Feature

No Más Mustache

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

August 2008

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...."

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