No Más Mustache

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

August 2008

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."