At first glance Ken Salazar seemed like an odd choice as President Barack Obama’s pick for Secretary of the Interior.
The cowboy hats, the bolo ties and the measured Rocky Mountain tone seem more fitting on former President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch than inside Obama’s White House. But when Salazar put forth his agenda soon after moving into the Interior Department offices on C Street, it became apparent that the rancher’s son was setting his own goals.
During his four years as secretary, Salazar pushed an agenda heavy on energy reform, conservation and Indian rights, while dealing with major issues such as oil drilling in Alaska, the Deepwater Horizon spill off the Gulf Coast and regulating greenhouse emissions. While he faced praise and criticism from both sides of the political divide, Salazar took the good and bad with a mix of western stoicism and a lawyer’s skepticism.
The history of Latinos in the U.S. goes way back before the founding of Jamestown or Plymouth Rock...Our history is rooted in the American landscape.
- Ken Salazar
“The landscape has shaped a lot of who I am,” Salazar told Fox News Latino of his home in rugged southeastern Colorado.
One of eight children, Salazar spent his childhood on a ranch that had been in his family for 150 years – giving him both a deep love for the land and an appreciation for how his Latino roots contributed to the formation of the United States. His father was an Army sergeant in World War II, his mother worked for the war department and the self-described “Mexican-American" can trace his family’s lineage in the region back to the 16th century, when it was called New Spain.
“The history of Latinos in the U.S. goes way back before the founding of Jamestown or Plymouth Rock,” he said. “Our history is rooted in the American landscape.”
The term landscape – both the physical locations and something more ethereal – comes up frequently when talking to Salazar. Both his childhood in Colorado’s agricultural heartland and a passion for the West’s wide open expanses have influenced his career trajectory.
After graduating law school at the University of Michigan and going into private practice, Salazar took a job in 1986 as chief legal counsel to then-Colorado Governor Roy Romer, who in 1990 appointed him Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. As director, Salazar authored the Great Outdoors Colorado Amendment, which created a huge land conservation program, launched the Youth in Natural Resources program to provide for environmental education in public schools, and forced mining and petroleum operations to better protect the surrounding environment.
Salazar moved back into private practice in 1994 but in 1998 ran and won the position of Colorado’s attorney general – a post he held for two terms before getting elected to one of Colorado’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
“He's always going to do what is right for the country, right for Colorado, before he does something that will benefit himself,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told the Denver Post. “He is, by nature, someone who thinks of others. His default position is to help someone else."
While Salazar has drawn praise for his conservation efforts, many critics – on both the right and the left – berated Obama for choosing the Coloradan as his Interior Secretary.
Environmentalists thought Salazar was too cozy with the country’s oil and mining industries – citing his 2006 vote in the Senate to end protections that limit offshore oil drilling in Florida's Gulf Coast, and his 2007 vote against requiring the United States Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects. Republicans, however, found a tough adversary when they fought for faster oil-and-gas development on federal lands and making more offshore areas available for drilling.
“I don't agree with all of his decisions, with the policies," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate energy committee and frequent combatant with Salazar told the Denver Post. "But I do believe that he has given me a fair hearing, in the sense of wanting to try to understand where I might be coming from on the issues."
While at the Department of the Interior, Salazar was at the forefront of two of the major issues that faced the Obama administration in its first four years: the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
While Salazar deflected much of the criticism surrounding the proposed oil pipeline from Canada through the middle of the U.S. and defended the Obama’s energy platform – saying the U.S. has moved out of the "Hummer Age” – he got caught in the crossfire when it came to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Grilled before Congress and put on the chopping block by environmental groups that wanted him fired, Salazar called for a major overhaul of the agency responsible for monitoring offshore oil drilling even as he drew heat for the government’s response to the disaster.
Salazar acknowledges the damage done by the spill – even as it still haunts him in his current position at the law firm WilmerHale, which represents BP – but defended his position on conservation and business, saying that the two are not mutually exclusive.
“Conservation and economic development can go hand in hand,” he told Fox News Latino. “You just need to find the right balance.”
Along with the U.S.’s physical landscape, Salazar is also highly concerned with the country’s human landscape.
A tireless supporter of immigration reform, the second Hispanic Interior Secretary of Interior has lobbied for action being taken since stepping down from his post in D.C. earlier this year.
“Comprehensive immigration reform is both a moral and economic imperative,” he said. “It’s the number one civil rights issue of our time.”
He, along with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, pushed for immigration reform during his time in the Senate and Salazar sees many parallels to today’s immigration debate.
“The Senate has done its work and now the House needs to step up and get it approved,” he said.
House Democrats unveiled a bill Wednesday for immigration reform that includes a path to legal status for undocumented immigrant, but as the budget battle continues to embroil Congress it seems unlikely that any sweeping measure will be taken any time soon.
While he will continue advocating for immigration reform, Salazar said he is currently not thinking about returning to the world of politics … at least for the time being.
“Right now my focus is on succeeding in this chapter of my life,” he said.
Still, he said, as a person who has dedicated his life to public service, one shouldn’t rule out anything from him in the future.
“There is a lot to be said about public service,” Salazar said. “My favorite saying comes from Cesar Chavez’s prayer, ‘Grant me courage to serve others; For in service there is true life.’”
“I truly believe in that.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.