The CO-03 Diaries: Interview with Former Rep. John Salazar

This past week I got the chance to interview John Salazar. He represented Colorado’s 3rd congressional district as a member of the Democratic Party from 2005 to 2011 and served as the Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of Colorado from 2011 to 2014. I want to thank him for taking the time to speak with me. You can find the full transcript of the interview below, edited primarily for clarity purposes. The full audio interview located at the end of the transcript as well as on all our podcast providers, like Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

How do you balance all the important interests in the district? You were a big advocate of protecting water rights in the San Luis Valley.

When I first came to the statehouse, I came to fight against what was then called referendum A, which was a $10 billion bonding authority by then-Governor Owens, who was actually trying to create water projects for the urban areas. But they never talked about how or where that water would be coming from. But we knew it was going to start drying agriculture on the Western Slope. It’s always been a target. The San Luis Valley has always been a target. I got together with the Republican from Grand Junction, in fact, Congressman McInnis, his brother-in-law, Matt Smith. He was a state representative from that area. And we traversed the entire state, working together in a bipartisan fashion. We’ve met with every water board and with every editorial board that we could, and we actually basically took what was called referendum A, and took it down in every single county in the state. And that’s what it takes, I think, to represent the congressional districts, you basically have to be moderate. I was a blue dog, you know, fairly conservative. I’m very pro-gun. You know, the oil and gas industry is important for our district, yet the environmental community is also very strong because it [the 3rd Congressional district] is, in my opinion, the congressional district is probably the most beautiful district in the entire country. And so you know, I mean, they’re totally off offset forces. I remember when cap and trade came up with Congress, I voted against it, and there were a lot of environmental groups that were upset with me. But, you know, I don’t think that we need to stop one industry to create another one, for example, on renewable energies – I’m very pro-renewable energies. However, as we transition from carbon energy to renewables, I think that if we make that option available, it creates greater opportunities, and you start bringing down the price of gas and oil. During the Obama administration, we became, for the first time in the history of this country, I believe, that’s what I’ve been told, is that we actually became oil exporters in this country. And part of the reason was, when we did the legislation, which was called the Recovery Act, we put millions of dollars into renewable energy projects. And I think that creates a competition that we need. And so like I said, you don’t shut down one industry to create another one, because you create havoc in the economy. So like I said, you know, you have to be pretty versatile in this district in order to represent it properly.

Thoughts on bipartisanship? You won your first congressional race by 4 while George W. Bush won your district by 11.

I won my first election with 54% of vote, I think, [actually 51%]. There was a great crossover between our district with the Bush voters and Salazar voters. Of course, at that first one, you know, my brother was also running for the US Senate. But like I said, I was a blue dog. I believed in fiscal responsibility. And back then, you know, there was least an organization in Congress [the Blue Dog Caucus] that was kind of middle of the road. I mean, we could vote as a bloc to moderate legislation. We were able to swing the right wing Republicans to the center and the left wing of the Democrats to the center, sometimes if we voted together as a bloc.

How do you think the geography of the district affects its politics? Do you think that if a Denver-sized city was in the Third, voter attitudes towards certain issues would change at all?

Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the biggest complaints that I’m receiving right now, even from people that are actually working for the governor, the big The issue is wolves. The introduction of wolves has been a major issue for a lot of producers. As a matter of fact, I believe that there’s, in fact, we already know that there’s some moves up in northern Colorado, Colorado, that have not been put there by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, they’ve actually migrated there. And a lot of people are talking about, you know, pushing those out into Wyoming where it’s legal to take them out. I know that that’s a big concern. Water will always remain a big concern in the district. And guns, of course, is a big, big thing in the district. I think, as part of the reason that we’re seeing demographic [shifts]. For example, Pueblo has changed quite a bit, in my opinion. You know, Donald Trump, flipped Pueblo County I believe that that’s probably a first, I can’t believe that. I would have thought Biden would take him out with this big sweep. But you see, we have. And we did the same thing, I think when I was Commissioner of Agriculture for Colorado [referring to the wolf issue]. We took on PETA, as they were trying to put some animal husbandry issues, such as tail docking, into the animal cruelty statutes, and that’s wrong. It’s basically an animal husbandry issue. And there are certainly collars but not necessarily tail docking. But they do in other places in the country, that they wanted to put it into Colorado’s animal cruelty statutes. And so I got all the organizations or agricultural organizations together, and I think we pushed them out of the state for a while. This makes me sad that we have to do that, because people really don’t understand. For example, the wolves if they were to be introduced into the urban areas. Can you imagine all the puppies that will be leaving children attacked, and so on. So you have to be cognizant of the impact it has on rural areas. And the problem is, when I was in Congress, out of 435 members of Congress, there were only four of us that were actually farmers, and of the 38 members of the Ag Committee. The rest didn’t have any experience in agriculture. And here, you actually have urban folks making decisions in ag policy that could really affect agriculture negatively.

Your ancestors have been in the Southwestern United States since the 16th century. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Well, you know, let me just give you a little history of my family. On the Salazar side, they helped settle the city of Santa Fe back in 1598. And then they migrated north slowly. I even have some cousins on the Western Slope, and so the whole family’s been here a long, long time. On the Cantu side with my grandmother, my great-grandfather was actually captivated [sic] by the Apaches in the 1840s, at the age of 12. He was out with a flock of sheep, and near Nuevo León in Mexico. He was kidnapped and the sheep were stolen from his father, and he was brought across the river and sold two years later, when he became sick, as a slave to a Spanish family in Española, New Mexico. For a sack of flour, can you imagine that? And the lady that bought him, no, didn’t treat him as a slave. In fact, she treated him like a son and felt sorry for the young man. And she cured him and he became well and at age 28 was when he got married and moved to the San Luis Valley and actually was grubstaked by a fairly wealthy Spaniard in Taos, I think it was, his name was Perfecto Madrid and he actually homesteaded the original farm that we still live on. That was in 1860 when President Lincoln created the homestead or signed the Homestead Act. And so you know, we still hold on to that land.

What are some of the historical grievances that Hispanos have that inform the Valley’s politics? What about other Hispanic communities in Colorado?

You know, there was a lot of prejudice when I was growing up. I was never allowed to speak Spanish on school grounds, and I got slapped several times for doing that. And so that’s one of the things that I worry about, you know, I, I believe in fair immigration laws, but I also believe that you know, families should not be separated. And one of the things that bother me a lot is when I see second-generation immigrants, or even first-generation immigrants, once they’ve gotten their papers, they also look back and they think that new immigrants are actually taking their jobs away. You know, immigration is really important not only in the Valley but also on the Western Slope where you have agriculture, because you see a lot of Mexican immigrants actually doing the hard work hard labor on these ranches and farms, and they’re very important to our industry. And you look at the things in the more urban areas, like Pueblo and Grand Junction, I mean, naturally, that’s who you find doing all the hard work, like roofing, things like that. There’s got to be a decent balance on immigration. I was totally opposed to the way that Donald Trump treated immigrants from other countries. And I think that’s probably something that we have to look at. Trouble is that a lot of the immigrants will not, or cannot vote. And so I don’t know what else. Let’s see what are some of the differences. Right in Pueblo, there’s quite a bit of agriculture around it, you know, with some of the greatest green chili in the world is produced there in Pueblo. In Grand Junction, you also have the fruit industry in Palisades, such as the peaches and apples, things like that. So, agriculture is pretty close for those two major cities. And Alamosa is the major hub, basically for the San Luis Valley. And education is critical – we have several colleges. We have Adams State University, we have CSU Pueblo, we have Western State College, we have Mesa State University in the congressional district. So education is a key component of our economy. I believe that a lot of people now, mainly Hispanic families, many of them don’t speak Spanish anymore. And I’m proud of my language, I’m proud to be able to speak two languages. All my children speak two languages. And so I don’t know if that answered your question. But agriculture really is key in the entire district, if you go around the third. You know, one of the things that bothered me about how, I guess, the Boebert campaign worked, I think they said that in a month they traveled 44,000 miles or something like that. And, yeah, it’s a big district, but I didn’t see her one single time or hear about her being in the San Luis Valley ever during the campaign. So that’s one of the issues that we have, it’s very difficult. You’d better have a darn good pickup or a good airplane. I had an airplane and I had a pretty decent pickup, but I put a lot of miles, you know, when I was in Congress, working with the district.

In what ways are Hispanos different from other Hispanic-ancestry peoples in Colorado? In the wake of 2020, you know, we hear in the news that Hispanic voters are not a monolith. Democrats talk about needing to start tailoring their messages to all these individual different Hispanic communities.

Well, that’s one thing that puzzles me a lot. You know, I, I don’t understand how anyone who is a Hispanic could be supportive of Donald Trump, who basically is a racist, in my opinion. And he is somebody who is catering to the white supremacist community. And you see some of that, like out towards different little pockets and elements and where they are, in western Colorado, and I mean, racism is alive and well. Too bad, there has to be somebody that fans the flames and puts gasoline on the flames and makes it even worse. The Hispanic community that new immigrants that are coming in, are people who want to work and they’re here not because of free handouts, the way they’re portrayed. They’re here to work and they work hard. And I think in the city, basically, that same thing, they come in, and they’re working hard in the service industry, and they are looking for a better life. So I don’t know that I could say too much more about it. I know that we work really hard on our ranch and farm, basically, my son and I. We don’t have right now any immigrants that have been there, but we have hired Mexican immigrants in the past. And, you know, they’re very good hard workers. And I still love the customs that we have from my dad and mom that they taught us. I mean, they kind of bring it alive, you know, like, different foods that they eat that we like. They’ll love beans and chili.

What do you think is an explanation for Trump’s strong performance with Hispanic voters? Trump flipped several southern Colorado counties with sizeable Hispanic populations, from Obama in 2012.

Let me tell you the one thing that I know for a fact. With respect to the Catholic Church, I think I think the key issue that Trump pushes forward, when I’ve met a lot of Hispanics, they tell me that, “well, you know, Trump’s done some good things.” And I kind of shake my head and wonder what he’s done. But the key thing I think, in Hispanics, keep in mind, many of them are Catholic. And for a lot of them the life issue, the pro-life issue is important. And he appointed a lot of Supreme Court justices. Not in the right way, but he did. Of course, he built a pretty good army with McConnell in the Senate. Looking at it from a Catholic perspective, I am Catholic but I believe, in a woman’s right to choose. I’m not pro-abortion, I mean, I never received money from Planned Parenthood or things like that. But I, in general, did vote for a woman’s right to choose. As a matter of fact, when I was in Congress, I’d come home every weekend, if I could and if I didn’t have to be out in the district. I’d be helping my son doing a little farming Saturday and Sunday and back to Washington on Monday. But I remember Father’s Day, we always would go to church. Normally, we used to go to church there in Manassa. And I walked into church and, and it’s kind of a long story because it ended up being a big argument between me and the priest. He called me outside before Mass started. He told me he was very bothered, that he was not going to give me communion. And I told him that he was really not abiding by the laws of the church and that he was jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of the church. But that is the key thing. You know, almost every election, around November, you start seeing the abortion flyers flying around the church and things like that. And it’s okay, that the Church, you know, preaches against abortion, that’s fine. Like you and I probably, I believe, as I said, I am against abortion, but I support a woman’s right to choose because it should not be a political issue. But I think with the Hispanic community, that’s exactly what the issue is. Many have been so brainwashed, looking at the life issue. And so they tend to vote more Republican than Democrat. One of my former staffers, now a staffer for Senator Michael Bennet was talking about the demographics and how they changed. You know, even in my last election, I believe that I only took Pueblo with 56-58% of the vote. But before I was willing to go with 64-66%. Yeah. And so things change. And I think part of that is, you know, racism, I think in every community. I mean, that the year that Obama was running, and we’d just done well. Obama was in office, and, and you know many people could be anti-black. I mean, to me, I believe all people are equal. And regardless, and we should treat people like that. But in summary, the church has a lot of influence on many areas that are largely Latino, like Conejos and Alamosa. And I think that’s part of the reason that you saw that split [between the presidential results and the 20-week abortion ban vote]. I really didn’t talk very much to people about that issue because I think a lot of people did not understand it as well. And, you know, of course, with President Donald Trump, making it a big issue. Of course, I don’t think he [Trump] ever stepped inside a church to get married, to be honest with you, he probably got married in Las Vegas. I don’t know. But when he went to George Bush’s funeral, I think that was probably the only time that I would have seen him in church, or I’ve heard of him going to church, and so he’s not a religious man, but somehow or other, the church has been a major factor I believe in politics in the 3rd congressional district.

How was serving at the same time as your brother Ken?

Oh, it was an awesome experience. In fact, I’ve got a picture right here in my office of when I got to introduce him to the Senate Agriculture Committee when he was being nominated for Secretary of Interior. That’s probably the most memorable moment I’ve had in Congress. But um, yeah, we actually lived together for the first two years, until he became secretary. And then I lived alone there for the balance of my time in Washington. And, you know, it was nice having someone in the administration and being able to work alongside knowing some of the issues that were on the President’s agenda. We used to have some dinners together, or lunch together and talk about a lot of these things. So I was pretty well informed as to what was going on, on everything that he could speak about. Of course, he was Secretary of Interior. So there was a lot going on with the Secretary being in charge of the public lands on the Western Slope and in the Valley, you know, because there’s a lot of federal lands in my district. And so we enjoyed it. I enjoyed it.

What are your thoughts on how we got to our current moment in politics?

Politics is not my forte. As I said, I hate politics, but I love policy, and I love to help people. And I hate what’s happened to these parties, the two parties that have been so extreme. And I believe that this all happened during Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker when he basically pushed to gerrymander districts to where they’re so extreme. I believe that there are really no moderates left in Washington. Very few. And I think that’s what this country is missing, and that’s what you need. And you know, Joe Biden is considered a moderate, but the left side of the party is probably pushing him to the left. But you can’t get elected, really, through the primaries unless you’re probably an extremist anymore. I mean, Scott Tipton was by no means a moderate, but he was not an extremist either. And he was surprised when he lost this election. And so what I’m saying is the extremism and the gerrymandering, I think it’s starting to ruin this country, to be honest with you. And I wish that every district would have a good balance of the two parties and independence. And I think people would have to work together much more so that we could create the policy for all people.

What led you to Congress and what were some of the challenges along the way?

What motivated me to run, of course, was the water issue. I was in the State House, and I told you about myself and Rep. Matt Smith who traversed the entire state and won that battle. One of my opponents, of course, Greg Walter, who was on Governor Bill Owens’… well, he was the main opponent, he’s the one that won the Republican primary. But he had been on the governor’s cabinet as Secretary of Natural Resources. And, of course, he was supporting Governor Owens on that Referendum A, and that would have destroyed the Western Slope, with all that water coming this way. And so that’s the biggest thing that pushed me to go that way. We knew he was running. In fact, Matt Smith ran in the primary against him. And, you know there are some things that we could do by being there, whether it was trying to protect or creating legislation that would actually protect the water. I’ve always been a strong proponent of keeping water on the land because I believe agriculture is really key for the state of Colorado. It’s basically the second largest income producer for Colorado.

What are your thoughts on public service?

My mother and father were in Washington during World War II as well. They both went to work in Washington, they worked for the War Department. And then my father was actually called to serve. And he served in the military, during World War Two. I was called to serve when I was at CSU. I was studying engineering and agriculture and I was called during the Vietnam War. I never went to Vietnam, they called me, and it was during the tail end of the Vietnam era when Nixon started calling out to troops. And actually, I ended up in Germany. I was proud of this, you know, I’m really proud of this democracy. I’m proud that I was able to serve this country, and proud because I believe that we used to have the greatest form of government in the world when you had moderate politicians that could work with each other and talk to each other. And so I’m very proud American, fifth-generation American basically, or longer because on the Salazar side. So that’s a cool thing, to be able to go up and fight for people and fight for your district and fight for the things that really are important to you. And like I said, you know when I lost my election in 2010, I wasn’t bothered at all. As a matter of fact, as I said, politics is not my forte, my forte is agriculture. I love farming and ranching. So I was happy to come back to my ranch and we were actually just gotten off the plane and my wife picked me up here in Denver. We were driving to the San Luis Valley and John Hickenlooper called me up and asked me to become his Commissioner of Agriculture here, and I told him, “Gov, I want to congratulate you too, as well for winning, but, you know, I’m not sure that I want to do this”. , But he said, “just come and help me for four years because I need somebody who is a real farmer in there.” And I was happy to serve Colorado because I was doing what I believe is really important to protect the agriculture. I’m starting to have flashbacks of when I was in politics.

Thoughts on Rep. Lauren Boebert?

Well, she loves guns, and that is a big issue in the district. Well, she’s also considered a Q-Anon conspiracy theorist. And let me tell you what happened. You know, it was a tough thing to run for office during COVID-19. And I understand that people were reluctant to get out and campaign, and Diane Mitsch Bush, very terrified of that. And, you know, we never saw Diane Mitsch Bush a single time in the San Luis Valley or even heard of her or even saw signs of her, political signs out until the very last week. Boebert basically, didn’t travel, at least not in the district that I know, not in the Pueblo area or the San Luis Valley. And when there are two candidates on the ballot, one is Lauren Boebert, and she had the top line. And the other one was Diane Mitsch Bush and she had the bottom line. I firmly believe that when someone does not know the candidates, because they had very little time, very little – I mean, they really didn’t have a way to get around and get people to know them because they couldn’t campaign across the district. So Boebert took the top line, and typically when you’re voting, if you don’t know the candidate, some people won’t vote but a lot of people will just check off the top candidate just because they don’t know the other one either. So I believe that’s what happened in this case.

Thoughts on former Rep. Scott Tipton? You defeated him in 2006 and he defeated you in a rematch in 2010.

It was kind of funny though because I would certainly rather have Scott Tipton than Lauren Boebert. But I guess he was at the State Capitol. Is this story accurate? And I thought I saw a picture on Facebook – I don’t do Facebook, but my wife does. And when he found out [about his primary loss], I think he was at the State Capitol. And he was so shocked, looking at his phone, looking at the returns, and, and they caught him with a picture with his mouth open. And I thought, wow, I mean, it would shock the heck out of almost everybody in the district, but she won. But like I said, I think, you know, having a choice to make, probably a lot of people voted for the top line. I have no animosity towards Scott. I mean, Scott, and I, you know, worked on some issues together. My biggest concern, of course, was – I did everything I could for the district in a moderate way. I don’t know that he did or not, but regardless.

How feasible is a Democrat winning the 3rd? The past two Democrats, yourself and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell were both staunch moderates.

I think you have to have someone who is moderate, and of course, someone who is very pro-gun. I believe that you also have to have someone who is well-liked, who has a good personality who can talk to people. You definitely have to have somebody who is a good campaigner. There’s been several people who have asked me to endorse them on this round. I’m going to wait for a while. I think that a Democrat has a real strong chance of winning this district, especially this time around if you have those qualifications, but you also have to have some degree of agriculture in your background, because I believe that is what drives a lot of folks in this field. And then, the other issue I believe, is that because of Donald Trump, there have been a lot of independents and Republicans that I’ve heard of, that have changed their affiliation, some not to Democratic, but to independent. And here in Colorado, now independents can vote in primaries. So you have to have great appeal, because the Third CD is still the Third CD. It hasn’t changed – I don’t know if they’re going to gerrymander it this year, but we’ll see what happens. Some people were telling me, there’s no way that a woman [Boebert] can win the 3rd, but she’s pretty extreme.

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the current field of Democratic candidates?

Well, I know Donald [State Rep. Donald Valdez] very well, and I’ve helped him along the lines, I even helped him last time around. But, if he’s serious, he needs to stay in it, because we spent not only a lot of time and money on him. The other person, of course, was James Iacino, he could have won the district fairly easily. I’m still surprised it was a woman who won because there’s a lot of machismo in the district. I don’t know, I’m going to wait to see who has the best message, I don’t know the other candidates at all, to be honest with you.

Do you think nominating candidates from ski country areas weakens Democratic enthusiasm in Pueblo and the Valley?

I won’t speak to it, but I do think there’s some truth to it. We were talking about the issues, like the wolf issues, and that. It has to be someone that is fairly moderate and that can win.

What do you make of the Democrats’ debate on healthcare?

You know, the reason that I lost my election in 2010 was because of the Affordable Care Act and because people made such a big thing out of it. But I’d vote for it again because we had, when we were farming potatoes, we had big shoes, you know, 30-40 people we’d hire on during harvest and things like that. The main people that were working with us, you know, like my foreman, he was already 58, I believe. He had a few health issues, not bad, but I used to pay half of the health insurance and they had to pay their other half. And at that time, his health insurance for him and his family, was 1500 dollars a month, his share alone. My share was 1500 dollars a month. When I look at that, and how much of his paycheck was going just to health insurance, plus mine, that’s one of the reasons that I supported the ACA, and as a matter of fact, I was the speaker pro tem that day, and I was in the chair and I had the gavel in my hand. I still have the gavel here that I used, because I thought it was such an important thing for Democrats. You know, we modeled that legislation exactly on Mitt Romney’s legislation from when he was governor in Massachusetts. And I still the world of him, I am so proud of him for standing up through what he’s had to go through, and so, we did have to water it down in order to make it legal so that – one of the things was interstate commerce laws, and we had to water it down because you had to let the states opt-in or out. It doesn’t work unless everybody’s in it. But that would have lowered the cost of health insurance so that there would have been more competition, allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines. You know, Donald Trump talked about that during his campaign.

Are the Salazars done with politics?

Like Scott McInnis, I’ll say “never say never”. I think the world of Scott, he’s a good friend. But I love what I’m doing – I’m farming, like I told you before, I hate politics. I love policy and I love to help people. I have 5 grandkids now, I’m teaching them how to ride horses, and I’m having the time of my life, and I’m really enjoying it. We farm a pretty large operation, my son and I. So we sold one of our cattle permits above the Rio Grande Reservoir, we had cattle up there. And I guess some wolves had already been seen up there. And when you start to lose your livestock, it’s pretty hard to say that you support wolves. But anyway, with that permit, we were operating close to 40,000 acres. He and I alone, working hard. He works like crazy and we hire temporary help during the summer while we’re haying. We have a nice organic hay operation, and we supply a lot of organic dairies with a lot of high-quality alfalfa and grass hay, and then we used to have our cattle herds as an organic herd. But it got so cumbersome so we decided not to do it, it was not as profitable as people said it would be. We had a couple of good years, and that was about it. So, you need to have somebody with an agricultural background – I know Donald Valdez does, he’s pro-gun too. There’s another person who we’ve tried to encourage to run for years, that’s Senate President Leroy Garcia. Very smart, military, it’s very important to have a military background to win. And there are other folks, like Pueblo District Attorney Jeff Chostner, who retired from the military and knows the issues very well. I guess there’d be a lot of people but let’s see where we go from here.

Armin Thomas is a recent graduate of Yale University specializing in statistics. His interests include politics, elections, music, and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. His Twitter is @thomas_armin and he can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Comment