his father, in the San Luis Valley. A mixture of Mexico and prehistoric landscape, Conejos County can be as harsh as it is beautiful. Spanish is the predominant language, and the Valley has long been overwhelmingly poor. According to a statewide survey, the San Luis Valley is comprised of some of Colorado’s most impoverished towns. The Valley is some 250 miles southwest of Denver, but when you’re in it, trying to see beyond the mountains that are the site of three of the state’s fourteeners, it can seem like an insurmountable climb to anywhere.
The Salazars’ remote homestead was without electricity throughout his childhood. Droughts were common occurrences. During one especially long spell, to get by, Enrique moved the family to the other side of the mountains. In Idaho Springs, he took a job with the department of revenue. And it was in the Idaho Springs public schools that Ken Salazar learned to speak English and for the first time experienced prejuicio. It’s a chapter of the senator’s history that he doesn’t mention in our conversations, but his sister, June, recalls the time matter-of-factly. “I remember Kenneth coming home from school and talking about being laughed at because he didn’t speak English.” Only a couple of years after moving to Idaho Springs, the family returned to the Valley.
Enrique believed that maybe the best way he could serve his sons—to get them educated, off the ranch, and, perhaps, into a life with more meaning—was to have them become priests. One after another, he sent his boys off to St. Francis Seminary in Ohio: Leandro, the eldest, followed by LeRoy, John, and Ken. Ken Salazar was about 14 when he was put on a bus to take him away to Ohio. At St. Francis, Ken joined the school basketball team, excelled academically, and realized he did not want to be a priest. He left St. Francis two years later. His reprieve came by way of all of his older brothers gradually realizing the same thing. Yet as the younger siblings returned to the ranch they watched Leandro follow a vocation of a different kind. He went farther from the Valley than any of them imagined possible, to California, where he worked with Cesár Chávez in his crusade on behalf of Mexican farmworkers.
Leandro’s stories of injustice stuck with Salazar, throughout his years at Centauri High School, Colorado College, and the University of Michigan Law School, from which he graduated in 1981. Salazar had been in the top half of his law-school class and received offers from many of Denver’s 17th Street firms. But it was a Hispanic attorney with Sherman & Howard that won him over. Salazar didn’t see many Latino lawyers practicing, and the fact that Sherman & Howard had one as an associate resonated with Salazar; it afforded him a kinship and a view of what was possible.
As a young associate, Salazar was hungry, tireless, and egoless, and within six years was on his way to partner. He became a name around the Colorado Bar Association. The latest promising “kid,” Salazar was a logical choice in 1986, when Governor Roy Romer lured him to be his chief legal counsel. Leaving the lucrative private sector, Salazar took a 50 percent pay cut to work on an overwhelming number of legal issues fraught with political minefields. But they were just the sort of issues that could affect policies statewide, and make many lives better. It was the sort of calling Leandro might have heeded.
One day in 1992, after Romer had appointed Salazar the executive director of the DNR, he was herding Water Buffaloes in a meeting at the state Capitol, and someone walked into the room and handed him a note: There’d been an accident on the ranch. Salazar’s first thought was something had happened to his mother or father. He phoned his wife, Hope. The couple had met in a Denver bar, back when Salazar was finishing law school. She was a flight attendant for Mexicana Airlines. They talked about all the places she’d visited and all the places he’d like go. Five years of dating turned into marriage, two daughters, and a home in North Denver. Hope now knew her husband better than anyone; she rushed to his office to give him the news of the accident. No, it’s not Enrique, she said. It’s Leandro. She told him she had the car packed for the drive to the Valley.
After years of working with Chávez, Leandro had returned to the San Luis Valley. He married, had two daughters, and worked on his own family’s farm. On that morning of April 23, 1992, Leandro had been in a tractor, working alone, when the dammer-diker malfunctioned. Hooked to the back of a tractor, a dammer-diker is a device with a dozen or so metal wheels covered in spikes that create grooved rows in the soil on either side of the crop in order to hold water. Leandro had put the tractor in park and gone to inspect the problem. The gear slipped. The dammer-diker wheels turned. One of the spikes caught Leandro’s vest, pulling him to the ground. He was smothered in the dirt of his family’s field.
Seated at a small round table inside his Denver office, Salazar recalled that when he and Hope got to the ranch, “my father was hurting. His eldest son, that kind of tragedy. The feeling of pain, only people who go through that kind of pain know it.” The senator removed his glasses, put his elbows on the table, and, as he talked, slowly moved his hands back and forth, like he was pulling memories from deep in the back of his mind. “I remember my mother. I watched her and my heart went to the ground. She walked in the front door. My father was crying, and she brought this kind of serenity, so poised. Anyway, long story short….” Long story short is Salazar’s way of saying nothing about how the tragedy affected him. Hope, however, remembers that when she told her husband the news he didn’t crack. He was focused on getting to the Valley and making arrangements. It wasn’t until he saw one of his brothers that “they hugged. They held one another for a few minutes and cried,” Hope said. “And that was it. Ken deals with his emotions and gets back to business.”
Senator Salazar used to have a mustache. It’s a taboo subject. Nobody close to him likes to talk much about it. Bring up the Big Shave with folks like his political godfather, Sandoval, or his good friend and advisor Stewart Bliss (a Republican and successful energy businessman), or one of Salazar’s former law firm colleagues, Jim Spaanstra, and the reaction is virtually identical: They all laugh nervously and then choose their words carefully—that is if they’ll talk at all about it on the record.
A mustache in the Hispanic culture is a subtle yet significant symbol of male machismo. The Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés had one. Consequently, the Aztec people he vanquished believed facial hair was a source of power. Zapata-style mustaches have been prominent fixtures on the faces of the gauchos of the South American plains and the Mexican vaqueros. Think of the iconic photographs of Pancho Villa, or the fictional hero Zorro—legends burned on the brains of Hispanic youth. A Latino grows a mustache because he can and keeps it simply because it’s who he is. Salazar removed his in order to become the politician he wanted to be, the politician his father encouraged him to become.
In 1998, when Salazar ran for Colorado attorney general, no Hispanic had ever been elected to a statewide office. A seemingly banal yet incredibly personal and political question was discussed among Salazar’s trusted advisers: Should the mustache go? Sandoval and Bliss were among the few at the table. In such a Republican state it would be hard enough for a Democrat to win. And in a state where the leadership was as white as Wonder Bread, there was a concern that Salazar’s Mexican heritage might be a distraction, might even be used overtly against him. Prejuicio.
Sandoval told him to “take it off.” Bliss advised Salazar to do whatever he felt he ought to do. It was Enrique who convinced Kenneth to shave it. “Enrique had many opinions about many things,” Salazar’s wife, Hope, says. “On the mustache [question], Enrique pointed to pictures of politicians in magazines and told Ken, ‘You need to clean yourself up and shave that off. You’ve got to look like a politician.'” Salazar’s brother LeRoy says, “It was a different time. It shouldn’t have been an issue, but it was. My father knew the Mexican stereotype could hurt him.” Now deceased, Enrique encouraged Kenneth to consider that the chance to bring all of his sensibilities to bear on government policy was more important, that the mustache is not the true symbol of any man’s machismo.
With a smooth face, a 43-year-old Salazar won the attorney general’s office, his first political race and a statewide one at that. He went on to win a second, consecutive term. Attorney General Salazar brokered a controversial settlement stemming from a corporation’s contamination of the Summitville Mine; he decided not to file any charges based on the allegations of rape and sexual harassment made against the University of Colorado and its football team; and he successfully defeated a GOP effort at redistricting the state of Colorado that he argued was unconstitutional, and, it just so happened, would have put his Democratic Party at a distinct disadvantage. All of this at a time when Republicans otherwise ran the table. All while maintaining the public persona of someone who doesn’t “put himself out there.” One longtime Colorado state government lobbyist recently told me, “Ken’s indecisive. What’s he really done?”
Perhaps it’s Salazar’s lack of flamboyance, his knack for seemingly taking himself out of every equation while being the one who actually does the math, that has made his ubiquitous political presence easy for critics to dismiss. That’s not to say, however, that the former seminary student is one to turn the other cheek. He’s just more judicious about how he delivers his punches. “It’s very hard to get Ken angry,” his wife says, “but when he is, look out.”
In the late ’90s, former state Senator Sandoval was part of an effort to provide Spanish-speaking teachers for Spanish-speaking children in public schools. Attorney General Salazar, once the kid mocked in Idaho Springs, supported the movement. One evening, Salazar, along with Sandoval, brought a Denver city community activist, an aged and frail Bernie Valdez, to address a Denver Public Schools board hearing. “Valdez was a legend in the Hispanic community,” Sandoval says. “Kenny respected the man as the elder Bernie was. I mean, here was the attorney general coming to pick up the man, help him from his home out to his car, and personally take him to this meeting.” A school board member, Rita Montero, cut short Valdez’s address, Sandoval says, and “disrespected” him. Salazar said nothing about it at the meeting, but on the way home the attorney general turned to Sandoval: “Kenny was so mad. He says, ‘We will now defeat her.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He says, ‘That’s my priority. You get it done.’ And I got it done.” That school board position was as far in public office as Montero went. The “ESL” proposals were passed into state law.
Salazar’s most telling confrontation, however, may have been with one of his own Catholic church leaders. During the 2004 Senate race, just as it appeared that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Salazar might tip the state from red to blue, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput admonished his flock to be conscious of their faith when casting their votes; that according to doctrine, Catholics must be against abortion. The comment was a thinly veiled attack on those two Catholic candidates who supported abortion legislation.
Salazar is used to the priests in the Valley being just as dusty and calloused as the ranchers; he isn’t one for the pomp or politics of the cloth. He responded in the press that he believed the separation of church and state was necessary, and that while he personally was against abortion, he believed ultimately that “such a decision was between a woman and her God.” The shrewdly phrased rebuttal silenced Chaput, but put Salazar in an uncomfortable position with his fellow parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I remember wondering if I could go to my church with my wife and daughters,” he says. “But I made the decision that I’m not going to let any person push me out of my church.”
It’s not a short walk from the U.S. Senate offices in the Hart Building to the U.S. Capitol. There’s a maze of subterranean corridors to navigate and a ride on the Capitol subway. Although the train is no Bullet, it does have the feel of a hyperspace jolt through the lighted tunnels. One second you’re a freshman senator here, and the next you’re a freshman senator there, wherever that is, and you must get to work, unsure what that means exactly. On the train, Salazar leans against a window. “For the first six months I was here,” he says, “I didn’t know where I was going.”
Only two days after arriving in the U.S. Senate, in January 2005, Salazar was the one who ceremoniously introduced President Bush’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, and sat by his side during the confirmation hearings. The two men had a preexisting friendship. In the mid-’90s, Gonzales moved from being a noted partner with the esteemed private practice of Vinson & Elkins to becoming then-Governor Bush’s general counsel. In the tiny universe of Hispanic legal stars who also happened to be rising politically, Salazar viewed Gonzales as a kindred spirit. Although they were in different parties, Salazar respected Gonzales. Having a Latino, a man he believed worthy of admiration, appointed the top law-enforcement official in the country was a tremendous historical achievement. Salazar also recognized the fact that he would be introducing Bush’s guy would telegraph to ranking Republicans that he wasn’t a partisan Democrat. Gonzales, ethically and politically, was a good wagon to hitch onto. Many of Salazar’s Democratic colleagues denounced his endorsement, arguing Gonzales would be little more than a rubber-stamping Bush crony.
Gonzales’ critics were correct. He went on to fire eight U.S. attorneys because of their party affiliation. He argued that detainees at Guantánamo Bay were not entitled to habeas corpus—the constitutional right of the accused to promptly hear charges and present a defense. Gonzales had been the architect of the National Security Agency’s unwarranted eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. It was conduct that reeked of corruption and was illegal. Still, Salazar stuck by Gonzales throughout much of the scandal. Only when it was evident that Gonzales would resign did Salazar call for him to step aside.
The Gonzales disgrace took its toll on the senator personally and politically. “Kenny felt personally betrayed and disappointed,” Sandoval says. “He believed Gonzales was a good man and a good role model—hey, the first Hispanic attorney general of the United States.” Salazar had put his credibility and reputation on the line and, as Senator Salazar’s former law firm colleague and friend Jim Spaanstra puts it, “Gonzales turned out to be a different person as U.S. attorney general than Ken knew before.” Walking around Capitol Hill, the new junior senator had a scarlet U.S.A.G. on his sleeve. If Salazar had been used by the administration, he knew that he’d allowed it to happen.
Yet while the Gonzales controversy was unfolding, Salazar’s colleagues undoubtedly noted he was not a politician who put career above cause. Beginning that fall of 2005, the 109th Congress appeared determined to block President Bush’s appointment of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. Compared to these entrenched camps, the Water Buffaloes were pushovers. Salazar joined a bipartisan group of 14 senators, self-proclaimed moderates, whose purpose was not so much to come to any conclusions about Alito, but rather to try to avoid a filibustering stalemate that would perpetuate congressional divisiveness and acrimony. Personally, Salazar was not a fan of the nominee. “I don’t believe the president made the wisest choice for America with his selection,” Salazar had said publicly, adding that Bush chose “a person who will bring division.” More important for Salazar and this “Gang of 14” were the principles behind the procedure and avoiding the “nuclear option.”
Salazar, and his like-minded colleagues who opposed Alito, came under attack by right-wing Republican and evangelical Christian leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family. “Screening potential nominees to the federal bench on the basis of their religious views and moral convictions violates the American sense of fair play,” Dobson said on a television appearance. Salazar was one of the very few Democrats who responded to the mighty Dobson. What made Salazar’s toe-to-toe with Dobson all the more noteworthy was that Dobson’s headquarters, and so many of his followers, who vote, are in the senator’s backyard. At a press conference, Salazar, with blood boiling, said, “I think what has happened is Focus on the Family has been hijacking Christianity and become an appendage of the Republican Party. I think it’s using Christianity and religion in a very unprincipled way.”
Back underneath the Capitol Building, the subway doors open and Salazar exits briskly, talking over his shoulder as he goes: “The president is wrong about this bill. And I’m confident he’ll lose on this issue.” He makes his way to the Senate chambers, pushes his way through the mahogany double doors, and ultimately makes his way to the center of the floor, to make another last effort to push through the Farm Bill. He puts it on record, puts it out there for anyone who cares to pay attention. “Mr. President, I rise today in strong support of the Farm Bill….”
Salazar is not exaggerating when he says he’s spent more than half of his time in the U.S. Senate pulling this bill together. And he’s had the unique advantage of having his brother, John, over in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ken Salazar not only won the U.S. Senate seat that November, his older sibling, John, won the U.S. congressional race to represent Colorado’s Third District, encompassing the southwest and the Salazar home in San Luis Valley. “Ken is the brains,” John Salazar says, “I’m the muscle.” John laughs, but he’s not entirely kidding.
The idea for John’s run was Ken’s. Senator Salazar meets often with Paul Sandoval in North Denver, and, over a beer or pancakes or a meal at Sandoval’s tamale shop, they chess out possibilities on napkins. It was during one of those meetings that Ken Salazar said he wanted to try for the attorney general’s office because, as he told Sandoval, “virtually all major state policy flowed through it.” Before his run for the U.S. Senate, Salazar had been thinking of taking a stab at the governor’s office. The two discussed the fact that a Senator Salazar would affect national legislation and would thereby influence Colorado state policy. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a brother in the U.S. House.
It was natural for Ken to bring up the idea of his brother running for Congress. In the Valley, John had served on civic boards and elected positions. Down there, the Salazar name was gold, even among Republicans. Ken and John became the first Hispanic brother U.S. senator-congressman duo in history. Quite consciously, neither one of them ran advertising their heritage. But, perhaps because of Ken Salazar’s trailblazing, John didn’t think twice about keeping his busy mustache.
The brothers had worked together shaping an immigration policy that Senator Salazar cosponsored with Senator John McCain. (Salazar had been serious on the Meet the Press debate about reaching out to the Arizona Republican.) Ken Salazar had the legal perspective, but he and John also had the real-world intel from the Valley: their friends and family were suddenly down laborers; immigration crackdowns were fracturing families. And they would be more severely impacted unless a “reasoned” proposal was enacted. After coming close to getting the bill passed, it stalled. The Gonzales debacle. The Immigration Bill. These were disappointing, if not demoralizing, defeats for Salazar. Now, at least, he has the Farm Bill.
Farm bills are behemoth pieces of legislation that every so often are concocted on the Hill and often filled with all sorts of pork, some of which has something to do with raising pigs and much of which doesn’t. President Bush has condemned this bill as awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to massive farms at a time when farms are already generally doing well and the nation can least afford it.
“That’s not the case,” Salazar tells me in his D.C. office, hours after returning from the Senate floor. “This is a Farm Bill that feeds the hungry.” He spills into paraphrasing his Senate speech: “More than half the counties in America are rural. Forty-four of 64 counties in Colorado are rural counties.” His words come quickly while his hands bob up and down. “For the last eight years these communities, home to 50 million Americans, have been largely ignored by Washington, D.C.—ignored in its policies and ignored in its priorities. You can see the effects of Washington’s neglect in places like my native Conejos County, Colorado, where almost a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, or on the main street in Brush, Colorado, where storefronts are being boarded up….”
The next day, with Ken’s brother John working the phones, the Congress indeed overrides the president’s veto, and Ken Salazar is full of energy, anxious to do his routine telephonic conference with the Colorado press corps. Hanging up the phone, he leans forward, elbows on his desk, and takes a deep breath. “Not bad,” he says. “I gave a speech about the Farm Bill on the Senate floor. Stood against the president, and he lost.”
Salazar is aware of the earmarks in the bill. In private, the strategist in him would likely grin at the political cachet, nationally and in Colorado, its passing will buy for him. But listening to Salazar speak of the bill, on the Senate floor and in his office, hearing what was the unmistakable infusion of passion in his voice, conjures up thoughts of Leandro, the San Luis Valley, the droughts, the impoverished neighbors, his father, his church, keeping a hand on the political gears. Salazar’s face looked smooth and content, proud, like a man who believed he’d done something for the greater good.
Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected]