The Denver Post
Sunday, December 05, 2004

Salazar reluctant to wave Hispanic banner

By Mike Soraghan
Denver Post Staff Writer

Washington - As he becomes one of the Senate's two Hispanic members, Ken Salazar is going to be pushed into a role he is clearly uncomfortable with: a high-profile voice for Hispanics nationwide.

He may push back, at first. Salazar resists being labeled Hispanic in much the same way golfer Tiger Woods dislikes others' attempts to identify him with any single racial category.

Salazar's might be a smart position to take in a state that's 75 percent white and only 17 percent Hispanic.

But experts agree the political reality is that Salazar will have no choice.

"For a public face of Democrats on Hispanic issues, he's it," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report.

Salazar says he appreciates the support he's received from Hispanics for becoming, at the same time as Mel Martinez of Florida, the first Hispanic to win a Senate seat in 30 years, and the first not from New Mexico.

But he's never promoted himself as a Hispanic, and says he isn't going to start now.

"It wasn't the Hispanic community that voted me in," he said. "I have to work on all the issues that affect the state of Colorado. I don't see myself working on a specific Hispanic agenda."

He made the comments during a break in his recent whirlwind orientation sessions on Capitol Hill. Asked whether the media should go to him as a spokesman on Hispanic issues like immigration, Salazar pointedly said, "It's not fair to single me out."

Minutes later, a crew from the Spanish-language network Telemundo spotted him in the hallway and he stopped to do an interview in Spanish.

High-pressure position

The Hispanic community understands the balancing act that Salazar must perform, activists say.

"No one wants to put any more pressure on Ken Salazar than need be," said Janet Murguia, executive director of the National Council of La Raza. "We know that his first priority is the people of Colorado."

Though it could be politically dangerous to be typecast as "the Hispanic senator," he could get a fast career boost because both political parties vie fiercely for the Hispanic vote.

Duffy, the political analyst, says it's inevitable that leadership will tap him to be the Democratic voice on Hispanic issues, and in fulfilling those duties, he'll gain influence.

"Is he going to tell the leadership they can't put him out there on those issues?" Duffy said. "He risks losing Hispanics by not being a strong voice for Hispanics. If you raised money in that community, you can't walk away from that without some repercussions."

"I see nothing but opportunities for Ken," said Federico Peña, former mayor of Denver and former Cabinet secretary. "I don't think he enters as the traditional freshman senator."

When Peña became Denver's first Hispanic mayor, some activists pressed him to name an all-Hispanic Cabinet

"They were shocked when I said no," Peña, who campaigned on behalf of Salazar, recalled last week. "They weren't the majority, and they didn't understand the role a mayor has to play."

That's the kind of pressure Peña figures Salazar will feel as he takes office.

"There's truly going to be pressure," Peña said. "I faced it; Hispanics will say, 'You represent me even though I don't live in Colorado."'

The same thing happened to Salazar's predecessor, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only American Indian in the Senate and for many years the only one in Congress. American Indians from all over stopped at his office because they considered him their senator, too.

Campbell alternated between reveling in his heritage and complaining about the strains of being asked to represent all American Indians.

"He's always said you inherit a national constituency without getting the resources to serve a national constituency," said Campbell spokeswoman Kate Dando. "Still, he's certainly been able to do a number of wonderful things for the Native American community."

Walking the tightrope

The pressure on Salazar can already be seen in the expectations of current Hispanic lawmakers. They expect to be able to call on him to "carry the water" for Hispanic issues they pursue in the House, such as immigration and a more Spanish-language-friendly federal government.

They note that though the Hispanic community didn't vote him into office, it did send a lot of money to his campaign as he tapped into a national Hispanic fundraising network.

"With many of the Hispanic Democrats, they'll see him as the focal point and will be looking to him to carry the water on Hispanic issues," said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "He had a national campaign; they were raising money all over the country for him."

But at least some Hispanic voters in Colorado agree with Salazar's stance.

"I think he should look at all of Colorado," said Levi Gallegos, a retiree in Denver who was born not far from Salazar's hometown in the San Luis Valley. "We're not in favor of him going Hispanic. We're Hispanic, but we're about fifth generation already."

While Duffy sees accepting the Hispanic leadership mantle as a way to build a national profile, she said it can go too far.

"The problem is you get pigeonholed, and this is someone who wants to make a larger mark on the Senate," Duffy said.

Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy said Campbell's role as a leader on American Indian issues was never a liability with Colorado voters.

Similarly, Loevy doesn't expect a problem for Salazar, because as attorney general, he served his Hispanic constituents, but maintained a much broader appeal to an overwhelmingly white state.

"He functioned as, for lack of a better word, a 'regular' politician, rather than a 'Hispanic' politician," Loevy said.

Staff writer Mike Soraghan can be reached at 202-662-8730 or .