No Más Mustache

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

August 2008

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."