With immigration, Salazar steps into limelight
DENVER – Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., calls it “the story.””The story of Hispanics in America has not been told,” Salazar said in a recent interview in his office here. “My election and my profile in the U.S. Senate is an opportunity to tell that story.”If that sounds like the beginning of some genteel raconteur’s tale of ethnic America larded with all the creaking cliches about melting pots and salads, well, you’re thinking about somebody other than Salazar.The story he tells, with greater frequency and gusto these days, to groups all over the country and especially within the Hispanic community, is about power.”There is a historic aspect to my election from Colorado to the United States Senate, because I became the first Mexican-American in the history of our country to ever be elected outside the state of New Mexico,” Salazar said. “If I can do it in Colorado, it can be done in other places, whether that’s California or Texas or Florida.”
The future of Hispanic America and the national debate over immigration, with its focus on Mexicans working illegally in the United States, are bound together. And they are now bound with Salazar, a 51-year-old Democrat who in just 18 months in office has become a Senate leader on overhauling immigration laws and an outreach specialist to Hispanic voters for the Democratic Party.Shortly after his election in 2004, Salazar was asked by senior senators to help lead the immigration effort. Salazar said he believed that it was mainly his record here in Colorado as a moderate coalition builder, in addition to his ethnicity, that made him an appealing ally. In any case, the higher profile that came with that leadership role, he said, has given him a platform to speak out and tell the Hispanic story as never before.Republican leaders here in Colorado, many of whom favor a tougher stance on illegal immigration, say that Salazar is being used by his party to energize Hispanic voters and that liberals want to embarrass the Republicans who run Congress by having efforts to overhaul immigration fail.”The liberal establishment uses Sen. Salazar when it’s convenient,” said Bob Martinez, the chairman of the Republican Party in Colorado. “But they’re still calling the shots.”Salazar served six years as Colorado’s attorney general but was not widely known outside the state before his election to the Senate. In stepping for the first time onto the national stage, he may already be gaining another constituency of Hispanics around the country that will be hard to ignore in the future.In recent months Salazar has spoken to the League of United Latin American Citizens and to a nationwide audience in a Spanish-language radio address on behalf of Democrats. There have been profiles and interviews in publications like Hispanic Today and Latino Suave.
“Whenever a Hispanic reaches that level, other Hispanics will tune in – they’re really not your constituency, but they are,” said F. Chris Garcia, an emeritus professor of political science and former president of the University of New Mexico. “To ignore that constituency is to look for trouble.”Salazar is not an immigrant. His family roots can be traced to Spain, and Salazars helped found Santa Fe, N.M., in the late 1500s, decades before the Mayflower set sail. That also means, technically speaking, that he is not quite Mexican-American, as he sometimes says, because his ancestors arrived before there was a Mexico, or a United States, for that matter.”It was a border that came over us,” Salazar said. “We didn’t come over the border.”But he is a personal witness to ethnic bigotry, he said.”I’ve been taunted, called names – from dirty Mexican to lots of other names – as I was growing up, and even now as a United States senator,” Salazar said. “To have that personal experience in having gone through that kind of discrimination, it helps in terms of informing the debate and bringing a certain sense of reality to some of the issues we are dealing with on a national level.”But there is also a distinct thread of ambition in Salazar’s rapid rise. In his first days in Washington last year, he chose a mentor as all freshman senators do; he asked for one of the Senate’s unquestioned powers-that-be, John , an Arizona Republican and presidential hopeful.
It was a step that few Democrats would be likely to take, but one that Salazar said felt completely natural as a moderate who had spent his entire political career working with Republicans in Colorado.Then McCain returned the compliment, Salazar said, and asked him to help shepherd the Senate’s immigration bill, which would strengthen the border with Mexico and the immigration enforcement system, but would also create a mechanism by which the nation’s estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants could move toward citizenship. The House immigration plan, by contrast, creates no track toward citizenship.Salazar, who was also subsequently appointed to the conference committee that will try to find a compromise between the House and Senate bills, said he was not sure which party would eventually come out ahead. Since both are split over how best to overhaul the laws, he said, maybe both will lose.Inevitably, Salazar said, a politician staking out a position on an issue as divisive as immigration will make enemies. But he said he strongly believed that there was a center to the debate. And part of finding the center means appreciating Americans’ differences, he said – ethnic and otherwise.”The center, in general, has great strength,” Salazar said.
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