He hasn’t even been sworn in as a Senator yet, but the Denver Post is already speculating about how Ken Salazar is going to handle his new role as the Senate’s only Hispanic Democrat.
This isn’t completely unreasonable — fairly or not, Salazar is going to face much more scrutiny than the other freshman Hispanic senator, Mel Martinez of Florida, who as a Cuban-American Republican just won’t face the same expectation of representing a gigantic cross-section of the American population as a senator.
Salazar’s predecessor, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, donned tribal gear for his campaign ads and forthrightly stated that his Northern Cheyenne heritage was a reason to vote for him. But it wasn’t until his last year in office — when he was asked to take a stand on a proposal to build an Indian casino in the Denver metro area — did Campbell face any scrutiny whatsoever for his interest in Native American issues.
Campbell then complained that there was a racial double standard involved in questioning him about the issue, even though he was the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over matters such as requests to put land into “Indian trust” status for purposes such as casino construction.
Salazar isn’t going to repeat Campbell’s mistake — he has made it clear that he did not run to be a “Hispanic senator” and there is no way any single Senator could represent the views of even all Latino Democrats, much less of all persons identified as “Hispanic” in the United States.
But of course, as the rare Senator who grew up speaking Spanish, Salazar will inevitably find himself as a more articulate spokesperson for Democratic positions in Spanish language media than his colleagues. And his views on hot button issues like immigration and bilingual education (or even on appointments of Hispanics to government office by the Bush administration) will inevitably get more coverage than the positions of his Democratic colleagues.
This, in turn, will set Salazar up for the sort of snarky commentary found in this morning’s Post article, in which Salazar’s statement that he didn’t run just as a Hispanic was juxtaposed with his granting an interview to Spanish-language television, as if to suggest that if he does not actively snub Latinos he isn’t being truthful on his position on how his cultural identity interacts with his role as a Senator.
Given the fact that Colorado has not recently faced racially divisive political issues involving Native Americans, Salazar’s balancing act is a lot more delicate than the one that faced Campbell. And while the Post‘s description of Colorado as an “overwhelmingly white” state seems a bit overblown in view of the fact that less than 75 percent of the population is classified as “Non-Hispanic white,” it is true that Salazar (like Martinez in Florida or Barack Obama in Illinois) never would have been elected as a Senator had he portrayed himself as strictly a representative of the ethnic group he is identified with. So there isn’t any reason to believe Ken Salazar won’t be able to handle the added challenge he will face as a rare Senator of Hispanic origin.