John Salazar, a state legislator and San Luis Valley potato-seed farmer, was elected Nov. 2 to replace Scott McInnis as U.S. representative for the sprawling Third Congressional District, which includes Pueblo and much of the Western Slope. Salazar and his younger brother, Ken, who was elected to the U.S. Senate, are both Democrats. Free Press reporter David Grant Long interviewed Salazar on Nov. 24 by cell phone.
DGL: There seems to be a major cultural divide in this country, but you and your brother were able to bridge that divide and run successful campaigns even while the Democrats lost seats in Congress overall. Why were you successful?
JS: Ken and I have always been known as moderates and I think that’s what people in this country have to start looking at. Eighty percent of us all across America are mainstream Americans. You have your 10 percent that’s your right wing and 10 percent that’s your left wing, but most of us are interested in jobs, the economy, and health care. I think the people understand that this country should not be divided by partisanship, and I think Ken and I were able to deliver that message.
DGL: What are your priorities are far as legislation you’d like to see passed in the next session?
JS: One of my priorities, and I’ve been working on that in the state legislature, has been to protect rural communities and their water and I think we need to continue working on developing basin-of-origin protection so that rural communities do not lose what is their lifeblood – our lifeblood, I mean. I’m a farmer and a rancher, and that’s how I make my living.
One of my priorities also is making sure that veterans get a fair shake. We ask our military folk to serve this country and actually give their lives for our freedom and rights and benefits, and we need to make sure we keep our promise to the veterans, so one of my priorities is to make sure the veterans get funded adequately. There’s a lot of veterans out there that cannot afford health care, there’s a lot that are homeless. I’m very concerned about that.
DGL: Realistically, what do you think you and the other Democrats will be able to accomplish since the Congress is dominated by Republicans?
JS: You know, the state House and the Senate were dominated by Republicans here in the state of Colorado as well, but we were able – I was able to bridge the party line and we were able to get some things done like balancing the budget and getting some benefits for veterans. I wasn’t successful in working on the health-care issues I wanted to do. I know that a lot of Americans are concerned about the cost of prescription drugs. I think most people are now realizing that what’s important is we need to address the issues that affect most working Americans. I talked to President Bush – I had lunch with him – and those are some of his priorities as well. I hope he doesn’t get pushed too far to the other side, but I think that he is concerned about the problems here in America as well.
DGL: You talked about a balanced budget. It seems that the federal budget is going in the other direction. What do you think it is going to take to reverse that?
JS: Well, it’s going to take a lot of courage because any time that people raise taxes you get beat up over it, but I think the way you can address the economic shortfalls is by maybe increasing the tax cuts to middle-income Americans, because I believe they’re the ones that actually take that money they get back in their tax refunds and invest it into the economy immediately. I don’t think it’s the big corporations that actually reinvest in the economy. They wait and see where the economic benefits are going to be for them and then they invest it. I think working men and women of this country are the backbone and the priority that we have to address.
DGL: John Kerry talked a lot about repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy, I think anyone making over $200,000. Do you think that’s necessary? The money to balance the budget’s going to have to come from somewhere.
JS: I agree. Eighty percent of the tax cuts that were implemented actually benefited the upper 2 percent of the population, as far as income goes, and I think we need to address once again, like I said, the middle-income, working Americans of this country. I think if you put money into their pockets they will invest it right back into the economy and in turn spur the economy to where we can get more tax dividends to the federal government.
DGL: So do you think it would be necessary to raise the tax rates on the wealthy?
JS: Not necessarily to raise them. It’s just a matter of prioritizing where your tax cuts should be and I think they should be made to the working men and women of this country. How many of us make over $200,000 a year? It’s a small amount of the population.
DGL: Right. That’s what he talked about as far as how he would balance the budget.
JS: I don’t think you repeal all of the tax cuts, but you need to reprioritize and figure out where it’s going to benefit the economy. We had a great economy during the 1990s. I think that’s what helped us balance the budget and I think we can do it again. Also, one of the things you have to do is figure out where we cut spending. The war itself is costing this country a lot of money and I know we have to support our troops, we’ll continue to do that and I’m 100 percent in support of that, but we need to figure out a way to allow the rest of the world to share in the burden of freedom.
DGL: What potential legislation or action by Congress do you fear the most? In other words, what worries you most that Congress might do and what would you fight hardest to stop?
JS: I’ve already been fighting on one issue. They want to reauthorize the Fry-Ark project, a study which will allow Colorado Springs and Aurora to get more storage in Lake Pueblo — that means it will take more water from the lower Arkansas River. You know, a lot of times it’s not so much about what legislation you pass but what you’re able to block. Our backbone really is rural America. Agriculture is what’s made this country and as long as we have a place to grow our food I think we’re fairly stable. I’d hate to lose the land and water that raises the food for this country. The legislation I fear most is when people try to use the Constitution as a sword rather than a shield. The amendment that they want to make, the gay-marriage amendment, I think that is totally wrong because I believe the Constitution guarantees us freedoms and rights. I’m a farmer and a rancher and I love my freedoms. I have to abide by the laws of this country and the laws of this state, but we need to pass laws that don’t restrict freedoms.
DGL: Do you think gay people should be allowed to marry?
JS: I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I think it should be left up to the states to decide.
DGL: OK. The Fee Demonstration Project is a big issue here on the Western Slope, I’m sure you’re probably aware of that. The last I heard, the language in Ralph Regula’s bill was inserted into the omnibus appropriations bill. You said you oppose the Fee Demo program. Could you talk about that for a little bit?
JS: I want to make sure that all the American public can use our public lands. We already pay into it; that’s the reason we pay taxes and to put an even greater burden on your normal American that doesn’t have a whole lot of money to spend and restrict him from using public lands is wrong. You talk about the omnibus bill – it really scares me to see all of these little things being put into the omnibus bill, you know, the Fry-Ark project was kind of snuck in there. I think people shouldn’t try to sneak legislation that would impact especially rural Americans in a negative way. I’m a rural American and a rural Coloradan and I want to make sure that all of us will continue to be able to use our public lands.
DGL: I guess making the fees permanent was just stuck in the bill last Saturday night and there was no debate, no discussion of it at all.
JS: You said the key word right there, snuck into the bill. And I see a lot of that happening now and I think it’s for all of us who are there, regardless of whether you’re in the minority or the majority, to make sure that all of the legislation has an opportunity to be debated, not just snuck in.
DGL: Do you believe the Animas-La Plata Project was necessary and desirable?
JS: It was desirable to me, especially when we had the ag portion in it. I’m a little disappointed that the ag portion was taken out of that. And there’s still a slight chance that we might be able to do that. I’m for creating water projects that will help agriculture and also for projects that will actually enhance our wildlife habitat.
DGL: Some economists believe the traditional middle class is disappearing. What if anything can be done about the growing gulf between the rich and the poor?
JS: What I just said – if we decrease the tax burden on the middle class I think we will help them achieve the American dream. In my opinion, it’s always been the middle class, the working class that are the economic backbone of this country, so one way or another we have to figure out a way to create benefits. Health care is a big issue and one of the things I will be working on in Congress is to maybe give additional tax cuts to small businesses to provide health-care insurance for their employees. Health care is a real important issue, not only in the Third Congressional, but throughout the entire nation. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to afford health-care insurance.
DGL: Do you think the time for a national universal health-care plan has come?
JS: I think the debate is there and I think it’s right. I think we need to continue that debate and figure out a way where we can make sure that every American has the same health-care plan that members of Congress give themselves. After all, they have a Cadillac plan. Make that available to each and every American. What ends up happening, and I’ve seen this time and time again, especially in rural hospitals, we increase the burden on the emergency-room services, which is actually one of the most inefficient ways to provide health care. It’s going on because people can’t afford health-care insurance but they know the government will have to take care of them if they go into the emergency room and they’re right, that’s federal law. But I don’t think anybody here really wants free health care; all they want is affordable health care. We have to address that issue, regardless – this is an issue that all of us as Americans have to face. As long as everybody would be able to contribute and have some type of affordable health-care plan, I think we would lower the health-care costs to those that do have health-care insurance. People in government seem to have some of the best health-care plans available.
DGL: Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too! Would you support an increase in the minimum wage?
JS: I would. When you look across America, even in small rural communities where our standard of living is not that high, those earning minimum wage cannot support a family by working 40 hours a week — it’s impossible. You’re absolutely right, you talk about the middle class shrinking, that’s part of the reason. We need to figure out some way to address that issue and I would support an increase in the minimum wage.
DGL: I think Senator Kennedy has had a bill the last couple years that would over a two-year period increase the minimum wage to $7 an hour. Would you support that?
JS: I haven’t seen the specifics of that bill, but certainly even $7 is not adequate to really make a living if you have one wage-earner in the house, especially if you have children. One way or the other, we have to make sure that everyone who is working gets a fair shake and make this an incentive type of bill so that people will be wanting work. Some people frankly have told me, “Why should I work? I can’t make ends meet anyway.” So that’s a disincentive for a lot of Americans.
DGL: The cost of living keeps going up and it isn’t even being matched by the raises that people get. The standard of living for people on the bottom of the economic scale keeps going down.
JS: We have the same problem on my farm. We hire many, many people to work. We have permanent employees but for the longest time I haven’t paid people minimum wage. I’ve tried to pay them as much as I can afford. I think the minimum we’ve paid people for the last three or four years has been like $7 an hour and I still don’t think that’s enough but it’s all I can afford, because in agriculture it’s pretty difficult to make ends meet. But I think everybody is trying to achieve the American dream, and the only way they can is to have a job that pays them enough money.
DGL: What are your thoughts about the war in Iraq? There’s sort of this agreement that we can’t cut and run, whatever that means. But what do you think should be done? It seems like this morass that we’re getting deeper and deeper into.
JS: America I think has to lead the way. The war in Iraq is something that’s happened and we can’t look back on it and say it shouldn’t have happened. We need to support our troops and try to figure out a way to get out of there as quickly as we can, and I think the only way we can do it is to get the entire world behind us. Because right now American taxpayers are bearing the entire burden and this doesn’t only benefit America, it benefits all free societies on this globe and so they have to contribute as well.
DGL: I was listening to NPR and they were talking about the decline of the dollar compared to the Euro and some other currencies, which makes things like that (the war) even more expensive to do, if we go it alone. A lot of that is because so many other countries have invested in our national debt.
JS: I agree with you. We have to balance our budget. We can’t leave this huge deficit for our children to pay back. I think it’s important for us in Congress to figure out a bipartisan way to balance the budget.
DGL: There’s a lot of truly conservative Republicans who are very concerned about the way the deficit is going up. Do you think it would be possible to have a coalition between the Democrats and conservative Republicans to curb spending?
JS: I think we’ve seen that. You in your own household can only spend what you make. You can’t just continue going into debt and think it’s all going to be forgiven. Some economists have told me it’s OK to have a little bit of a deficit, deficit spending is actually good for the economy, and others say deficit spending is bad. But I know we had many, many Republicans who supported our campaign and they’re very concerned. That’s their No. 1 priority. They say this economy and this budget is one of the most horrible things that’s happened to this country. We need to be fiscally conservative. Especially during times of war – I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we were at war that taxes haven’t been increased. I’m not proposing a tax increase, all I’m saying is that in order to energize the economy, we need to push tax cuts in the right direction.
DGL: I don’t want to keep harping on this, but doesn’t that mean that other taxes are going to have to be increased at the same time? The money has to come from somewhere.
JS: I’m not an economist. I have a business degree, but I do know that sometimes you invest money into something that’s going to make you money, and I think by the federal government investing money into the middle class they can have more money to spend. The way I explain it is, you can’t really build the factories before you have the demand. And the way you create the demand is by putting money into the pockets of those who are going to buy the goods. And then big business comes in because there’s that demand and then you start building the factories, and that’s how you build your economy.
DGL: What issues do you see as absolutely critical to the Third District?
JS: Of course, water, health care, the economy and veterans’ issues. I want to make sure we protect water in rural economies, I want to make sure we create jobs. One of my first priorities and it’s already in place, we’re going to list areas where there’s grants available so we can bring economic-development grants to rural communities. For example, in Grand Junction, there’s a company called StarTek Corporation which is a service organization and they bring grant money; then they buy these old Wal-Mart or Kmart buildings and break them up into cubicles and get people working, using resources within the communities. They put people to work servicing AT&T, other companies – and we can outsource jobs from like New York City where the cost of living is so much higher than it is in rural communities.
DGL: It being Thanksgiving tomorrow, what are you most thankful for?
JS: I am most thankful for living in the greatest country in the world, where we enjoy the greatest freedoms and civil liberties. I just thank God that we were born in this country and we don’t have to suffer the way other countries do, so we need to protect that. We need to protect the freedoms that we enjoy in this country, and I’m so thankful for being an American.