Colorado Brothers Prep for Congress
MANASSA, Colo. – Ken and John Salazar (search) sat on a sofa with their 82-year-old mother in the living room of the modest ranch that has been home to their family for 150 years. Four siblings and extended family members huddled under bookshelves packed with family photos, religious mementos and encyclopedias.
The brothers were dressed up and headed for a hometown celebration of their simultaneous election to Congress on Nov. 2.
As usual, festivities began at home.
"This family has been at the core of all the values that we share," said Ken Salazar (search), the 49-year-old state attorney general and Colorado's next senator. "They were at the core of our campaigns and the core of everything that we've done in life."
John Salazar, 51, who will share an apartment with his brother in Washington as the new representative of the sprawling 3rd District, nodded to his mother: "It started here."
Emma Salazar, still soaking in her sons' successes, replied softly: "It just happened."
Democrats fared miserably on Election Day, but not in Colorado. Even though President Bush won the state for a second time, the Salazar brothers scored an eye-catching coup by reaching out to rural areas and self-described conservatives, including evangelical Christians, to win seats vacated by Republicans.
"What Democrats ought to do is look at guys like the Salazars and how they won," said Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (search), which helped put Bill Clinton on the path to the White House in 1992.
He and others say the brothers' campaigns are possible blueprints for making inroads in the West and other traditionally Republican states.
During a tour of tiny Manassa, made famous in 1919 by native son and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, the Salazars said the formula is simple: It's all about family.
The Salazars' roots date back four centuries to northern New Mexico, where their ancestors helped settle Santa Fe. They moved north at the end of the Mexican-American war to start a new life on land tucked into the hills southeast of Manassa, where the San Antonio River cuts through sagebrush and pinon and juniper trees.
Growing up on Los Rincones, or the Corners, named for the angle the hills form, the family had no money for toys. John Salazar said he, Ken and older brother LeRoy used sticks to make their own playthings.
"We know the values of hard work, integrity and honesty, and we know the struggles that people have in rural communities," said John Salazar, a state legislator and Vietnam-era veteran.
They are determined to pass on those values to their own children. John Salazar and his wife, Mary Lou, who run a seed potato farm with the family, required their three sons to work at home to earn money. Ken Salazar and his wife, Hope, acquired a Dairy Queen franchise in the Denver area in part so their two teenage daughters could learn the ropes of a family business.
The brothers also stressed the importance of education. Their mother and late father, Henry Salazar, bought encyclopedias in the early 1960s instead of trading in their pickup truck for a car.
"We sometimes used to sit out here around the table, and my father would go around and say, `I can't leave you riches, and I can't leave you large ranches, but the one thing I want to make sure you get is a good education,'" Ken Salazar said.
All the children became first-generation college graduates.
Much has been made of the fact that Ken Salazar is Colorado's first Hispanic senator and that he and Republican Mel Martinez (search) of Florida are the first Hispanics elected to the Senate in nearly 30 years. Salazar said he is proud of his background but doesn't want to dwell on it.
"I have been the attorney general for all 4.3 million people of the state of Colorado, regardless of their background, and I will continue to do that as the U.S. senator," he said.
He and his brother make more of their rural roots and humble beginnings. They say they won't forget that their home county, Conejos, is the poorest in the state.
"You learn in rural Colorado that your family is more than blood relatives," John Salazar said. "In small towns, you rely on your neighbors during harvest, when you're fixing fences, when you're rounding up cattle, when you need someone to pick up your children at school."
The Roman Catholic brothers felt comfortable talking about church and faith on the campaign trail, in areas where exit polls suggest Democrats lagged behind Republicans.
Drawings of saints compete for space with family photos on the walls of their mother's home. Religious statues from a now-demolished community church stand in a corner of the dining room. The sign over the ranch exit bears the Spanish farewell "Vaya con Dios," or "Go with God."
John Salazar said his mother keeps a candle lighted for her children and prays for them daily.
"I think it's those prayers that have taken us to where we are today," he said.