Ten Questions with Ken Salazar

Since graduating with a political science degree in 1977, Ken Salazar has gone on to serve as Chief Legal Counsel to Colorado Governor Roy Romer, Colo. Attorney General, United States Senator, Secretary of the Interior in the Obama Administration, and Transition Chair for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The Secretary returned to CC for the dedication of a house in his name on East Campus. The Catalyst sat down with the Secretary to discuss his take on the shifting political middle ground, protection of Western lands, Front Range growth, favorite CC memories, and his future in politics.

The Catalyst: Do you have a best memory from CC?

Ken Salazar: My friends… All the things we did together. Tom Autobee, Mike Espinoza—the whole host of them. We would go to the gym together, we would party together, we would go to concerts. We’d go to Pueblo because there was a contingent of young people from Pueblo, first generation Colorado College people, Tom was one of them…We used to go back and forth to Pueblo on weekends. So, my friends are my best memories.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

TC: Your resumé can read like a highlight reel of someone who had foresight in planning their career—position to position, achievement to achievement—did Ken Salazar before becoming Senator and Secretary and serving in the Attorney General’s office ever not have a clue?

KS: I didn’t plan my life out in the way that it turned out to be. I knew that I would always work hard and that I would do my best at whatever job I had. But, when I left CC I was not interested in ever running for political office or being in government. And yet, many years later in 1986, I was asked by the Governor to become his Counsel. In my exposure to government and politics, I ended up creating a sense that I could make a difference in government and politics. That led me later on to run for Attorney General. I wasn’t looking to run for the U.S. Senate but a vacancy occurred, and I was asked by a lot of people to put my hat in the ring. And I did. And I won. I wasn’t looking to be on the President’s Cabinet, but I happened to be a United States Senator. When the President Elect called and asked if I would be a member of his Cabinet, and talked about what I could do, it seemed like I could make a bigger difference being a member of the Cabinet than a U.S. Senator.

And, it all turned out in ways that I would say you can’t look around the corner and see what will happen. You don’t know what opportunities will come your way. You don’t know who you’re going to meet that will help you along the way. But I would say that the part that you might not see on Facebook or Wikipedia, more than anything else, [would be] my love and connection to the land as a farmer and a rancher. I spent a good part of my life as a rancher and farmer working on fields, cutting hay, plowing fields, irrigating, and I still do a lot of that. My family history is one where we’ve been farmers and ranchers for 12 generations—well, now actually 14 generations—in New Mexico and Colorado, so I lived out my life that way and I still do it. We just finished building a ranch that is located on a parcel of land that belonged to my great-great-grandparents, and that’s where they lived and that’s where they died.

So, I’m very connected to my farming and ranching heritage and sometimes that doesn’t show up in the public stuff. And I was on the [Agriculture] Committee when I was in the U.S. Senate, and I worked on the Farm Bill, and I did a lot of things in the rural community of America arena. But I think a lot of people, they say, ‘You really are a farmer and a rancher.’

TC: And in the year after you graduated CC, you returned to the ranch after applying to University of Michigan Law School, is that correct?

KS: Yes, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had a political science degree, and I knew I had to get a job or go to graduate school. And I had two choices in front of me: one was to go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in political science. I thought, if I do that, I’ll teach at a university somewhere. And the second was pursuing a law degree. So, I decided because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do that I would take a year off, contemplate what I would do next, and so the ranch is one of those places where we always need labor and I was basically running the farm and ranch operation for my father that year. And, by the time I got to December of that year, I’d applied to a number of law schools, had taken the GREs and was looking at going to a master’s program in political science. But, I decided I’d go to law school really for two reasons: One, it was a three year commitment and I didn’t think that I had five years to get a PhD.  I assumed if I got my Masters I’d get my PhD. And so, three years seemed a lot shorter than five. And then secondly, a driving factor for me, was I wanted to be in the valley, in the ranch. I wanted to grow up. I wanted to be in the valley. That’s where I wanted to live my life. And, I knew it’d be very difficult to do anything with a PhD in the valley. There’s only one college down there. And I thought, you know, my analysis, well… if I become a lawyer… lawyers are needed everywhere. I could go and put up my shingles in Alamosa and I could practice law there, so that’s why I made the decision to go to law school…”

TC: Throughout your political life you’ve been characterized as being able to find a shifting political middle ground, both in your time as a Senator and as Secretary of the Interior. You spoke a little bit about it last night, but what do you think the political middle ground looks like today, and where is it?

KS: I think that most people in this world are good people. And many of them also have very different points of view on social or fiscal, international, and global issues. But at the end of the day, most people are good people. And I think that if you work hard enough, you can find common ground with almost anyone. Especially, I think if you have authenticity in leadership—with yourself and the people that you’re working with—you can figure out a way of getting to a practical solution. Ted Kennedy and Mike Enzi —Mike Enzi, Senate Republican from Wyoming and Ted Kennedy, liberal lion of the Senate from Massachusetts—they used to have a rule called the 80/20 rule. They said, as different as they were in their political philosophy as United States Senators, they agreed on about 80 percent of things, about 20 percent they didn’t agree on. And they would say, both of them, Mike Enzi would say, “What happens is most people spend all of their time fighting and debating on those 20 percent of issues that they disagree on, and they don’t spend any time on the 80 percent that they agree on.” And so, him and Ted Kennedy, fighting for the American Disabilities Act and other kinds of things, knew that he could find common ground in that 80 percent arena, so he worked closely with Mike Enzi on those issues. So I think that kind of model is a model that is very much needed. It’s a model missing in large part in Washington these days.

TC: last August, when you were announced as the transition chair for Secretary Clinton’s campaign, what was it like Nov. 8 for you and the team?

KS: It was a very painful, very painful day. Maybe one of the most painful days that I’ve had in my life. We’d worked very hard for three months—August, September, October—to pull together the program for her administration. There were five work streams that had a number of people working on them, and they were done, so we were ready to implement. It included everything from the selection of the Cabinet of the United States to designing a White House that would be a modern White House, different from White Houses of the past, to dealing with international and global issues, from North Korea to the Middle East. And so, all that was done. And, I think all of us including the media and pollsters all felt it was going to be a victory, right?

I think Hillary Clinton thought it was going to…that she was going to win. So when the results came in that night, it was like the walls were caving in. It didn’t feel good, and the next day didn’t feel good and it still doesn’t feel good. But I feel good that we were ready to govern the country. And I also feel good that she was ready to govern the country. And, I just finished yesterday reading her book, What Happened, which I recommend. [People] should read it. And there’s a lot in there that I think is very accurate. I think she talks about her life in ways that she hasn’t before, and I think she does a good analysis of what happened. So, that was…it took me a while to bounce back. I’m back… I always thought Ted Kennedy’s speech at the Democratic convention in 1980, where he conceded and threw in the towel, he said, the final words of his speech, which I heard several times repeated on the floor of the U.S. Senate by him, were something to the effect of, “the cause endures, the work goes on, and the dream shall never die.” And I really believe that was the case for us on Nov. 9 and today.

TC: As former Secretary of the Interior, the election results show that there is a great deal of concern and frustration over management of western lands and discord between federal management and local engagement and voice in those decisions. What do you view as the path to striking a balance between progressive federal management and local involvement?

KS: I think you need both. I think you need local communities and those who are affected by public lands management to be involved and shape those decisions. I think that’s very important. I also think that decisions ultimately need to be made based on science—what the science tells us is best for all the values that we’re trying to protect. The values of wildlife and biological diversity on the public land, the value of hunting and fishing on the public lands and other forms of recreation, and the value of making sure that economic uses like grazing and other uses are being done in ways that doesn’t destroy the rangeland. You need to find the balance and you need to figure out what is, what do we want to use the public space for? And, how do we figure out what is the best science that tells us how to do it—how to manage it.

TC: In your March letter to the Denver Post regarding not running for Governor, you quoted numbers on the growth of Colorado’s front range population that project in the next 25 years it will grow by nearly 50 percent. How can you manage that growth with both economic and environmental consciousness?

KS: I think the efforts of having a strong economy and having strong conservation measures in place are not mutually exclusive. I think those who advocate that they are, are asking for a false choice to be made. I think that you can do both. I think that you can grow, Colorado will grow. And I think that you can protect the places that are special and give Colorado the quality of life that we have. The night before last we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Great Outdoors Colorado, and when we worked on that and wrote the constitutional amendment we knew that if we had money to incentivize people to do good things with the land, government as well as private landowners, that it would happen.

And so, today you have restoration projects in every single major river in Colorado. You have ranch lands that have been listed as protected between Monument and Castle Rock, so those two communities will not be welded together. You have conservation initiatives to preserve the Yampa River Valley for its heritage and its wildlife values. And so, the same thing that was true 25 years ago is true today. And that is, if we’re going to grow by another 2.5 million, we have to grow smart. I don’t think we have all the resources that we need to make sure that happens. I think we have huge gaps in the state. And I hope that whoever becomes Governor in 2018 has that as one of their top priorities.

TC: Last night you noted the irony of the ‘path to citizenship’ language in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and mirrored that to our current rhetoric of immigration reform in 2017. How do you feel knowing that CC won’t declare ourselves a sanctuary campus?

KS: You know, I’m not up to speed on what CC is doing on that issue. My own view is that, first and foremost, what has to happen is that the national immigration framework needs to be fixed…it’s causing huge humanitarian issues. I think it’s one of the civil rights issues of our time, and that’s the responsibility of the President and the Congress because it’s a national issue. I would say that’s first and foremost. The second is that, how do you participate in this dialogue? Cities like Denver [are] becoming…how do you define sanctuaries? Sort of the legal parts of it and the policy parts of it, but I don’t know enough about what’s happening here at Colorado College to really comment on it.

TC: Your speech last night sounded like somebody who’s not ready to give up elected or appointed politics. Are you done with elected or appointed politics?

KS: No, not necessarily. I don’t know what I will do or when I will do it, but I’ve enjoyed the campaigns and I’ve enjoyed mixing with people of the state and the country. There may be another chapter, we’ll see.

TC: You left quite a legacy at the Department of the Interior. From your perspective as a former Secretary, what has the capability to be undone?

KS: The protections of our public lands, the designation of monuments, the use of the Antiquities Act, the prioritizing of resource development over conservation and protection of wildlife—all of those things can be undone, and some of them are being undone. I think that the Trump Administration’s positions on conservation of public lands are not good. And, I think that the fortunate thing is that you have a great constituency of organizations that are Republican and Democrat that support the concept of conservation in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. And hopefully that’s what will carry the day.

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