No Más Mustache

U.S. Senator Ken Salazar's unlikely ascent.

August 2008

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.