Rep. John Salazar (D)
Colorado 3rd District
On a clear night from the air, they look like tiny mottled veins, thickest near Denver. These are the lights of the civilization Americans have built on the Western Slope of the Rockies in Colorado. The lights follow the trails of valley roads and mountainside switchbacks. The nodes mark the dozens of little towns built during mining boom years: the gold rush of the 1870s, the uranium boom of the 1950s, and the oil-shale boomlet of the 1970s. The Western Slope—everything west of the Front Range, with dozens of peaks over 14,000 feet—has always blocked east-west movement. Except for mining and skiing, few would have followed the Ute Indians and settled here. The miners who tracked gold and silver and lead ores also built Victorian towns with opera houses and gingerbread storefronts in Aspen and Telluride, in valleys and defiles scarcely accessible to the outside world. Now many of these towns have been restored by ski-resort operators and joined by dozens of new condominiums and shopping malls. Cries of overdevelopment have followed. Amid the tourism, some resource development continues, of gas deposits trapped beneath the Roan Plateau. More than half of the area’s iconic aspen trees have died in recent years due to fire or natural causes.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The political map of the Western Slope is as diverse as its history. Aspen and Telluride are liberal and Democratic. The former coal-mining center of Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs, today sporting contemporary condominiums and ski lodges, were formerly Republican, but are now Democratic as well. Durango, an old frontier town, has moved in the same direction. Republicans still have a voter-registration edge in surrounding La Plata County. Some areas are still heavily Republican and hostile to environmentalists and others of the liberal ilk: the rough-handed mining area around Grand Junction, where piles of tailings still crackle with radioactivity; Glenwood Springs, with its old hot-springs hotel once visited by President Taft; and the northwest corner of the state, where people remember the oil shale boom with nostalgia. Generally on the Western Slope, the high-income areas, with lots of liberal-minded trust-funders opposed to new oil and gas drilling, are the most Democratic, while modest-income, working-class towns are the most Republican.
The 3rd Congressional District of Colorado is the state’s largest—roughly the size of Arkansas—and includes most of the Western Slope. It extends east of the Front Range to include the small industrial city of Pueblo. There, on the banks of the Arkansas River, the Rockefellers built large steel factories before World War I to make barbed wire and rails. Now this blue-collar town has attracted large medical centers and some industrial plants. Pueblo is heavily Democratic, and so are the counties on the plains and in the San Luis Valley to the south. These inhabitants are Hispanic, not Mexican-American: Spanish-speaking people have been living here, as in northern New Mexico, for 350 years. The 3rd District voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, for Republican Bob Dole in 1996 and for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, John McCain took 15 counties and Barack Obama won 14 counties here. The two largest counties are resource-heavy Mesa, which McCain took 64%-34%, and Pueblo, which Obama won 56%-42%. On balance, it is a Republican district, but it can be unpredictable. Republican John McCain won the district, 50%-48%.
Rep. John Salazar (D)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: July 21, 1953, Alamosa .
Education: Adams St. Col., B.A. 1981.
Family: Married (Mary Lou); 3 children.
Military career: Army Criminal Investigations Unit, 1973-76.
Elected office: CO House, 2002-04.
Professional Career: Farmer.
The congressman from the 3rd District is John Salazar, a Democrat elected in 2004 and the older brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was a U.S. senator until President Obama chose him for his Cabinet in 2009. The Salazar brothers grew up on a family ranch without running water or electricity in the San Luis Valley, east of the Front Range just north of the New Mexico border. They hail from a family of Mexican-American farmers who homesteaded in the area in the mid-1800s. His father grew alfalfa and potatoes using a horse-drawn cultivator. John and Ken Salazar shared a single room with three brothers, while their three sisters shared another. After high school, John Salazar served in the Army, including a tour of duty in a criminal investigations unit overseas. After his service, he returned to Colorado and got a business degree from Adams State College. He settled on the ranch, which has been in his family since 1850, and developed a seed-potato operation, growing millions of potatoes in huge fields. He was active in the Colorado Certified Seed Growers and on state farming boards. When a private developer in the mid-1990s tried to buy up water rights in the San Luis Valley to ship it to the Denver area, Salazar organized a citizens’ revolt. Younger brother Ken had held high state office from the 1980s and was elected attorney general in 1998; John Salazar did not run for office until 2002, when he was elected to the state House.
|John Salazar (D)||203,455||(62%)||($901,272)|
|Wayne Wolf (R)||126,762||(38%)||($21,669)|
|John Salazar (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (62%), 2004 (51%)
When Republican Rep. Scott McInnis announced his retirement in 2003, Salazar moved quickly to run. Rather than emphasizing his Hispanic heritage, he called himself a farmer. And wisely in this district, he cast himself as a pragmatic centrist and a friendly guy, not a partisan Democrat. But he proved to be a good fundraiser too, and he won endorsements from labor unions that helped him win 69% of the delegate votes in the May 2004 state party convention. Meanwhile, five candidates battled for the Republican nomination. Former state Department of Natural Resources Director Greg Walcher narrowly beat McInnis’s brother-in-law, state Rep. Matt Smith, 32%-31%.
Walcher, considered the most socially conservative of the candidates, was the only one who in 2003 supported Gov. Bill Owens’s referendum to authorize $2 billion in bonds for water storage projects, which was defeated 67%-33% statewide and 85%-15% on the Western Slope. Salazar, who was state co-chairman of the anti-referendum campaign, hammered away on the issue. Walcher accused Salazar of being a pro-tax liberal and attempted to tie him to that year’s Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. But the image wouldn’t stick. Though he supports abortion rights and opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the folksy, cowboy-hat wearing Salazar crafted a moderate image and kept Kerry at a distance. He embraced tax cuts for farmers and ranchers and supported repeal of the estate tax. He also sported an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Salazar won 51%-47%, taking 16 of the 29 counties.
In the House, Salazar had a centrist voting record and is a member of the Hispanic Caucus. Following an August 2006 trip to Iraq, he opposed a timetable for withdrawal, which his brother supported in the Senate. But he has kept his focus on district issues. In the 110th Congress (2007-08), he worked on energy issues, opposing big subsidies to oil companies and natural-gas drilling on federal land on the Western Slope’s scenic Roan Plateau. Despite the Army’s claims that it needed the Pinion Canyon maneuver site for training in the war on terrorism, he successfully opposed an expansion of the site, pointing to opposition by local farmers and ranchers. With a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he got $32 million for his district in the 2005 highway bill, which was among the highest totals for a freshman.
In this ticket-splitting district, Salazar’s work for the district and his political savvy have discouraged serious opposition.