Feature

No Más Mustache

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

August 2008

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.

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