After years of watching industry-friendly appointees of the Bush administration run roughshod over environmental concerns, conservationists had hoped Barack Obama’s election would bring a new day at the Department of the Interior. But the selection of Colorado Senator Ken Salazar left some on the left wondering what kind of interior secretary he will turn out to be.
Salazar was born March 2, 1955, in Alamosa, CO and grew up near the town of Manassa, CO. His parents, Emma and Henry (Enrique) Salazar, were Americans of Mexican descent whose relatives first settled in the American West when Mexico controlled the territory. After helping found the city of Santa Fe, NM, in 1598, they planted roots in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Salazar’s great-grandfather, Felipe Cantu, was kidnapped by Indians in 1844 and given to a Spanish trader and his wife. By 1850, he had started the ranch, Los Rincones, which the family still owns today. Salazar’s parents served in World War II—his mother as a clerk-typist in the War Department in Washington DC, and his father as a staff sergeant in the United States Army. After the war, they returned to the San Luis Valley to farm, ranch, and raise a family of eight children (including triplets), all of whom eventually earned college degrees.
Salazar attended St. Francis Seminary near Cincinnati, Ohio, and Centauri High School in La Jara, Colorado, graduating in 1973. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1977 from Colorado College and then returned to help his father on the farm for a year. He received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981. During the summer of 1980, he clerked at the Denver law firm of Sherman & Howard.
After graduating, Salazar continued at Sherman & Howard, practicing water and environmental law until January 1987, when he began work as chief legal counsel for Colorado’s Democratic governor, Roy Romer. Four years later, Romer tabbed him to be executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. During this time, Salazar helped create the land conservation program, Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), of which he served as the first chairman.
In 1994, Salazar returned to private practice law and began to build his campaign for state attorney general. He won in 1998, and was re-elected in 2002. As attorney general, he established the Fugitive Prosecutions Unit, Gang Prosecution Unit, and Environmental Crimes Unit in the AG’s office. He also served as chairman of the Conference of Western Attorneys General.
Two years later, US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) retired from the senate, creating an opportunity for Democrats to pick up the GOP-held seat. Salazar had to fight off fellow Democrat Mike Miles to win his party’s nomination. Salazar then narrowly defeated Republican Pete Coors, of the Coors Brewing Company, in the general election of November 2004, making him one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing election for Democrats nationally. During the same election, Salazar’s older brother, John, was elected to the US House of Representatives from Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
While serving in the Senate, Salazar held seats on the Finance, Agriculture, Energy and Natural Resources, Ethics, and Aging Committees. Soon after arriving in the Senate, Salazar generated controversy within his party by introducing Alberto Gonzales and sitting by his side during Gonzales’ confirmation hearings for US Attorney General. (Salazar later called for Gonzales’ resignation during the 2006 controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors.) He also outraged many religious conservatives when he called James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, “the anti-Christ.”
Salazar formed a reputation in the Senate as a moderate Democrat. He was among the bipartisan “Gang of 14” moderate senators in 2005 who forged a compromise on the Democrats’ use of the filibuster against President Bush’s judicial appointments. That same year, he voted against increasing fuel-efficiency standards (CAFE) for cars and trucks, which didn’t please the League of Conservation Voters, and he voted against an amendment to repeal tax breaks for ExxonMobil and other major oil companies. In 2006, Salazar voted to end protections that limit off-shore drilling in Florida’s Gulf Coast, and was one of only a handful of Democrats to vote against a bill that would require the US Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects.
Industry representatives were not spooked by Salazar’s appointment as interior secretary. “Nothing in his record suggests he’s an ideologue,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. “Here’s a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue.” Environmentalists offered mixed reviews of Salazar’s selection to Obama’s cabinet.
Salazar campaigned vigorously for Obama in Colorado, barnstorming rural areas in an RV, preaching alternative energy development and its potential to revitalize economies. After the election, he urged Obama to build his economic stimulus package around investments in energy infrastructure.
In addition to his political career, Salazar and his wife, Hope, have owned and operated small businesses, including a Dairy Queen and radio stations in Pueblo and Denver. They have two daughters, Melinda and Andrea, and one granddaughter, Mireya.