Salazar passes torch to eager young Latinos

The Colorado Statesman

It was almost as if Ken Salazar, the golden boy of Colorado Democratic politics, was staring at the future. In front of him, seated on chairs in an informal circle in a large meeting room on the first floor of the Wells Fargo office building downtown, were about a dozen and a half young people — most members of the Colorado Latino Forum — just beginning their careers and anxious for advice from the master.

Salazar — who officially started his political career in the cabinet of former Gov. Roy Romer and worked his way up to Attorney General, U.S. Senator and most recently Secretary of the Interior — was gracious and sincerely interested. In less than an hour, a large crowd of well-wishers would fill the expansive room in celebration of Salazar’s return home to Denver. But at this moment, Salazar’s attention was cast upon his eager audience.

Salazar wanted to learn about them: their backgrounds, how they became involved in the political system, what they aspired to do in the future.

Members of the Colorado Latino Forum were privileged to meet with Secretary Salazar before the official welcome home party. They are, left to right, Marco Dorado, Elena Mendoza, Senator Michael Bennet, Secretary Ken Salazar, Ray Rodriguez, Danny Martinez, Mary Diaz, Joelle Martinez, Kendra Sandoval and Dulce Herrera.

And so it began.

Hope Salazar, standing, elicits a laugh from Elena Mendoza, left, and Dulce Saenz, right, when she quashes any speculation that her husband, Ken Salazar, will run for public office again. “Not with this wife!” she tells the gathered crowd at the welcome home event.

One by one, these remarkable but fairly typical young members of society shared a little about themselves.

One young Hispanic woman talked about her passion for teaching. This is her first year as a teacher, and she eventually would like to pursue a career in education — perhaps like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Another, a young woman named Elena, teaches in Brighton and is looking at the possibility of running for school board there.

Political consultant Michael Stratton of Stratton-Carpenter & Associates explains logistics to
Lily Griego and Joelle Martinez at the start of the June 7 event for Sec. Salazar.
Photos by Jody Hope Strogoff and John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

A young woman from rural Hudson, Colorado, told the Secretary about how she had organized around immigration reform at the University of Denver in 2007, and has since expanded her interest to education reform.

Arthur Aragon, who did his under- graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and received his graduate degree from American University, currently works as a policy analyst in the Denver Mayor’s office and looks forward to a long career in public service.

Christine Arguello, who sits on the Denver District Court, was the chief deputy Attorney General under Salazar from 1999 to 2002, and proudly acknowledged, “I’m on the bench because of Ken.”

And there was Joelle Martinez, well- known not only among her peers in the group but by Salazar and other more seasoned political veterans taking in the conversation. This accomplished young lady, who helped organize the event that afternoon, has been politically active since she was six years old and helped her grandmother Ramona Martinez campaign for Denver city council.

Joelle attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied political science, adding to the early political acumen she compiled as a young campaigner. She was a key member in coordinating Latino activities during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver and is a founding member of the Colorado Latino Forum.

“We train our leaders and get them ready to run for office,” she explained by way of introduction, although everyone pretty much knew her beforehand. In four years, she said, Latinos had tripled their numbers at the Colorado Legislature. Now, she said, she has turned her efforts towards the upcoming school board races in town.

So it went, with each young person sharing his or her unique stories with Salazar, who reflected on his own days as a law student at the University of Michigan. He received his law degree from Michigan in 1981. Recently he went back to his alma mater in Ann Arbor as the commencement speaker for their graduation.

“You never know where life will lead you,” Salazar wisely said as he glanced over at a longtime friend. “As Kendra would tell you about her father, then Sen. Paul Sandoval 32 years ago.”

When it was her turn in the group to introduce herself, Salazar’s wife Esperanza, who also goes by Hope, had a twinkle in her eye and a little mischief in her voice.

“I’m Hope Salazar, and he works for me!” she quipped.

It wasn’t the only instance when Mrs. Salazar had her say. When her husband was asked that afternoon whether he might run for public office again, Esperanza didn’t wait for his answer.

“I can answer that one as we all sit here with bated breath,” she said.“Not with this wife!”

“I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20 years,” Salazar said. “I told Esperanza we need to take a little time out.”

But he vaguely left open the possibility when he added, “Who knows?”

It was the perfect segue back into talking about himself.

Salazar was recently recruited to head up the Denver office of the WilmerHale law firm and is looking forward, he said, to resuming a more normal life without the daily strains of public service.

Yet, he said, he recognized the importance of the role of government. Salazar said he likes what government can do for people.

Trained as a lawyer, he worked on civil rights litigation, helping the landmark desegregation case in Denver, and also performed some pro bono work as well. “I went to work for Roy Romer and discovered how politics really worked,” he explained.

If you have the right people in the levels of government, you can make a huge difference, he told his audience of young men and women.

He also learned early on that the best way for him to make a difference was to win statewide office, so he decided to run for Attorney General in Colorado. Only an attorney can run for that office, he pointed out, so already the field was limited in number.

“I made sure no Democrat would run against me,” he reminisced. “We went Democrat by Democrat. Paul Sandoval and I would keep track and we knocked out all of the Democrats. Then we started targeting the Republicans.”
In that election year of 1998, Salazar was the only Democrat in Colorado to win statewide office.

Now, with his political career mostly behind him, Salazar looks forward to watching the next generation assume their roles in the future.

Jody@coloradostatesman.com