They go way back.
On July 28, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper introduced their predecessor and fellow Democrat Ken Salazar at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Salazar’s nomination to be ambassador to Mexico.
During his remarks, Hickenlooper noted that he first met Salazar more than 30 years ago — long before either of them had even considered running for office — when Salazar organized an event featuring author John Nichols in the basement of Hickenlooper’s brewpub to raise money for a campaign to protect land in southern Colorado.
“Ken has been beside me on every major issue, every political battle I’ve fought, and I’ve been by his side as well,” Hickenlooper said.
Both incumbent senators described Salazar’s humble beginnings, which rival the best log cabin story told by politicians of yore, and sketched his family’s deep roots in the region.
“His family settled in The Southwest United States, that was then New Spain, in the 16th century. His ancestors helped found the city of Santa Fe,” said Hickenlooper.
Bennet, who was appointed to finish Salazar’s first term in the Senate, picked up the story from that point.
“Later, the family journeyed to Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where they have farmed for five generations,” he said
“In the town of San Luis — Colorado’s oldest town — there’s a stone marker identifying Colorado’s first irrigation ditch, the Peoples Ditch. Etched into the stone are the names of farmers and ranchers who are entitled to draw water from the ditch because they were the ones who dug it. The name Salazar is among them.”
Bennet went on to describe the ranch a few miles from the small town of Manassa in Conejos County, where Salazar’s parents, Henry and Emma, raised their eight children.
“The valley is a sparse, beautiful part of the state, but it wasn’t an easy place to grow up,” Bennet said. “The Salazar family ranch in Los Rincones didn’t have electricity until 1982. Ken and his siblings grew up reading with oil lamps. They didn’t have phones or television, but they did have the example of their parents, both incredible patriots.
“Ken’s father, Henry, served in World War II and became a staff sergeant. He was so proud of his service to America that he asked the family to bury him in his uniform, which they did. When the war broke out, Ken's mother, Emma, also wanted to do her part. She traveled to Washington by herself when she was only 19 to work at the Pentagon. Neither of his parents had a college education, but they worked hard to provide the family with the opportunities they never had. All eight of their children, including Ken, became first-time college graduates.”
Just as Salazar’s heritage and background mirrors the ever-evolving relationship of the American Southwest and its centuries-old neighbor to the south, Salazar’s political rise from the ranch his family has tended for generations in Los Rincones — one of the first spots in Colorado to be settled by Europeans — set the pace for the Colorado Democratic Party’s climb from obscurity to near-total control of the state.
Colorado Republicans have been suffering a dry spell for the past two election cycles, losing every statewide office on the ballot in 2018 and 2020 — from governor and attorney general to secretary of state, state treasurer and U.S. senator.
Only one Republican, Heidi Ganahl, elected in 2016 to an at-large seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents for a six-year term, remains in office — and due to a quirk involving the number of congressional seats in the state, her office is almost certainly being erased after the next election.
But just 20 years ago, the state’s Democrats were in the middle of a drought that left the party nearly frozen out from the levers of power through four general elections, from the late 1990s into the middle of the next decade.
Following each of those contests — 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004 — Ken Salazar was the only Colorado Democrat holding statewide office.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette has been known to reminisce about that arid stretch at party functions when the pair amounted to two-thirds of the Democrats holding higher office in the state, with then-U.S. Rep Mark Udall rounding out the group.
DeGette and Salazar have known each other for more than 40 years, since the mid-1970s when her undergraduate years at Colorado College overlapped with Salazar’s. Two classes ahead of her, Salazar even dated DeGette’s roommate at one point, she has said.
After graduating from CC in 1977, Salazar got a law degree at the University of Michigan and then practiced law for a few years before then-Gov. Roy Romer made him his chief counsel and later appointed Salazar executive director of the state’s natural resources department.
Elected twice as attorney general, in 1998 and 2002, Salazar served alongside Republicans — Gov. Bill Owens, Secretaries of State Donetta Davidson and Gigi Dennis, and State Treasurers Mike Coffman and Mark Hillman, with Republicans Wayne Allard and Ben Campbell filling the state’s U.S. Senate seats.
After Campbell announced he wouldn’t seek a third term just eight months before the 2004 election, Salazar ran for the seat. He prevailed over the more progressive Mike Miles in the primary and defeated beer magnate Pete Coors in the general election, moving from one statewide office to another. (Owens appointed Republican John Suthers to finish Salazar’s term as attorney general, keeping the number of statewide Democrats to one.)
Bennet noted during the confirmation hearing some of the barriers Salazar has broken in his political career, “as the first Hispanic American elected to statewide office in Colorado, to becoming the first Mexican American elected to the U.S. Senate outside of New Mexico.”
Four years into his Senate term, then-President Barack Obama named Salazar his first secretary of Interior, and Bennet was appointed to fill the seat.
For Salazar, everything was going according to the plan sketched out on a napkin by Paul Sandoval at the groundbreaking Hispanic politician’s North Denver restaurant, Tamales by La Casita.
Sandoval, a close Salazar mentor and ally since the two met while Sandoval was visiting the San Luis Valley to promote the Chicano Education Project — a meeting Bennet noted in a Senate tribute to Sandoval, who died in 2012 after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Salazar delivered Sandoval’s eulogy, including reading a letter from Obama, at a packed Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Denver’s Capitol Hill, calling the former state senator and Denver Public School Board member a “warrior for a better world.”
As Sandoval told it, Salazar came to La Casita once and told his old friend that he wanted to run for something. Sandoval suggested running first for attorney general, then governor or the U.S. Senate, “and after that you might be able to get into the Cabinet if we get another Democratic president.” Salazar gave his assent, Sandoval would recall, so they “mapped it all out on a napkin.”
At his confirmation hearing, Hickenlooper extolled his friend, calling Salazar a “world-class negotiator,” a trait he said came from Salazar’s mother, Emma.
“She was about 5-foot-2 and one of the strongest, most potent political forces in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said. “She blessed two generations of candidates, and they weren’t always Democrats. She blessed me on my re-election in 2014 when she was 91 years old.”
Salazar, Hickenlooper said, “has never shied away from tough issues. He understands the importance of collaboration, bipartisanship, pragmatism.”
Said Bennet: “You would struggle mightily to find someone more qualified. He has the experience and substance to hit the ground running and a life story that represents America at its best.”
If the Senate confirms Salazar's nomination, as is likely, ambassador to Mexico will be the first office he'll hold that wasn’t mapped out on that napkin, which Salazar has kept all these years.