No Más Mustache

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

August 2008

Salazar is not exaggerating when he says he's spent more than half of his time in the U.S. Senate pulling this bill together. And he's had the unique advantage of having his brother, John, over in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ken Salazar not only won the U.S. Senate seat that November, his older sibling, John, won the U.S. congressional race to represent Colorado's Third District, encompassing the southwest and the Salazar home in San Luis Valley. "Ken is the brains," John Salazar says, "I'm the muscle." John laughs, but he's not entirely kidding.

The idea for John's run was Ken's. Senator Salazar meets often with Paul Sandoval in North Denver, and, over a beer or pancakes or a meal at Sandoval's tamale shop, they chess out possibilities on napkins. It was during one of those meetings that Ken Salazar said he wanted to try for the attorney general's office because, as he told Sandoval, "virtually all major state policy flowed through it." Before his run for the U.S. Senate, Salazar had been thinking of taking a stab at the governor's office. The two discussed the fact that a Senator Salazar would affect national legislation and would thereby influence Colorado state policy. And it wouldn't hurt to have a brother in the U.S. House.

It was natural for Ken to bring up the idea of his brother running for Congress. In the Valley, John had served on civic boards and elected positions. Down there, the Salazar name was gold, even among Republicans. Ken and John became the first Hispanic brother U.S. senator-congressman duo in history. Quite consciously, neither one of them ran advertising their heritage. But, perhaps because of Ken Salazar's trailblazing, John didn't think twice about keeping his busy mustache.

The brothers had worked together shaping an immigration policy that Senator Salazar cosponsored with Senator John McCain. (Salazar had been serious on the Meet the Press debate about reaching out to the Arizona Republican.) Ken Salazar had the legal perspective, but he and John also had the real-world intel from the Valley: their friends and family were suddenly down laborers; immigration crackdowns were fracturing families. And they would be more severely impacted unless a "reasoned" proposal was enacted. After coming close to getting the bill passed, it stalled. The Gonzales debacle. The Immigration Bill. These were disappointing, if not demoralizing, defeats for Salazar. Now, at least, he has the Farm Bill.

Farm bills are behemoth pieces of legislation that every so often are concocted on the Hill and often filled with all sorts of pork, some of which has something to do with raising pigs and much of which doesn't. President Bush has condemned this bill as awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to massive farms at a time when farms are already generally doing well and the nation can least afford it.

"That's not the case," Salazar tells me in his D.C. office, hours after returning from the Senate floor. "This is a Farm Bill that feeds the hungry." He spills into paraphrasing his Senate speech: "More than half the counties in America are rural. Forty-four of 64 counties in Colorado are rural counties." His words come quickly while his hands bob up and down. "For the last eight years these communities, home to 50 million Americans, have been largely ignored by Washington, D.C.—ignored in its policies and ignored in its priorities. You can see the effects of Washington's neglect in places like my native Conejos County, Colorado, where almost a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, or on the main street in Brush, Colorado, where storefronts are being boarded up...."

The next day, with Ken's brother John working the phones, the Congress indeed overrides the president's veto, and Ken Salazar is full of energy, anxious to do his routine telephonic conference with the Colorado press corps. Hanging up the phone, he leans forward, elbows on his desk, and takes a deep breath. "Not bad," he says. "I gave a speech about the Farm Bill on the Senate floor. Stood against the president, and he lost."

Salazar is aware of the earmarks in the bill. In private, the strategist in him would likely grin at the political cachet, nationally and in Colorado, its passing will buy for him. But listening to Salazar speak of the bill, on the Senate floor and in his office, hearing what was the unmistakable infusion of passion in his voice, conjures up thoughts of Leandro, the San Luis Valley, the droughts, the impoverished neighbors, his father, his church, keeping a hand on the political gears. Salazar's face looked smooth and content, proud, like a man who believed he'd done something for the greater good.

Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].