Fireworks erupt in this year’s Salazar vs. Tipton race in CD 3

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Republican state Rep. Scott Tipton aims to unseat Democratic 3rd District Congressman John Salazar — a feat the businessman attempted unsuccessfully in 2006 — and hopes to ride the wave of anti-government sentiment to victory. Salazar, who calls himself “a veteran and lifelong farmer,” has earned a Teflon reputation as an advocate for rural communities.

“John Salazar is a decent human being, but he’s cast bad votes,” declared Tipton. “He stands with big government; I stand for the people.”

“For me, the right choice is what rings best with rural values,” said Salazar in a website statement.

John Salazar, who calls himself “a veteran and lifelong farmer,” has earned a Teflon reputation as an advocate for rural communities.

The race began heating up this week as Democrats slammed Tipton for holding a fundraiser in Grand Junction that featured Dick Morris, whose sexual dalliances forced him to resign as a political consultant on President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid in 1996.

Republicans swiped at Salazar for “lacking transparency” in a federal land-swap deal that would add 1,849 acres to a ranch owned by billionaire Bill Koch, who has contributed thousands to the Democrat’s election campaigns. Salazar proposed the deal in a bill instead of an administrative action that would have required environmental studies and public hearings.

If the Democrats enjoyed slamming Tipton for his connection with Morris, the Republicans relished seeing Salazar mired in media stories this week that question his sponsorship of a land-swap bill between the federal government and Koch that would in part bypass public hearings.

“I introduced this exchange at the request of Gunnison County because they see the long term economic development for their county and the tourism benefit for the surrounding region. In these tough economic times, if my local elected officials come to me with an idea they believe can benefit their community, I’m going to listen and I’m going to act and I’m not going to worry about politics at a time when so many individuals are struggling to make ends meet,” said Salazar.

Scott Tipton is once again running against Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. John Salazar in CD 3.

If passed, the bill would increase the size of Koch’s ranch in Gunnison National Forest near Paonia. The largest parcels, totaling 1,846 acres, are under the Bureau of Land Management and three acres are U.S. Forest Service land.

Koch would give the federal government 80 acres in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and 911 acres in Curecanti National Recreation Center located on the southern edge of Gunnison National Forest. Koch has an option to buy the recreation center property.

The legislative process is the only means to execute the land swap in Gunnison County, according to a staffer in Salazar’s office. It cannot be pursued administratively because it involves land in Colorado and Utah and three different federal administrative agencies.

“I’m a big supporter of transparency and public input. It’s incredibly important to have public hearings,” declared Tipton.

“Apparently, my opponents don’t believe the opinions of local elected officials should matter, but for as long as I serve them their views will be heard,” countered Salazar.

The Congressman plans to hold public meetings in Delta County before the legislation moves forward.

The Palm Beach tycoon contributed $4,200 to Salazar’s campaign in 2006, $4,200 in 2007, $4,600 in 2008 and $4,800 in 2009. Koch’s Oxbow Carbon & Minerals Holdings PAC gave $5,000 to Salazar’s campaign in December 2009. Koch and the PAC each donated $4,600 to U.S. Senator Mark Udall’s 2008 campaign; Udall is sponsoring the land-swap bill in the Senate.

“It smells bad,” said Doug Thompson, Tipton’s campaign manager. “It sends the message that (Salazar) will help his elitist friends at the expense of others.”

Salazar declined to respond to Thompson’s comment.

The 3rd Congressional District encompasses all or parts of 29 counties and stretches from Colorado’s Western Slope to the southern border and includes the populated cities of Grand Junction, Durango and Pueblo. The back-and-forth history of electing Democratic and Republican congressmen seemed to end after former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis resigned the seat and Salazar won election in 2004.

That year, Salazar squeaked past Republican candidate Greg Walcher, winning 50.6 percent of the vote. In 2006 and 2008, Salazar sailed to victory, winning 61 percent of the votes cast in the general election.

The Democratic incumbent has more than $1.2 million cash in his campaign coffer. Tipton, who reported $176,401 cash on hand on July 21, is working overtime to raise money.

The Republican spent more than $215,000 to defeat his primary challenger Bob McConnell, a retired military fighter pilot and attorney who gained popularity among anti-establishment voters.

Tipton beat McConnell, 55.7 percent to 44.2 percent, winning 39,491 votes to 31,360 votes.

“We have to raise funds for media buys and mix that effort with a grassroots campaign. The media is important because it’s impossible to personally shake the hand of every voter in the district,” said Tipton.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, the Republican held fundraisers at a private home in Aspen and Amy’s Courtyard restaurant in Grand Junction. The latter featured Morris — his colorful past raised the eyebrows of state Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak.

“If Scott thinks Dick Morris’ endorsement is a great coup he must be forgetting his history. Morris has proven himself morally questionable time and time again. As the first major fundraiser of his general election campaign, what kind of tone and precedent does this set for Scott personally?” wondered Waak in a public statement.

“Scott should be condemning the actions of Dick Morris, not bowing down and taking his money. Does Scott think this is okay? It’s not. It’s embarrassing and disgraceful. Colorado deserves better than this,” she declared.

“This is what the Democrats want to talk about?” asked Tipton.

“Unemployment is hovering at 9.7 percent, and people have even stopped looking for jobs, businesses are closing and unimaginable federal debt will become the burden for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

“We need to get serious about these issues rather than nitpicking silliness,” asserted Tipton.

In a by-the-way postscript, Tipton said that the 150 folks who attended the $50-a-person campaign fundraiser “loved Dick Morris.” Some adore the Fox News political commentator so much that they shelled out $500 to chat with Morris at a private reception.

Morris described himself as a converted Republican and Christian at the Western Conservative Summit in Lone Tree last month.

Tipton said the Democrats should be more focused on how they plan to defend Salazar for voting in lockstep with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to further President Barack Obama’s agenda. Measures, such as corporate bailouts and federal-run healthcare, Tipton asserted, “killed jobs in the 3rd Congressional District and throughout Colorado.”

Salazar appears to be keenly aware of the voters’ concern about the growing national debt and unchecked spending on Capitol Hill.

“With climbing deficits, it’s more critical than ever that we pay as we go, rather than push costs of budget changes onto our children,” declared Salazar on his campaign website.

“As a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House, I worked with my colleagues to enact the PAYGO budget rule so that it would be the law of the land,” he said. “It will help create fiscal discipline and make it harder for the President or Congress to engage in non-emergency deficit spending.”

He said the PAYGO measure is a simple concept — “no new spending or tax cuts can be approved unless they are paid for by finding spending cuts or revenue elsewhere in the budget.”

The measure, signed into law by Obama, was previously used during the 1990s but expired in 2002. As a result, Salazar said, the budget went from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000, to a deficit of $459 billion in 2008.

“The issues we’re hearing most about are jobs and the economy and protecting Social Security and Medicare. People are afraid those safety nets are going to be taken away and want the Congressman to stand up for them,” said Salazar for Congress spokesman Edward Stern.

“He takes every election seriously and is looking forward to a strong spirited campaign against Scott. There is a very real difference between the two and voters are going to have to decide if they want to move forward and continue fighting together to bring jobs to Colorado and protect Social Security and Medicare or move backward and elect someone who advocates the same policies that got our country into our economic troubles in the first place,” said Stern.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com