Crossing Over

By

Trinidad, Colorado

If Denver is the heart of Colorado, Trinidad is a capillary. It's a
dusty little outpost about 200 miles south of the mile-high city
and just north of the New Mexico border. Trinidad is a
weary-looking place whose main drag is peppered with boarded-up
shops and dank saloons and whose main attraction is a grim memorial
honoring fallen miners from this coal-rich region. It is a
typically depressed rural town, in other words. But Trinidad also
has a bizarre claim to fame. It is unofficially known, according to
the Lonely Planet travel guide, as "the sex-change capital of the
USA."As we drove into Trinidad last week, I asked Ken Salazar about this
strange honorific. At the time, Colorado's Democratic nominee for
Senate was at the wheel of my car--a courteous gesture to
facilitate my note-taking and one that seemed typical of a man
without a self-important bone in his body. As we rolled through
wide-open plains, Salazar, who grew up on a ranch not far from
here, was in his element. He had traded the suit and tie he wears
as Colorado's attorney general for a Western denim look: jean
jacket, blue jeans, and the white cowboy hat that has become his
trademark.

You might suspect Salazar of wearing a costume until you hear him
talk about the region. As we passed through different counties, he
effortlessly ticked off their populations and translated their
Spanish names. ("We're in Las Animas County. It means, 'The
Spirits.'") He explained what year towns were founded and what
their main industries are. Just off Trinidad's main street, we
passed an impressive red brick building. "They are known for their
brick in this town, " Salazar remarked matter-of-factly. "I have
one on my desk." Salazar said all this in his unalterably placid
voice; he projects an inner tranquility that suggests a man who has
just tucked his children into bed or enjoyed a very thorough
massage.

And, yes, he knows about Trinidad's gender-bending specialty.
"Yeah," Salazar chuckled, the little grin expanding. "There was a
doctor here who developed a specialty in sex-change operations, so
people from around the country would come here." He pauses,
choosing words carefully. "Shows you the diversity of America."

As a 49-year-old up-and-coming Democrat, Ken Salazar hasn't been
one-tenth as hyped as the younger, swooninducing Barack Obama. But,
should he win his tight race here--and several recent polls have
shown him with a small-to-medium lead over beer baron Pete
Coors--he'll join Obama in Washington as a new Democratic rock
star. As a senator, Salazar would become one of the most prominent
Latinos in national politics--second only to New Mexico Governor
Bill Richardson. (Florida's Republican Senate candidate, Mel
Martinez, is also hoping to join this club and signal to Latinos
that the GOP is their ally, making it all the more important for
Democrats that Salazar succeed.) If elected, Salazar would bring to
Washington a claim few other Democratic minority politicians,
including Obama, can make: He will have survived a competitive
statewide election in a pro-Bush state with the help of
conservative swing voters and even some Republicans.

Which is why Salazar has driven for hours to reach Trinidad. Given
that Colorado has 190,000 more registered Republicans than
Democrats, Salazar can't count on Democratic cities like Denver and
Boulder for victory. He needs to rack up huge margins in more
conservative rural areas--in places like Trinidad. Once in town,
Salazar met with a group of enthusiastic Democrats at a local party
office. Most gushed over him. But one skeptic challenged the mood.
"A lot of people go to Washington and become federal-minded," the
man says. "Are you gonna become federal minded?" Salazar slowly
raises his arms, spreads open his palms, and looks the man in the
eye. His hands are marked from working on his ranch. "These
calluses on these hands will never let me forget from where I
come," Salazar says. The man nods his head in approval. And soon,
Salazar is back in the car, headed off to another lonely rural
town.

Colorado is rough turf for Democrats. As it happened, Salazar first
hopped into my car outside Colorado Springs, just a few miles from
the national headquarters of Dr. James Dobson's rabidly
religious-conservative organization Focus on the Family (which I
later heard broadcasting a radio program warning against the
indoctrination of young people with the "homosexual agenda"). The
state offers a microcosm of the problem Democrats confront
nationally: the skepticism of culturally conservative rural voters
has outweighed the party's support in big cities, and
Christian-conservative and pro-military voters in exurbs like
Colorado Springs offer Republicans a firm bulwark. As a result, it
has been a decade since any Democrat has won a major election in
Colorado-- except for Salazar, who, after a career as a lawyer and
an aide to former Governor Roy Romer, was twice elected attorney
general. He won his 2002 reelection campaign by a 20-point margin.

Salazar's success so far has little to do with ideology; he is not a
policy wonk. He is a fairly moderate Democrat whose differences
with the national party are more tonal than substantive. Salazar
never talks about party control of the Senate, for instance, and
has yet to appear publicly with John Kerry. Yet his overall
platform--which calls for preserving President Bush's middle- class
tax cuts, more "urgency" on homeland security, and more
international support in Iraq--roughly mirrors Kerry's.

Rather, Salazar's two key assets are personal. The first is his
ability to connect with rural voters who might otherwise be
skeptical of a Democrat. Those calloused hands are no fraud: He is
one of eight children to grow up on a ranch in a farming area in
south-central Colorado with no telephone, power lines, or running
water. "We brought in water in fifty-gallon buckets," Salazar
explains. "We were poor; we didn't have money for almost anything."
This hardscrabble identity has so far been crucial to Salazar's
rise. "The old math of the state was that you would win as a
Democrat by driving up the margins in the metro counties around
Denver," says Mandy Grunwald, Salazar's Washington-based media
consultant. "But there just aren't enough votes there for a Democrat
anymore, even a centrist Democrat. You really need to build a
coalition that goes beyond that. And what Ken has been able to do
in his past campaigns is reach into rural areas. He's one of them.
He's not a Denver candidate."

So far, Salazar's new formula has been working. A mid-September
Rocky Mountain News poll showed him with a 59-to-35 point advantage
over Coors among rural voters--even as Bush leads Kerry among those
voters by three points. "A lot of people have approached us and
said, 'I'm voting for Bush, but I'm also voting for you, Ken,'"
says Salazar Press Secretary Cody Wertz.

Salazar's second advantage is his ethnicity. Latinos now make up
nearly one- fifth of Colorado's population, and their numbers are
growing fast. Although Colorado Latinos lean Democratic, as they do
nationally, they are susceptible to Republican appeals. (In 2000,
Bush carried Colorado with the help of 33 percent of its Latino
voters.) But the News poll showed Salazar leading Coors among
Latinos by 68 percent to 23. And, while Latino voters often turn out
in low numbers, the Salazar campaign is hoping they will vote in
droves for one of their own. "A theory behind the Salazar campaign,
particularly with Latino voters, is that they are going to turn out
people who usually do not turn out," says Eric Sondermann, a
Colorado Democratic consultant. One possible predictor of what
could happen, Sondermann recalls, was the 1983 campaign of Denver
Mayor Federico Pena, who triumphed thanks in part to a surge in
Latino turnout.

Yet, while he would be just the fourth Latino to serve in the Senate
(and the first in more than 25 years), like Obama, Salazar has
avoided depicting his candidacy as a historic civil rights crusade.
"It's not something that Salazar seems to have played up to this
point," says Denver pollster Lori Weigel, who conducted the News
survey. As a result, Salazar hasn't been branded as an "ethnic"
candidate, and his support among white voters--among whom he is
roughly tied with Coors--hasn't suffered. When Weigel's survey asked
voters what phrases came to mind when they thought of the
candidates, large chunks of voters offered such responses for
Salazar as "attorney general," "Democrat," and "positive values."
An observant 2 percent even offered "cowboy hat." But "Latino"
didn't register.

Salazar's success is particularly impressive when you consider the
strength of his opponent. The Coors family is the closest thing
Colorado has to royalty. From the site of its sprawling brewery
complex in the Denver suburb of Golden, the Coors empire stretches
across the state--encompassing downtown Denver's Coors Field,
thousands of Coors billboards, and the ubiquitous Silver Bullet
brew itself. But being Mr. Beer has proved complicated for Coors.
During his primary campaign, a right-wing group attacked Coors for
running TV ads featuring "scantily-clad girls and frenzied drinking
scenes" that were "degrading to women and nearly pornographic."
Coors the candidate and Coors the company--which has spent years
trying to recover from discrimination charges and resulting liberal
boycotts--fled from one another over the issue of gay marriage.
After Coors said he would support the federal marriage amendment,
the brewery even launched a $1 million ad campaign in the gay press
affirming that "[w]e do not support discrimination against the glbt
community--via legislation or otherwise"--suggesting, by
implication, that its chairman does. More recently, the deaths of
two Colorado college students in separate binge- drinking tragedies
have left Coors regretting some recent musings about the benefits
of a lower legal drinking age.

But the key to the race so far has been Salazar's impressive ability
to reverse traditional party stereotypes against Coors. During
Colorado's 2002 Senate race, Democratic nominee Tom Strickland blew
a lead against GOP Senator Wayne Allard after Allard depicted
himself as the champion of hard-working rural voters and Strickland
as an effete Denver "lawyer-lobbyist." This time, Salazar has
turned Coors into the rich Denver elitist. Salazar often speaks of
having "walked in the shoes" of ordinary Coloradans. And he savaged
Coors with a TV ad featuring Coors's dunderheaded comment, "I don't
know what a common man is." As a result, Coors has been stuck with
a two-dimensional image. Weigel's poll found that voters linked
Coors with terms like "beer" and "businessman"-- and not with
campaign themes like tax cuts or security. Coors has tried to fire
back by tagging Salazar as a faux-cowboy lawyer in league with
liberal Democrats, but so far the image hasn't stuck.

Maybe that's because it isn't true. Soon after his visit to
Trinidad, Salazar stopped in the even smaller, sadder town of
Walsenburg, about half an hour north along I-25. Speaking before a
group of local Democrats who shivered against a bracing early fall
wind blowing in from the plains, he once again sounded almost as if
he were in his hometown: "I have been through this road probably
two hundred to three hundred times." And no one doubted him for a
moment.

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