Monday, January 3, 2005

DENVER — Democrat Ken Salazar won the Colorado Senate race on the strength of his reputation as the kind of affable, pragmatic problem-solver that everyone likes — even Republicans.

Now the 49-year-old senator-elect must see if his bipartisan, get-along approach can survive in the sharply polarized Senate, where even red-state Democrats are expected to toe the party line.

Not a problem, says Mr. Salazar. “I’ll always put people ahead of party and transcend party politics,” he stressed throughout the campaign.

His fellow Democrats agree. “Anyone who doubts that Ken Salazar will be an independent voice in the Senate doesn’t know Ken Salazar,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Chris Gates.

“Anyone who says he’ll be a tool of [the Democratic leadership] is just spouting political rhetoric. He’s not going to be co-opted when he goes to Washington — he’s going to continue to work for the people of Colorado,” Mr. Gates said.

But Republicans say the balancing act may be more difficult than Mr. Salazar anticipates. “He’s a blue-state senator from a red state,” said former Colorado Sen. Bill Armstrong, a Republican. “He’ll have the problems that anyone would have whose party is a little or a lot more liberal than he is.”

Certainly, if anyone knows how to woo Republican voters without alienating Democrats, it’s Mr. Salazar.

His 2004 election victory made him the only Democrat in the nation to win an open Senate seat, and he did so in a Republican-majority state that swung for President Bush by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.

He did it by finding votes in the conservative farming communities that now elect Republicans almost reflexively. Ten of Colorado’s 64 counties split their ticket by throwing their support behind both Mr. Bush and Mr. Salazar, including Jefferson County, home of his Republican opponent, Coors Brewing scion Pete Coors.

In rural Rio Grande County, for example, voters gave Mr. Bush a comfortable 62 percent of the vote — and then turned around and gave Mr. Salazar 51 percent. Combine that with strong support in Democratic mainstays like Denver and Boulder, and it’s no wonder that Mr. Salazar was able to defeat Mr. Coors by 51 percent to 46 percent.

Mr. Salazar’s connection with rural Colorado lies in his farming roots. A fifth-generation Coloradan, Mr. Salazar grew up as the third of eight children in a family that raised crops and livestock in the San Luis Valley, located in the state’s sparsely populated south-central region.

After graduating from law school, he left full-time farming to practice law. He served as Democratic Gov. Roy Romer’s legal counsel, and in 1990, Mr. Romer picked him to head the state Department of Natural Resources.

Mr. Salazar was elected to his first term as attorney general in 1998, and easily won re-election in 2002. In both offices, Mr. Salazar built a reputation as a problem-solver who would rather sit down and hash out differences between warring parties than go to court.

Striking that kind of balance should be more difficult in the sharply divided Senate. It’s also uncharted territory for Mr. Salazar, who has never served in the legislative branch.

“This will be his first time that he’ll be legislating, and it will be to some extent a new challenge for him,” said Ray Christensen, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. “As attorney general, you don’t have a voting record.”

As a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Mr. Salazar will have a chance to get his hands dirty on a host of hot-button rural issues, including federal farm-policy renewal, the inheritance tax and Endangered Species Act reform.

Rural Coloradans will be watching those votes closely. “We have several species in Colorado close to being listed [as endangered],” Mr. Christensen said. “Is he going to be willing to go in there and make some necessary reforms that will make it more workable for agriculture? We know it’s a bit of a sacred cow for environmentalists.”

The first real test of Mr. Salazar’s independence likely will come with President Bush’s judicial nominations, some of which Senate Democrats have managed to stymie with filibusters.

“That’s going to be tough because it’s going to happen fast,” Mr. Armstrong said. “The Democrats are already pretty decided on it, and he’s going to have to decide quickly whether he wants to jump in the bunker with them. If he shows a degree of independence in his judgment, that may put him at odds with his party.”

On other issues, there’s little to distinguish Mr. Salazar from the Democratic Party platform. He cites increasing homeland security and fighting terrorism as his top priorities, but he faults Mr. Bush for failing to build a sufficient coalition of nations, and calls the war in Iraq a “grave mistake” based on faulty intelligence.

On the economy, Mr. Salazar says he supports the Bush tax cuts, but only those that benefit the middle-class, or those making less than $200,000 per year. He opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and defended trial lawyers during the campaign against Mr. Coors’ calls for tort reform.

A Catholic, Mr. Salazar came under criticism from Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput during the campaign for refusing to take a stand against abortion. Mr. Salazar says he supports keeping abortion legal, although he opposes it personally.

Mr. Salazar could do worse than to follow the example of his predecessor, retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a maverick Democrat who switched to Republican during his first Senate term, but whose voting record continued to show a strong independent streak.

“People in Colorado think [Mr. Salazar] is a sort of Ben Campbell Democrat,” Mr. Armstrong said. “So if he goes back there and starts voting the party line, he could have problems. But my guess is he won’t do that. My guess is his public persona is his real persona.”

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