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Walking Miles in his footsteps

Salazar skids into driver’s seat for Senate

By Leigh E. Rich

It was practically a political roll call of the former and the future Tuesday night, as Colorado Democrats gathered to support and congratulate their U.S. Senate candidates for a primary well run.

Bearing no resemblance to the bitter four-month battle on the Republican side, the squeaky-clean issues-based campaigns waged by underdog Mike Miles, an assistant superintendent in the Fountain-Fort Carson district, and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, with roots in the San Luis Valley, seemed but a fleeting memory even before the final lever was pulled.

Though Salazar the morning after dubbed himself the underdog against beer broker Pete Coors in the battle for Colorado’s open Senate seat, the proud pickup truck owner and two-time attorney general left skid marks as he flew past the Miles effort in Tuesday’s primary, much to the chagrin of Miles’ ever-enthusiastic foot soldiers.

Despite the Democrats’ success in taking the political campaign high road since Ben Nighthorse Campbell decided to step down, Miles never offered a true concession that evening.

Salazar’s name, in fact, wasn’t even mentioned as the eloquent and affable Miles addressed his supporters who gathered together at the Walnut Foundry. Miles spoke about 15 minutes after Salazar claimed his win merely a few miles away at Bogey’s on the Park.

While Salazar spent much of his victory speech chatting about his North American ancestry and his family, saving the bulk of the tougher talk for a press conference on Wednesday morning, Miles remained true to his message, thanking his campaign team but reminding them to continue to “be the change.”

“Remember what got us here,” Miles said, reiterating what he told those present at the Colorado Democratic Party soiree earlier that evening. The two main prongs of his campaign, he said when he made an appearance at the Dems’ headquarters before heading to his own gig, are “to fight the fights that need fighting, not just those we can win” and to reenergize the Democratic Party and the “spirit of democracy.”

Repeatedly qualifying his statements at both venues with “regardless of what happens tonight” and “no matter who wins,” Miles reminded the crowds that democracy “really is the people” and to do “what you can do to take this country back.”

“No matter what happens tonight, we have engaged that debate, and we have moved the Democratic Party back to where it’s supposed to be. … No matter what happens tonight, we’re going to let them know we ain’t done!”

Rumored to appear, Salazar never showed at the Democratic headquarters, even though the Colorado faction of the party has been accused of blankly backing Salazar while blackballing Miles.

“We’re still going to need each other,” Miles graciously but guardedly told the Democratic group from his awkward position as the redheaded stepchild. “You can rely on Team Blue … to carry that message forward to November and beyond.”

When directly asked whether he was abandoned by the party, Miles said in an interview that he’s “felt that way since the very beginning. … It’s been an uphill battle.”

Specifically, there have been Democratic Party insiders, Miles added, who have “not been warm to the campaign,” though he quickly cautioned, “I never, ever want to say that the Democratic Party has stiff-armed the campaign.”

And while he explains he entered this race because he wasn’t hearing the issues being debated and resolved in Washington even by the Democrats, “We’re still going to need the Democratic Party,” he said.

That’s as much of a unity rally the Colorado Democrats have issued, with Salazar even telling the press on Wednesday that he called Miles late in the evening—not the other way around.

“Mike and I had a conversation last night. I called him. He returned my call,” Salazar said, squinting in the morning Colorado sun and standing in front of his rusted green Ford Ranger and a score of supporters. “He agreed to support me.”

Mum’s pretty much been the word from the Miles camp, though there doesn’t seem to be any sour grapes between the two contenders. Miles has asked his supporters via his Web site to join him in supporting Salazar, who had already expected such backing the day after the defeat.

When asked whether the more left-leaning Miles fans will cast ballots for Salazar, the attorney general responded, “I think the answer to that question is yes. … I do believe the supporters of Mike Miles will be joining our team.”

Salazar will likely get their votes but not their in-the-trenches efforts.

Wendy Hawthorne, the Miles volunteer field coordinator for House District 4, said after her candidate’s loss, “I’ll definitely vote for Salazar, but I’m not going to work for him like I worked for Mike, because that comes from the heart. I can’t wear out shoes working for him.”

And many of Miles’ supporters are not mainstream Democrats, meaning Salazar will garner their votes mostly by default. Hawthorne, for example, has long been an independent, breaking party lines in this election because of the presidential primary and to join the Miles team.

Lee Joseph, a former Republican and Miles “foot soldier” who read a tribute poem entitled “At the End of the Day” at the Walnut Foundry, says he also switched parties in order to work for Miles, noting the “striking similarities” between Miles and John McCain.

For these liberal voters, Miles’ disenfranchisement from Colorado’s mainstream Democratic Party doesn’t sit too well.

“I could see it at the state convention” as well as the national convention, Hawthorne said, who noted that “the chair of the (Colorado) Democrats was telling us that we should quit” and “Tom Daschle basically declared Ken” the victor at the Boston event. “That just makes me want to go back to being independent.”

Ralph Longobardi, Ph.D., the Denver coordinator of the Miles effort along with Frank Ohrtman, agreed. “The party didn’t support us … from the beginning. They don’t understand they’re losing us.”

But Miles isn’t the only candidate capable of collecting the crossover vote. The more moderate Salazar is pulling some Colorado Republicans to his side.

James Foy, a 34-year-old Catholic Republican with Irish and Mexican roots, is an unapologetic “GW” supporter in the presidential competition but a Salazar backer for the Senate.

“Even though I oppose Ken on his stance of life, he has better vision,” Foy said before Salazar addressed the crowd at Bogey’s, adding that the Democratic candidate “stands up” when it comes to issues of social justice, water conservation and education.

“I like where Ken stands on school,” explained Foy, who has tutored students at Whittier Elementary and respects Salazar’s ideas to create gradual change in Colorado’s school system rather than cause an “overnight shock.”

“He’s not for throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Surrounded mostly by his political opponents in the stuffy room, with the anticipated thunderstorm finally transpiring outside, Foy emphasized, “I’m not so worried about the party as I am about the person. I have loyalty to my party, but you have to (take a) stand when the right person steps forward.”

On the other side, some Democrats, who might otherwise have pulled for Miles, have prioritized securing the vacated Republican Senate seat.

Though he never explicitly said as much, Zaki Robbins, a 20-year-old University of Virginia student and volunteer for the campaign, likes that Salazar is a moderate who’s “electable.”

“He reaches both sides of the aisle,” Robbins stated, sporting an electric-blue “Ken Salazar for Colorado” shirt. Though he doesn’t think the upcoming Senate battle against Coors will be as straightforward as the Miles triumph, Robbins has faith in Salazar. “I think he can definitely take it.”

Whether that’s true and how “spirited” the now two-contender Senate scuffle will be only time will tell.

Robbins, a foreign affairs major who’s “still deciding if (politics) is the place for me,” says he’s “really proud we’ve run a positive campaign.”

Salazar, too, hopes to carry over that constructive sentiment to the next level in his fight for the Senate. In a letter dated Aug. 10, he requested Coors, their victories still warm, to engage in “a clean campaign” for the remainder of the election.

This involves, Salazar spelled out at his press conference asking his opponent to sign a formal agreement, refraining from negative advertising, keeping national special interest and attack groups out of Colorado, and participating in issues-based debates and forums.

“Attacking me for being a lawyer is the wrong way to go,” Salazar said of Coors’ oft-quoted remark that there are already too many lawyers in Washington. The attorney general was quick to point out that he’s long been a farmer and a rancher.

And he advised how the two campaigns should handle national organizations that promulgate attack ads—groups that spent millions during the 2002 election. “You tell them we don’t want you in our state,” Salazar unequivocally said. “We don’t want you influencing this election.”

Instead, with five tentative debates planned, Salazar’s proffer is “to make sure … we’re talking about the issues.”

For Salazar, these include accessible health care and higher education; support for after-school programs; reduction in unemployment; maintenance of middle-class tax cuts; attention to rural America and land and water issues; and securing the homeland by “addressing global terrorism with a global response.”

With Salazar’s call-to-arms, the festivities are officially over and the work begins again—this time concentrating on defeating the true opposition for “all the marbles,” as Republican Sen. Wayne Allard once said.

“We’re ready to roll,” Salazar promised, after nodding to Miles both on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and deeming him “a very good and wonderful man (whose) days of political life are not over.”

Miles isn’t likely to roll over for good. Even during his Tuesday night address, a shout from the crowd pleaded, “We want you to lead us, Mike!”

“I am going to do what I can do,” Miles said. “But at the end of the day, this campaign is not about me. And you know that.”

And it no longer is. Even before Miles took the stage to console the crowd, the decorated tables—festive with their red, white and blue balloons and littered with metallic confetti—spoke of empty cups, half-eaten hors d’oeuvres and unfulfilled aspirations.

Though the rain had stopped, disappointment puddled in the room. But it didn’t diminish the idealized spirit that has marked the Miles campaign.

“I don’t think anyone could have run as good a campaign with the little money that we had,” Miles laughed while encouraging his team and his political party to avoid growing “cynical again or losing faith.”

“Every single major significant change (in America) occurred because ordinary people refused to settle for what is,” he rallied. “It falls to you, unfairly, to still take this country in a new direction.”

And that’s what Salazar promises to do.

“You have one season close and another one opens,” the Democratic candidate said Wednesday in the bright light of the first victory. “It’s going to be a short 83 days.”

As for Miles, this political season has ended.

“I have visions now, memories of this campaign. And I thank you for giving them to me.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, August 13). Walking Miles in his footsteps … Salazar skids into driver’s seat for Senate. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 14–15.

First Place – Government and Political Writing – National Federation of Press Women – July 2005
First Place – Government and Political Writing – Colorado Press Women – May 2005

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